[lg policy] In =?utf-8?Q?=E2=80=98Bad_English=2C=E2=80=99_?=language scholar Ammon Shea sticks it to the sticklers

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Thu Jun 12 21:09:58 UTC 2014

In ‘Bad English,’ language scholar Ammon Shea sticks it to the sticklers


“Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation,” by Ammon Shea. (Perigee)
 By Bill Walsh June 10

In “Bad English,”
Ammon Shea wastes no time challenging widely held beliefs about just what
English is bad. His subtitle, “A History of Linguistic Aggravation,” gets
in an opening jab at sticklers like me, who know that “irritate” means
annoy while “aggravate” means “make worse.”

Shea, having read the OED to write “Reading the OED,”
is well qualified to tell us we probably don’t know as much as we think we
do. He traces the origins of the competing definitions of “aggravate” and
finds that the 16th-century birth of the stickler-approved meaning barely
edges out the 16th-century birth of the frowned-upon usage. And don’t
bother reaching for the original meanings: To aggravate is to weigh
something down; to irritate is “to rouse or provoke a person to action.”

That’s just one of many examples Shea uses to demonstrate that words “know
how to chew gum and walk at the same time.” In detailed case studies and in
quick hits, he covers the usual suspects and some surprises. If you pay
attention to this sort of thing, you probably know about the controversies
surrounding “hopefully,” “literally,” “disinterested,” “decimate,”
“enormity,” “unique,” “irregardless,” “normalcy,” “impact” and “different
than.” You may have been warned to avoid the passive voice, and not to
split infinitives or begin sentences with conjunctions or end them with

But did you know that in the eyes of sticklers not so long past, you
couldn’t be “very pleased”? Or “balding”? That you couldn’t “belittle”
somebody or “donate” to charity or send a “package”? And heaven forbid you
refer to a limb as a “leg.” These relics from Shea’s museum of language
peevery find “Bad English” at its most interesting.

Shea also deftly picks apart the six rules of writing that George Orwell
proposed in “Politics and the English Language,” acknowledging the
novelist’s greatness but noting that he “breaks his own rules far more
frequently than most language scolds do, often disregarding his advice in
the very same sentence in which he offers it.”

Shea is not as successful in answering the obvious question “Okay, so what
do we do with this information?” It’s true that language changes, and that
it’s not a good idea to be a smug jerk in enforcing a status quo that
wasn’t the status quo 50 years ago and won’t be 50 years from now, but what
does this mean for how we should write right now?

A smart passage that could be read as a thesis is buried in an entry on
whether “fun” can be an adjective as well as a noun: “You can use *funner *and
*funnest*, but you should bear in mind that anyone who chastises you for
this use is unlikely to be interested in hearing your explanation for why
it should be acceptable. These words will grate on the ears of many for
some while to come. The process of an acceptable usage becoming
unacceptable can be a long one, and the reverse process is true as well.
Just because you *can *do something does not mean that you *should*.”

But then, in a qualified compliment to usage expert Bryan A. Garner and his
book “Garner’s Modern American Usage,”
Shea distances himself from the “should” part: “While I reject his premise
(prescribing how people should and should not use their language), I must
admit that he presents it uncommonly well.”

With a different parenthetical, I could say the same thing about Shea’s

Walsh, a copy editor at The Washington Post, is the author of three books
on English usage, most recently “Yes, I Could Care Less.”


A History of Linguistic Aggravation

By Ammon Shea


 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com

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