Crystal, The Fight for English

David Crystal
The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left
Oxford, 2007

Crystal charts the history of what might be called English punditry, the all-too-common prescriptive approach to language change, orthography, grammar, syntax… you name it. Though it’s an Oxford title, this isn’t an Academic Book; citations are usually indirect, it reads very quickly, and chapters are very short. On the one hand, this is what I’ve been seeking: a book for students who don’t know the history of grammar–the story behind rules such as “Don’t end a sentence with a preposition”–or even that there can be multiple approaches to grammar. On the other hand, I wanted some of the connections to academic texts to be more flushed out. The short chapters got to me after a while; they seemed forced, like commercial breaks on shows made for PBS. (In fact, the book might have been developed this way; Crystal is a frequent contributor to BBC radio.)

However, the book’s structure is decidedly academic. Crystal doesn’t really hit his argument until chapter 18 of 30, when he writes:

The prescriptive grammarians went out of their way to invent as many rules as possible which might distinguish polite from impolite speech. They didn’t find very many–just a few dozen […]. But these rules were propounded with maximum authority and severity, and given plausibility by the claim that they were going to help people to be clear and precise. As a result, generations of schoolchildren would be taught them, and be confused by them. (122)

Crystal calls this failed promise of prescriptive grammar “the big con,” arguing instead for an approach to grammar which teaches grammar and syntax simultaneously, and acknowledges the complexity of language and linguistic change. Tossing grammar completely in the 1970s was a mistake, and a careful restoration is needed. Sound familiar? Hopefully. Though Crystal doesn’t connect his pedagogy to American writing studies explicitly, he does comment extensively on its implementation in the British National Curriculum for English.

Alert readers will recognize a reference to Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots, and Leaves in Crystal’s subtitle. While he does take up Truss’s “zero tolerance approach” in several instances, he doesn’t attack her work and in the end seems mostly puzzled by it. Crystal also mentions, rather disdainfully, an Australian television program which tried to set up a sort of confrontation between he and Truss. Instead, his vitriol is reserved for Lindley Murray and his ilk. As with Truss, Crystal is careful to show the complexity, if any, in the work of 18th and 19th century grammarians.

The Fight for English provides broadly accessible support for a descriptivist approach to teaching writing, especially grammar, mechanics, syntax, etc. I find myself needing this type of commonplace most often when I deal with students over the traditional age, many of whom expect a Miss Thistlebottom approach to writing. But it also happens with my colleagues, both in and out of my department.

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4 Responses to Crystal, The Fight for English

  1. Erich says:

    Umm…”between Truss and him.” Just sayin’.

  2. Craig says:

    Pedantic, my dangling particple!! If this be allowed, I fear we be on a slippery slope whence there is no turning back and alas only “hymn” will remain.

  3. Erich says:

    You mean “participle.” I blame teh internets.

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