I found an interesting list of language books via the comments at Prentiss Riddle’s Language; I was put off by the recommendation for Mario Pei’s books, which are fun but nutritionally empty, but fortunately I persevered, and came across this: “Jim Quinn’s amusing little book is the antiparticle to the pop grammarians; he actually looks things up instead of just fulminating.” Which reminded me that it was my bounden duty to tell y’all about Quinn’s American Tongue and Cheek. Some years ago Barnes & Noble was selling remaindered copies for a dollar, and I bought several to give away (and of course wish I had bought more); my own copy is always within arm’s reach, ready to provide ammunition against unfounded prejudices. Let me quote his “Special Preface for You, The Lover of Our Language”:

If this book doesn’t make you angry, it wasn’t worth writing….
It attacks no use of language.
It defends all the words and phrases and sentences you have been trying to stamp out: Finalize. Hopefully. Between you and I….
This book defends all those constructions—not on the grounds that anyone can say what they please (though of course they can)—but on the grounds that all those constructions are grammatically correct.

His basic technique is to show that every maligned usage turns up in Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Faulkner, etc., and to ask the entirely reasonable question, Whose language sense would you rather trust, a great writer’s or Edwin Newman’s? He has a great deal of fun with Newman, Safire, John Simon, and the other mandarins of “good English,” and shows them tying themselves into knots trying to “correct” sentences there was nothing wrong with in the first place. The book is, alas, long out of print, but it’s available from online bookstores, and of course there’s your friendly local library (if they haven’t put it on the For Sale table, but don’t get me started on that). Try it, you’ll like it. It’s the perfect antidote to David Foster Wallace (see below).

And for an excellent shorthand equivalent (just theory, no examples), try Alan Pagliere’s article at, of all places, The Vocabula Review (home of linguistic curmudgeonry).

Update (Nov. 2007): Alan now has a blog.


  1. I just came across Jack London using “orientate”. No longer will I complain about it.

  2. Hank Williams says

    I have been wondering for a number of years now if anyone can tell me about the personality, especially the ego of the linguist Mario Pei. When I was in university in the late ’60″s I bought a copy of his “Languages In War And Peace” which I believe he dedicated to himself (“MIHI CREDENTI” was in the front of it). I also noticed that some of his footnotes in the major languages he was describing were almost as lengthy as what was on the page above. I have often wondered if he was as conceited a man as he came across in that particular book. Anyone know?

  3. PlasticPaddy says

    16 years later..
    From Wikipedia: “in 1928 he published his translation of Vittorio Ermete de Fiori’s Mussolini: The Man of Destiny.”
    Without knowing in what other works Pei took sufficient interest to make and publish translations, one can only speculate on whether Pei suffered from the megalomania that proved the undoing of the unfortunate Mussolini.

  4. I enjoyed more than one of Pei’s popular books on language as a boy, but returning to them as an adult, he certainly does come across sometimes as a person with unjustified confidence in his knowledge.

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