The Fight for English: How language pundits ate, shot, and left

by David Crystal (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006): 239pp, £26.94, ISBN 0 19 920764 X.

Reviewed by Caroline Petherick

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A page-turner on linguistics? Could such ever exist? Well, here's one; even in the face of a fearsome and immovable deadline, I found myself with my bedside light on at 3 am.

The subtitle gives an initial indication, and the start of the main text confirmation, that those who are going to derive maximum enjoyment and enlightenment from this book will be people with a fair amount of intelligence, a hefty dose of experience and a seriously silly sense of humour.

So it's a response to ESL …

The prime motivation for the writing of this book is clearly to provide a refutation of the prescriptive approach to language, alerting us that, beneath the wacky strapline of Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves – 'the zero tolerance approach to punctuation' – and ESL's jokey, inviting presentation lurks an attitude that is destructive, or worse: 'I am indeed unhappy about the trend represented by Eats, Shoots and Leaves, and I think we should resist it' (p ix). And, 'I fear that it has already done some damage. Which is a great shame, for that was not Lynne's intention at all' (p144).

… and a detective story …

We share Crystal's mystification at the runaway success of ESL, and set out to find out why this should have been so. First, there's a strong (as we of the SfEP well know) emotional desire to write right; and second, there's been an educational hiatus since the 1960s. To meet those needs, Lynne Truss has provided the answers, and provided them with more than a spoonful of sugar.

… and a pedagogic text …

Throughout Crystal's text, jostling for position around the core message of appropriateness in the use of language, are nuggets of useful information, conjured up in beguilingly entertaining form. They range from tackling the problems caused by the twin purposes of punctuation to the effective use of the historic present.

… and an autobiography

On p ix, Crystal asserts that 'fight' is not his metaphor. And he says on p72, 'It seems to be one of the consequences of becoming a usage critic that your own usage will be pilloried sooner or later'. Er, yes – those who live by the sword die by the sword. But despite that, the title of this book is more accurate than might, those statements notwithstanding, appear. Why? Because, while much of it is concerned with setting out the context, the story turns out to be fundamentally that of David Crystal's own personal and lifelong fight for English.

Not just linguistics but our entire culture

There's a quiet revolution going on right here, in the United Kingdom. What's happening is a shift in our culture. We're gradually moving out of the 'might is right' system into a world in which each of us affords respect to all humans, regardless of colour, sex, age, and type of intelligence.

The shift has taken place within the perception of power as well. No longer 'power over' others; our perception of authority is moving from godlike to fallible. Crystal helps it on its way with, on p94, 'We get prescriptions from the doctor – and we hope their recommendations will make us better.' 'We hope' and 'recommendations' – a sea change from 'under doctor's orders'. Perhaps this shift in perception was given an initial impetus by the descriptive, rather than prescriptive, attitude of the compilers of the OED? It is certainly visible in the more liberal attitude apparent in the New Hart's Rule.

Corruption and decay

Crystal addresses his theme in terms of our use of the English language. On p91, he says: 'One of the mysteries of the history of English usage is that [the liberal] side of [Johnson's] thinking did not become as influential as this other side. The side that everyone remembers is his pontificating'. On p93, he comments on the perennial presence of those who moan about corruption and decay in language, but although this is a long-term phenomenon he doesn't attempt to explain why this should be so.

But of course the reasons underlying both these forms of behaviour lie in human instinct, not in linguistics. So it seems to me that Crystal's world – within this book, at any rate – is somewhat bound by the limitations of his principal academic speciality.

Quiet revolution

And if that is so, he may be unaware, too, of the effect that the National Literary Strategy is set to have on the whole of the English-speaking world – because when we learn to use the language of people different from ourselves, we learn to respond to those people appropriately, and with respect. And respect for other human beings is what this quiet revolution is all about.

So Crystal is instrumental in this progression. This book, focusing as it does on perhaps the most important of the more advanced aspects of our culture, is a beacon that lights the way forward not just in the world of linguistics but to humanity as a whole. Read it. Move forward.

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