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This section features links to interesting, instructive, or thought-provoking readings about the English language and related disciplines. The selections could be anywhere from light and humorous to serious and scholarly, and they range widely from the reading, writing, listening, and speaking disciplines to the teaching and learning of English.

A call to arms on the unending debate on how to use English

Users of the English language should not be hidebound by tradition, habit, and deference but think in terms of what they want from their words. This is the central argument of Henry Hitchings’s Language Wars: A History of Proper English (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 416 pages), published in the United States last October after its publication in the United Kingdom in February 2011.

Fish in Your Ear

Hitchings chronicles the history of English usage from the time of Shakespeare to the present day, taking a critical and sometimes combative look at English grammar rules, spelling, dictionaries, pronunciation and regional accents as well as at how the language is reshaped by the prevailing media of times past—more so now by the electronic media.

The language wars referred to in the book’s title primarily refer to the struggles between prescriptivists and descriptivists of the English language since the Elizabeth I’s reign in England from 1558 onwards. They are a line of writers that include such divergent English-usage advocates as John Kemble, Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift, and Sir Richard Steele in England and, across the Atlantic, the lexicographer Noah Webster in the then American colony. “A prescriptivist dictates how people should speak and write, whereas a descriptivist avoids passing judgments and provides explanation,” Hitchings observes. “Pigeonholing of this kind results in some ludicrous misrepresentations of what these writers thought.”

Hitchings argues in the book that the grammar rules we observe in English are not really rules, but conventions. “At different times, and in different places, different conventions are the norm,” he says. “Of course, some of these conventions become so deeply ingrained in us that we find it hard to grant they are merely that; we think of them as timeless, profound and inherently sensible. Conventions can put down deep roots; they can be hard to eradicate. Yet they have changed before and will change again.”

Read “Truths and Myths About English,” an excerpt from Henry Hitchings’s The Language Wars in the Macmillan books website now!

Read Henry Hitchings’s “Is It Curtains For The Apostrophe?” in now!

Read Tucker Shaw's review of Henry Hitchings’s The Language Wars in The Denver Post now! 

Henry Hitchings is a writer, reviewer, and critic specializing in narrative nonfiction, with a particular emphasis on language and cultural history. He is the author of Dr. Johnson’s Dictionary: The Extraordinary Story of the Book that Defined the World (2005); its American edition, retitled Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr Johnson’s Dictionary, won the Modern Language Association’s prize for the best work by an independent scholar in 2005. Hitchings’s second book, The Secret Life of Words: How English Became English, won the 2008 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. He has also written Who’s Afraid of Jane Austen? and Defining the World and, most recently, The Language Wars. He contributes to several newspapers and magazines and is the theater critic for the London Evening Standard.

In “Re-styling Shakespeare for children,” an article that came out in the November 8, 2011 issue of The Guardian in the UK, Imogen Russell Williams writes that while hardly anybody can get away with tinkering with Shakespeare’s plays for adult audiences, the creative team of writer Leon Garfield and artist Michael Foreman has taken “some bracing liberties” adapting the plays for children in their collaborative Shakespeare Stories. Says Williams: “In two volumes, with the help of Foreman’s unsettling, delicate watercolours, Garfield’s own understated and assured poetic power triumphs in rendering the eerie, the hilarious, the monstrous and the moving, and in inspiring young readers with the wish to explore the original treasure chest.”

Read Imogen Russell Williams’s “Re-styling Shakespeare for children” in The Guardian UK now!

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