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The Language Wars

A History of Proper English

Henry Hitchings


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ISBN10: 1250013941
ISBN13: 9781250013941

Trade Paperback

416 Pages



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The English language is a battlefield. Since the age of Shakespeare, arguments over correct usage have been bitter, and have always really been about contesting values—morality, politics, and class. The Language Wars examines the present state of the conflict, its history, and its future. Above all, it uses the past as a way of illuminating the present. Moving chronologically, the book explores the most persistent issues to do with English and unpacks the history of "proper" usage. Where did these ideas spring from? Who has been on the front lines in the language wars?

The Language Wars examines grammar rules, regional accents, swearing, spelling, dictionaries, political correctness, and the role of electronic media in reshaping language. It also takes a look at such details as the split infinitive, elocution, and text messaging. Peopled with intriguing characters such as Jonathan Swift, Lewis Carroll, and Lenny Bruce, The Language Wars is an essential volume for anyone interested in the state of the English language today or its future.


Praise for The Language Wars

"[Hitchings] writes beautiful prose, witty and succinct. His book is full of complex ideas expressed with crystal clarity . . . The range of his knowledge and curiosity is remarkable . . . Every paragraph contains a fascinating detail about the English language . . . I recommend that you rush out to immediately buy it, or to buy it immediately, whichever you prefer."—Craig Brown, The Daily Mail on Sunday

"This richly detailed and often delightfully combative book is a historical guide to the sometimes splenetic battles that have been fought over [English] down the centuries . . . a pleasure to read."—Andrew Holgate, The Sunday Times (London)

"Crisply written, amusing, informative and thought-provoking. Anyone interested in the English language and its history should read it."—Charles Moore, The Daily Telegraph

"Hitchings' exemplary researches and disinterested, perceptive and often witty explications, make it clear that one cannot glibly dismiss these struggles over what makes English 'proper' . . . Hitchings has created a fascinating, wholly readable and gratifyingly informative book."—Financial Times

"The Language Wars asks us to think beyond tradition, habit and deference, and to consider what we want from our words. It is a very intelligent and polite call to arms."—The Observer (London)

"This erudite but eminently readable book recounts the story of English from Anglo-Saxon to the present-day, with emphasis on how it has changed and the bitterness with which those changes were and are contested. There are two main camps when it comes to linguistic change: the prescriptivists, who know what correct English is and won't see it tampered with; and the descriptivists, who hold that change is inevitable and observe it dispassionately. Refreshingly, Henry Hitchings does not quite belong in either camp. He is primarily a descriptivist and confesses to being annoyed by the hyper-correction 'between you and I', but he sympathises with the prescriptivists and sees that protest against change is as necessary and natural as change itself. Chapters are brief and enticingly titled: "Flaunting the rules"; "The comma flaps its wings"; "Of fish-knives and fist-fucks". Hitchings defends split infinitives, argues against wholesale spelling reform and makes a convincing case that English is not in decline."—Brandon Robshaw, The Independent on Sunday

"If you like the English language as it develops and changes—this is a book you'll love. Hitchings unpicks arguments with terrific flair . . . He makes us think about language—what it is, what it does, where it's been. There's a great bit on the modern use of 'like'. It's 'like, wow'."—Evening Stardard

Reviews from Goodreads


Read an Excerpt

The Language Wars

1 'To boldly go'

Truths and myths about English

It seems as if no day passes without an argument over the English language and its 'proper' use. We debate the true meanings of words, the...

About the author

Henry Hitchings

Henry Hitchings was born in 1974. He is the author of The Secret Life of Words, Who's Afraid of Jane Austen?, and Defining the World. He has contributed to many newspapers and magazines and is the theater critic for the London Evening Standard.

© Jerry Bauer / Agence Opale

Henry Hitchings

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