12/15/2011 01:12 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Word Play: The Language Wars

Arguing about proper English usage has been going on for centuries. Language mastery is essential for understanding and communication. Yet the mistakes, particularly now, make for great cable TV fodder. Who can forget President George W. Bush saying: "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?" (It may be asked at Harvard and Yale, where W secured his degrees.)

According to Henry Hitchings in The Language Wars, verbal mistakes -- and disputes -- are legion, from Shakespeare's time to our own. Literate people like rules, even if usage manuals nitpick about specifics and styles change. New words are added to the dictionary regularly. Battles about spelling, grammar, punctuation and vocabulary span the centuries. 2011-12-15-LanguageWars.jpg

Benjamin Franklin was so appalled by the use of "progress" as a verb he lobbied Noah Webster for help. A late 19th-century editor of the New York Evening Post felt compelled to publish a list of words he hated, including "artiste" and "pants."

Hitchings also drills down into the complexities of grammar: when to use "will" vs. "shall," or avoiding prepositions at the end of sentences. The rule on split infinitives has a purpose, though the best example of one in pop culture -- Star Trek's to "boldly go where no man has gone before" -- would sound far less dramatic as "go boldly."

The real issue, Hitchings explains in his interesting, well-researched book, is clarity.

"When we argue about language, we are often concerned with the ways in which it impairs thought," he says. Lacking the precision of numbers, imprecise language can cause needless and often serious misunderstandings. Bush's butchery of English may sound crass, but if it is any comfort -- to him and us -- linguistic problems have plagued every age -- from the England of Chaucer to the America of Obama.

While Hitchings is dealing solely with the English language, he recognizes it is not monolithic: "There is Australian English and the English used in Jamaica and the Philippines. ... A great many people use English as a second language. They, too, have a stake in its future." In fact, in his extraordinary book, he charts the emergence of English, when it became the official language of legal proceedings in 1362 England, through its various tribulations from the Elizabethan era until the digital age.

En route, we meet a host of historic characters -- philosopher John Locke, author Jonathan Swift and grammarian Lindley Murray, whose English Grammar, published in 1795, cast a long shadow. Murray also connected proper syntax and moral rectitude. To him, good writing trumpeted unity and strength of sentences. The point is to be understood. Of course, writing and speech have subsets; jargon and slang are centuries old. Social groups, like trades, have an argot all their own.

More telling, language can pinpoint class and status. A Victorian gentleman and woman were judged on voice and refinement, their use of what some deemed "correct English" was paramount. G.B. Shaw's play Pygmalion turns flower girl Eliza Doolittle into an upper-crust lady by reforming her speech.

Spelling and pronunciation also changed once English crossed the Atlantic, all part of the language's journey. In the 1980s and 1990s, American universities became the testing grounds for the role of language; political correctness "manifested itself in the form of verbal hygiene," complete with new terminology for minorities and oppressed groups. Yet as Hitchings observes, the term "politically correct" has been around for 200 years.

Chock full of historic and literary references, The Language War is a fascinating, eye-opening look at the evolution of the English language, which, the author contends, "makes us moral creatures." It is a thoughtful paean to the wonder and power of words.

The Language Wars: A History of Proper English
By Henry Hitchings
Farrar, Straus and Giroux