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Guest Post: There’s Glory For You!

January 30, 2021 in Books, Guest

Here’s a fantastic guest post from Stuart [ likhaavat.blogspot.co.nz | @maxqnz | fiftyfifty.me profile ]

One of the things I most enjoyed about last year’s fiftyfiftyme challenge was the opportunity to choose minors and majors. This year’s reduction in the numbers required gives us grizzled veterans of last year’s campaign the opportunity to reminisce about how much tougher we had it back in the good old days, when a major was a real major of ten, and a minor was a meaningful five, not an easy-peasy three. Clearly fiftyfiftyme, like the English language, is changing for the worse, dumbing down and catering to the lazy, unwashed masses.

That last sentence was total baloney, of course. Fiftyfiftyme is as fun and challenging as ever, and English has not changed for the worse, and is not devolving from a Golden Age of eloquence into a Neanderthal series of grunting text messages and inane tweets. Sadly, many people think otherwise, which is why I enthusiastically seized the chance to write about my books minor for last year’s challenge, in which I elected to read five books about linguistics.

I love languages and linguistics, and have done ever since reading Lord of the Rings for the first time as an impressionable seven-year old. Then, and each of the 18-20 or so other times I read that book, I spent more time devouring the linguistic appendixes than reading the story. Tolkien’s epic gave me the languages bug, and I’ve loved learning about them ever since. Last year’s fiftyfiftyme challenge provided the perfect motivation to indulge my passion by reading more widely on my favourite subject.

Books like Eats, Shoots and Leaves and Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style perpetuate the myth that fabricated personal peeves are actually ineradicable elements of English grammar. From rants against split infinitives to attempts to impose the rules of mathematics on language by insisting that “a double negative equals a positive”, through to assertions that non-standard spelling is “a grammatical error” and the promotion of the etymological fallacy by denying the simple reality of polysemy, English has plenty of peeves and peevers. It seems that some people will readily accept that everything in the Universe from galaxies to amoebas evolves, but cannot accept that language does too.


Happily there are many excellent works written by real linguists for the general public that try to address that mind-set, and set out to show that as with everything, the only constant in language is change. No language is without rules, but those rules are not arbitrarily imposed by some peevish academic obsessed with imposing artificial order on the organic chaos of language. The beautiful reality is that language is the ultimate democracy – words mean what the majority of their users decide they mean, and every language user gets to be part of the never-ending process of making up the rules as we go along.

The endless fluidity and change in language should be celebrated, not mourned or railed against, and that’s why I urge anyone looking for a non-fiction minor for this year’s fiftyfiftyme challenge to consider linguistics as a candidate. Here are five of my favourites:

  • The Unfolding of Language
  • The Stories of English
  • Empires of the Word
  • Through The Language Glass
  • The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language

2 responses to Guest Post: There’s Glory For You!

  1. you’re tempting me to take this major on! I’ve been meaning to read so many of these grammar/English/language snobbery (my phrase, not yours) books. Have you read any Richard Lederer? Seems like he’d fit right in there too. Keep us posted. MayB U can help us fix Nglsh.

    • “Language snobbery” is a good phrase, and Lederer does seem to be a leading practitioner. On the linguistics blogs I read daily, his name is definitely not revered. From what little I’ve read of him, he seems to belong to the “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” school, whereas I’m looking forward to reading David Crystal’s riposte: “The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left”. To Lederer’s credit, at least he is not openly reviled by the linguists I read, unlike the Strunk & White book, which nearly induces apoplexy in most of them :)

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