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 prepositions.
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 book.
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
Perigee. 255 pp. $24