16 January 2008

Proper Words in Proper Places

Although I have a scrillion other things competing for my attention — several overdue articles and reviews, a few conference papers, and an encroaching semester for which I really have to prepare — today I'm turning my attention to my next trade book, provisionally called Proper Words in Proper Places: Correct English from Shakespeare to Safire. If all goes according to plan, it'll appear in autumn 2009 from Walker & Co., the folks who published Becoming Shakespeare, my abridgment of Johnson's Dictionary, and Samuel Johnson's Insults.

Here's how I describe Proper Words in the prospectus:

Many are passionate about proper English; few know the idea of proper English itself has a history. But today’s debates over the state of the language—whether about Ebonics in schools or dangling participles in the Times—make much more sense in a historical context. Proper Words therefore looks back over the history of Modern English and traces the notion that some versions of the language are “correct” and others “wrong.” It tells the story of the people who tried to “fix” or “improve” this messy language of ours.

My plan is to trace some of the history of the idea of proper English from the seventeenth century to the twenty-first. No one has written a book like this for a popular audience — there are scholarly books like The Doctrine of Correctness in English Usage, and most histories of the English language spend a chapter or two grousing about the evil "eighteenth-century grammarians" who made a hash of things. In fact things are more complicated than most writers would make it seem. (An amusing way to pass a few minutes is to do a Google search for "18th-century grammarians" and to count the occurrences of words like prejudice, ignorance, and arbitrary.)

Proper Words is my attempt to tell the story with the richness it deserves, and to try to put the idea of correctness in a context. To that end, I'm planning an introduction followed by eleven chapters, as follows:
  • The Age in Which I Live: Dryden Revises His Works
  • Fixing the Language: Swift Demands an Academy
  • Enchaining Syllables, Lashing the Wind: Johnson Writes a Dictionary
  • The Art of Using Words Properly: Lowth and Priestley Lay Down the Law
  • The People in These States: Webster Americanizes the Language
  • Words, Words, Words: Murray Surveys Anglicity
  • The Taste and Fancy of the Speller: Shaw Rewrites the ABCs
  • Tools of the Trade: Strunk & White Show the Way
  • Sacking the Citadel?: Webster's Third Stokes the Flames
  • Expletive Deleted: Moralists Police the Borders
  • Grammar, and Nonsense, and Learning: We Look to the Future
Since I'll be teaching a course on the history of the language this semester at Ruckers-Nork, the subject will be much on my mind. I'll occasionally provide updates here, as I work on individual chapters. Meanwhile, I'll be glad to hear from people who have ideas about the topic.

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