Review: Origins of the Specious

When a publisher sends me (unsolicited) books for review a few months before Christmas, they probably intend my review to be part of their pre-Christmas promotions.  What they haven't counted on is that I'd have no time to look at the book until Christmas break.  And so it goes for Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman's Origins of the specious: Myths and misconceptions of the English language (2009, Random House)O'Conner is the author of the popular Woe is I: The grammarphobe's guide to better English in plain English, among other titles and together they run  The book takes on different kinds of myths about language--particularly the kinds of myths that prescriptivists (often so-called language lovers who have very little patience for language) bandy about.  The first thing to note for this audience is that it is a book based in American English, by American authors.

Now, given the theme of this blog, I wouldn't review just any book about the English language that arrives unannounced on my desk.  But this one gets in because of its first chapter, 'Stiff upper lips: or, Why can't the British be more like us?'  The main myth that this chapter discusses is a major topic of discussion here (in their words, p.4): 'If there's one thing that people agree on, it's that British English is purer than its American offshoot.'  And, of course, they show that
neither English is more proper. In some respects American English is purer than British English. We've preserved some usages and spellings and pronunciations that have changed over time in Britain.  But the reverse is also true. [...] In many cases, it's nearly impossible to tell which branch has history on its side.
They go on to give a number of examples of differences, histories and false beliefs about English as she is spoke on the two sides of the Atlantic.  These include many that will be familiar to long-time readers of this blog, including the contradictory meanings of the verb table, pronunciation of /a/-before-/s/ and post-vocalic /r/, the /h/ in herb, Webster's effects on AmE spelling, gotten, and gone missing.   It's only a 13-page chapter (supplemented by three pages of bibliographic notes at the end of the book), so some of these are just mentioned in passing.  The tone is chatty and accessible, the pace is quick and there's lots of good information.

Further myths about English are dismantled in chapters on stupid prescriptive rules (like 'don't split infinitives'), false etymologies, 'dirty' words, English's relationship with French, 'politically correct' language, the role of errors in language change and such.  The chapters are generally loose collections of examples--that's not a criticism, just a description--and it's perfectly understandable in a book of this type.  So many assorted false beliefs about English, and language in general, exist, and they defy easy categorization into chapter headings.  The themes will be familiar to most people who read language blogs or similar types of books, but most people will find new and interesting examples among the familiar ones.  The scholarship cannot be faulted.  The book is pitched toward a non-scholarly audience and so there is little source citation and no endnote reference numbers in the text, but there are bibliographic notes and acknowledg(e)ment of several linguistic scholars--which account for about 17% of the pages in the book.  (Would I have liked to have seen a suggestion that this blog is a nice source for people interested in the BrE/AmE myths?  Well, yes, but they don't cite many blogs at all, so I can't take it personally.)

Incidentally, I love the title--but so did someone else who published a book about gamers this year.  I guess it was the thing to do in the (AmE-preferred) sesquicentennial/(BrE-preferred) sesquicentenary anniversary of Darwin's On the origin of species.


  1. The notion of linguistic purity is, of course, bunk. Being more archaic proves nothing except you use older words and/or constructions than the other guy. I'm interested in Lynne's "kinds of myths" and "types of books". Is that AmE or just a style-difference between her and me. Would she write "heads of departments"? BTW, over at grammarphobia, the authors seems to miss the point about the singular/plural status of "data". They don't mention countability. Also, is it an AmE practi{s/c}e to use "grammar" to encompass, well, basically the whole language, or do we do it here too? In arguments I've had on the web, my mainly American interlocutors have used "grammar" to cover semantics, spelling and even pronunciation. BTW, it _is_ wrong to start a sentence with "and" or "but" - not because I say so but because doing so means the phrase lacks a main verb and is, thus, not a sentence. *Danon puts on crash-helmet.*

  2. Paul, a sentence that starts with 'and' or 'but' has a main verb--it's a sentence that has them in the middle that doesn't have a main verb (but instead has two). 'And' and 'but' are coordinating, rather than subordinating conjunctions. When they're used at the beginnings of sentences, they're used as discourse markers, coordinating the current sentence with some larger theme in the discourse.

    I think a lot of people use 'grammar' in a general 'the workings of language' kind of way, but there probably is a difference in that Americans traditionally have more 'structure of language' i.e. 'grammar' teaching at school (see this old post).

    Yes, I'd write 'heads of departments'. But I'd write Heads of Department if I were (BrE more likely to use 'was' here) using it more as a title. I will say, though, that I was recently editing someone else's writing and changed things like 'types of books' to 'types of book' in a very regular way--so what you've probably seen here is the difference between 'casual Lynne' and 'formal Lynne'.

  3. @Paul Danon:

    I find it curious that somebody who objects to starting a sentence with "And" would, in the very same post, start a sentence with "Also".

    The eminent translators of the (AmE) King James Bible/(BrE) Authorized Version [neither name dates back to the original] clearly didn't see any problem with starting a sentence with "And". Take a look at the first chapter of Genesis.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Hypercorrection is one of my favorite subjects in language so I will be downloading this to my Kindle soon and giving it a read through. From what you listed it sounds like a lot of the cases will be ones I know, but hopefully there will be many I don't as well.

    I do find prescriptivism interesting because there are definitely places where it is important to keep to a certain grammar, eg academia and business. Businesses that have large amounts of written editorial content (newspapers, PR firms, even the marketing consultancy I work for) will have style books that contain rules for their writers.

    In a way this is a different kind of prescriptivism - it may or may not adhere to various hypercorrections, but it is fundamentally a tool for a certain goal. It is used to create a coherent and unified voice and style across many authors. Whereas I see strict grammatical prescriptivism as less of a tool, and more of a 'this is how language should be because that is how it should be.'

    I don't know if any of that makes sense, however. I guess it could be said that prescriptivism as a means to a separate, defined end is okay in certain circumstances, while prescriptivism as a grammatical end in itself is not. One might think Kant would be a rather strict prescriptivist ...

    Edit: Sorry about the deleted comment. I wish you could edit comments, I always find mistakes after I post.

  6. "The book takes on different kinds of myths about language--particularly the kinds of myths that prescriptivists (often so-called language lovers who have very little patience for language) bandy about"

    And there are a lot of those pesky prescripwotsits out there, unfortunately. Thanks for the review - sounds interesting. And a snip at $14.96, he says, stumbling around while he's supposed to be working.

  7. Michael Farrell13 January, 2010 05:59

    It's brilliant and fun; I highly recommend it. Lynne's review seems fair and accurate. If I could summarize O'Conner's overarching theme, it's that many language myths could be clarified with a bit of research.

  8. I forgot to add the one thing that drove me (AmE) crazy/(BrE) mad in the book. There are two authors, but they refer to themselves as 'I' rather than 'we'. They say something about this at the beginning--that they're writing in O'Conner's voice because it's impossible for a book to be truly co-authored, or something like that (which I didn't accept). I HATED that.

  9. Michael Farrell18 January, 2010 07:03

    Hmmm. The co-authoring thing didn't bother me. I think she was saying that they decided to use solely her (O'Conner's) writing voice. I think he (Kellerman) monitors their blog,

    In any event, she (they?) manages to express really deep, well-researched ideas very simply. She spends a lot of time tracing and comparing the British antecedents of US English--often to surprising end.

    Her discussion of curse words also should not be missed.

  10. That's interesting about the co-authoring. I sometimes read a blog that's co-authored by twins and always says 'we', and answers on a translators' mailing list by a married couple who also write 'we', and it drives me mad (of course).
    I'm also interested in the hypercorrection thing. As a translator I often have to say that usage is right or wrong, talking to non-native speakers, or to take editorial decisions, and there's a risk of over-correcting.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)