Articles about language

The Gift of the Gab – David Crystal

This is a pretty good guide to effective public speaking – its centrepiece is a very detailed analysis of Barack Obama’s “Yes We Can” speech from 2008. Actually I didn’t like it as much as I thought I would – somehow I was expecting something less prosaic from the author of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, “the most exciting, readable and comprehensive book on language ever written”. Still, this book does have lots of good advice and some useful tips if you are giving speeches or making presentations. But if you’re not, maybe just dip into The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language instead.

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Talk on the Wild Side — Lane Greene

This is a description of how human languages work and why they cannot be tamed. Greene thinks we should understand language by understanding how it originated and developed, and allowing our understanding (and standards) to develop too. This is opposed to the “traditionalist” or “prescriptivist” point of view, which says we must determine the most logical set of rules for our language and defend them to the death. But the prescriptivists have been discredited now. We don’t think there’s anything wrong with splitting infinitives or ending with prepositions any more; even the singular “they” has become more and more acceptable, even before Facebook and all the modern gender pronoun malarkey. Like Thanos, it is inevitable.

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Accidence Will Happen — Oliver Kamm

Accidence Will HappenIn this book, Oliver Kamm attempts to explode a few myths about English usage, and set out sensible guidelines for literate writing. He gives interesting historical background notes and examples for many of his points, so the book is useful and well worth reading. But even though he chides “sticklers” for their insistence on idiosyncratic rules, his own rules and suggestions are themselves quirky and inconsistent. This makes the book a bit frustrating to read. It’s fun if you enjoy arguing with books though. Kamm is generally very liberal in his views of language: he thinks that language should be allowed to change through usage, and that arbitrary and obsolete rules shouldn’t impede this. He’s right, of course. But he goes both too far and not far enough: he want to throw out some rules that are useful and make the language more usable; yet he wants to keep some obscure rules that make no sense despite his attempts to justify them. I found myself shaking my head and tsking so much that I was moved to pick up a pen and note my disagreement (and, in some cases, my agreement). Here are some examples. Continue reading
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Child-safe swear words

When you have small children (I imagine), you have to be careful what you say around them. They are just learning to speak and may seize on any word and repeat it unpredictably. This happened to a friend of mine who somehow managed to say “scrotum” within earshot of his small son. The word subsequently turned up in various inappropriate situations, to general hilarity. I’m sure this happens thousands of times a day, all over the world.

I’m not sure of the context for my friend’s “scrotum” — when you’re annoyed, all kinds of expletives can just pop out. Of course, this won’t be a problem for me, because I don’t know any rude words (except “scrotum”, and I will be careful to avoid using it gratuitously). But for the rest of you, I am compiling a list of swear words that you can safely say in front of even the most parrot-like three-year-old.

My Giddy Aunt! This sounds like something out of Gilbert & Sullivan, or possibly P. G. Wodehouse. Probably not so good if you actually do have an aunt who is giddy.

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