Weeds in the garden of words

Weeds in the garden of words: Further observations on the tangled history of the English language. By Kate Burridge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. vii, 196. ISBN 9780521618236. $19.99.

Reviewed by Colette van Kerckvoorde, Simon’s Rock College

The English language is a garden with beautiful flowers, but some claim that our language, especially in its spoken form, also contains a lot of weeds, that is, unwanted elements. It is difficult to define what weeds exactly are: they grow in unwanted places, and they may own virtues that are yet to be discovered. These linguistic weeds, Burridge argues, are a sign that the English language is alive and well, and she attempts to explain why some of these weeds flourish while others eventually wither, why certain features become irritating to some speakers, and why we all react differently to innovations in the language.

This book is the sequel to B’s popular Blooming English: Weeds in the garden of words. Just like its predecessor, it is a collection of numerous individual pieces that can be read in any order. Since the pieces were originally designed to be read out loud on the radio, they are informal and popular. There are no footnotes or endnotes, although there is a bibliography at the end of the book.

Linguistic weeds can be found in our vocabulary, in our grammar, and in our spelling and pronunciation. Grammatical weeds seem to irritate people most. For each of the three categories listed above, B describes several specific and commonly held opinions about correct versus incorrect usage of the language, and she explains that such ‘deviant’ use may eventually become part of the standard language in the future or that it may just die out and be no more than a temporary fad. She stresses, again and again, that several features of our language now considered standard were once frowned upon. Finally, she also draws attention to the emergence of reference works and their perceived authority among the general public, as well as to the prestige of the written language. To give just a few examples of some of the topics under discussion: among the lexical weeds there is a discussion of the current yeah-no forms, the influence of political correctness on our speech, and the difference between disinterested and uninterested. Among the grammatical weeds we find a discussion of the passive voice and its alleged abuse, the group genitive, and the agreement of the verb with collective nouns. Pronunciation and spelling weeds include the question of hyphenation, and dropping a d in Wednesday or an r in February.

B’s book is entertaining, and it contains a lot of interesting anecdotes and trivia about individual words and their history. B convinces the reader that the English language is constantly changing and demonstrates that linguistic change matters to the general population. She emphasizes that linguists refrain from judging use and favor a descriptive approach. This book is easy to read and explains the history of many exceptions in the English language. It is written with language purists in mind; as such, it would be a wonderful addition for any public library and should receive popular approval.