The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The evolution of ‘proper’ English, from Shakespeare to South Park

by Jack Lynch (New York: Bloomsbury, 2009): 336 pp (hbk), £20.00, ISBN 978 0 8027 1700 9.

Reviewed by Katie Lewis

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This book, by a US academic, is a well-written and entertaining account of attempts to describe or prescribe English (there's the 'dilemma' of the title) through history. It tells of Dryden, Swift, Johnson, Webster, Murray, Roget, Shaw, Fowler and a number of lesser-known writers and lexicographers, and gives a brief history of English. In the process it demolishes myths – 18th-century grammarians didn't ban split infinitives on the basis of Latin grammar – and accounts for the chaotic mismatch of English sounds and spelling. It also offers an origin for 'OK' that I hadn't heard before. Lynch goes on to discuss modern censorship and the influences of technology, from the printing press onwards, as well as globalisation.

Common sense

The history is, of course, mostly British, but the occasional American perspective is interesting. When we bemoan American influences on British English, Noah Webster would have agreed. He deliberately introduced the simpler spellings to make the American language as independent as the country and would have been disappointed that the two languages are still so mutually intelligible. Philip Gove, the editor of Webster's Third, opted for description rather than prescription and caused uproar.

Lynch expresses his opinions in lively fashion, but they're based on common sense. Extremists, whether prescriptivists or descriptivists, are misguided. Lexicographers are right to provide objective and inclusive records of the changing language, but if we want access to the corridors of power, we need to know the appropriate forms of language to use. It's important, then, that children learn what constitutes standard English, and lexicographers have their part to play by providing notes on usage.

Crystal clear

Lynch cites David Crystal several times and acknowledges him as a guiding spirit throughout the book. Crystal fans are likely to enjoy this book, but if they've read a lot of Crystal, they may feel they're not learning anything new.

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