More usage than abusage

Verbal Hygiene
August 23, 1996

Verbal Hygiene is the best book on "correct'' language I have ever read, and I would be surprised if a better one were to be written this century. It pulls no linguistic punches, indulges in no cheap rhetoric, and assesses both traditional and radical opinion with an unwaveringly steady eye. It is also, for good measure, a very timely book.

We are bombarded with drivel about the rights and wrongs of linguistic usage. Some of this has come from prestigious linguistic theorists - witness the penultimate chapter of Steven Pinker's heavily hyped book The Language Instinct, which flies the Chomskyan flag for double negatives, split infinitives, etc. Some has come from journalists. Some has come from government.

To turn from all this to the pages of Verbal Hygiene is both a relief and a pleasure. But it may be so unusual an experience - such is the deplorable level of public discourse about these matters - as to be lost on many readers. If the book should fail to sell, that will be because it requires its readers to think, rather than pandering to their favourite prejudices. Likewise, if it is unpopular with teachers, that will be because it does not provide Noddy "exercises" or further reading lists at the end of each chapter. (And although it raises plenty of queries, there are no answers in the back.) This is not a book for those in search of marketable - much less teachable - solutions to "the language problem". It recognises how complex the normativity of language is.

Cameron is equally serene and severe on such diverse topics as Americanisms, freedom of speech, political correctness, the "decline" of grammar and the rise of style guides for journalists. This does not mean that she expresses no view of her own. Anyone less likely to opt for sitting on a fence (linguistic or other) it is difficult to imagine. But you do not have to agree with everything she says in order to recognise her remarkable capacity for hitting the nail on the head.

There is only one issue I think she misses out on. It is a question about normativity raised in a different context by Peter Corrigan, commenting on Wimbledon 1995. Agassi can dress like a pirate of Penzance (or an astronaut, if his sponsors prefer) and still win. What he wears is irrelevant to his winning. But his winning and wearing is influential. It influences the attitudes of young players to their local clubs, which may well prohibit Andre Agassi-style dress on court. Telling young players to get themselves elected to the committee of their local club is not the answer. They may just decide not to play tennis. Similarly, language is not the only game in town.

Why have we had to wait so long for such a book? The answer, I fear, is that too many educators, linguists, politicians and others have too much invested in turning a Nelsonian eye to the issues it raises. Unlike many of her colleagues in departments of linguistics, she actually takes lay concerns about linguistic theorists as pointing to a lacunae in linguistic theory. But, unlike many educational tub-thumpers, she does not dish out either the brimstone-and-treacle remedy or the slop of cultural relativism.

Roy Harris is emeritus professor of general linguistics, University of Oxford.

Verbal Hygiene

Author - Deborah Cameron
ISBN - 0 415 10354 1 and 10355 X
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £35.00 and £10.99
Pages - 264

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