The English language: Opinions and prejudices

The last word: The English language: Opinions and prejudices. By Laurence Urdang. Chicago: KWS Publishers, 2010. Pp. xxi, 281. ISBN 9780780811713. $19.95.

Reviewed by Kanavillil Rajagopalan, State University at Campinas, Brazil

A publisher’s note announces this book as a ‘fascinating account of the current state of the English language’ (xxi). The book is indeed entertaining. The overall tone is, however, one of lamentation at how things have come to pass and how the English language is being mauled and mistreated. The avowedly highbrow standpoint is evident in the opening sentence of the introductory chapter: ‘Sometimes, when listening to what people say on radio and television, I get the feeling that the Ministry of Bad Grammar and Pronunciation, courtesy of John Cleese, has taken charge’ (xv).

As a professional lexicographer and founder of the journal Verbatim, U is punctilious, often to the point of sounding nitpicky. The thirteen chapters that make up the book cover a wide range of topics, as their telltale headings reveal: ‘Language change’, ‘Word origins’, ‘Meaning’, ‘Words and expressions’, ‘Language and (sic) culture and language’, ‘Names’, ‘Feminist and politically correct language’, ‘Good English/bad English’, ‘Taboo, slang, informal, and colloquial language’, ‘Bad writing, taste, and discrimination’, ‘Spelling reform’, ‘Controversies and dictionaries’, ‘Computers’, and ‘Pronunciation’. The book is rounded off with an appendix (containing a verse called ‘The chaos’ about English spelling, from an old submission to Verbatim) and a useful index.

The book does not have any pretensions to being a scientifically oriented treatment of the topics it discusses, though in the foreword U laments (or so it would seem) that ‘[a]t present, only a handful of universities offer degrees in linguistics’ ( xi). With reference to the study of names or onomastics, U says that it is undertaken mostly by persons who do not ‘possess a formal education in linguistics’ (89). While discussing ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ in respect of English usage, U begins by referring to the familiar tug-of-war between linguists and the laypeople. Yet, despite all this, U’s own approach to usages such as between he and I (111) or phenomena such as dangling participle is flagrantly prescriptive. U does not resist a jibe at Robert Hall Jr. whose ‘attack on correctness and normative grammar’ was, in his view, ‘somewhat mitigated by his quickness to correct others’ errors’ (227). U does seem to have a bone to pick with professional linguists and their stance against dictating how others should behave linguistically.

The book is mostly anecdotal and, oftentimes, witty. It becomes somewhat tongue-in-cheek when U claims at the end of his introduction: ‘The unfortunate aspect of this book is that it is unlikely to be read by those for whom it might do the most good’ (xix). Such frivolities aside, the book is an enjoyable read, testifying to U’s years of scholarly work. It is replete with tidbits useful for livening up an after-dinner conversation.