ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

The English language is definitely changing, but whether it's declining or evolving depends on whom you ask. Writer Robert Lane Greene recommends three books about what it means to speak and write well, when the notion of well is a work in progress. It's for our series Three Books in which authors recommend three books on a single theme.

Mr. ROBERT LANE GREENE (Writer): What makes books about the decline of traditional grammar and usage so popular? Works like Lynne Truss' "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" lament the downfall of traditional punctuation standards. But there never was a golden age of language because language itself is in a constant state of flux. Yet, we still pride ourselves on speaking and writing well, even when the definition of well is a moving target. These three books give some needed perspective to a lively and heated linguistic debate.

"The Power of Babel" by John McWhorter takes us across dozens of tongues and thousands of years. We learn the process that turned the Romans' femina, woman, into the modern French femme, shedding two syllables and even changing vowel sounds. But it's not all erosion and wearing down. McWhorter also shows how words can become more complicated over time, explaining, for example, where Italian verb endings come from.

Seeing numerous languages laid out over history gives a valuable pause for those who mutter about decline. Languages don't decline. They change. Getting too attached to one moment in time is like getting too invested in the position of the goo in a lava lamp, McWhorter says. You can be bitter watching it shift, or you can be absorbed by the beauty in the process.

So where do the rules that we traditionally associate with grammar come from? In some cases, millions of speakers drive the natural process of language change over centuries. But some so-called laws have a particular story and a single author, and Jack Lynch's book, "The Lexicographer's Dilemma," fingers the culprits.

It was 17th century poet John Dryden who gave us the ban on prepositions at the end of sentences, though he announced this in midcareer, after he had happily broken that rule earlier. The famous split infinitive was in vigorous use before an author known only as P. was the first to proscribe it, in a magazine in 1834. It doesn't seem possible to make grammar book writers memorable, but Lynch pulls it off with ease and gusto.

A newly issued first edition of Henry Watson Fowler's "Dictionary of Modern English Usage" appeared in 2009, edited by linguist David Crystal. Fowler is magisterial and funny, opinionated but erudite enough to back up his dictates. The age of the book itself is a joy. It preserves now-whiskery judgments such as his dislike of a curate's egg - something euphemized as good in parts but which is, in fact, thoroughly rotten.

This, along with others, is listed under the headword hackneyed phrases. Crystal is a sure-handed interpreter. Though he holds Fowler in high esteem, he nonetheless puts his quirks and occasional misguided peeves in perspective. Crystal will help you understand how even the greatest sages of English usage can be wrong.

There's nothing wrong with holding grammar in high regard, but much of the high dudgeon around it is more than a little bit of bunk. These books will help you approach writing and speaking not with anxiety or frustration, but with humility and a sense of wonder.

SIEGEL: Robert Lane Greene is a correspondent for The Economist and is the author of "You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws and the Politics of Identity."

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

NPR thanks our sponsors

Become an NPR sponsor

Support comes from