Linguistics ‘Hall of Shame’ 34

Hi again, everybody! ‘Hall Of Shame’ continues!


Some private individuals offer attempts at remedying (alleged) problems with usage; these amateur proposals may, of course, be prescriptivist or otherwise folk-linguistic. In 2001, for instance, Lyn Magree, an Australian parent concerned about the struggles of children with English (and mathematics), self-published a book designed to give intelligible and accurate advice at the relevant level; a second edition, revised (if not adequately) in response to initial criticisms, quickly followed (1). The book contains many errors and misleading or confusing statements about English, and Magree also accepts folk-linguistic myths about the relationship between speech and written language. She believes that explicit knowledge of grammar (and even the learning of lists of unexemplified terms for parts of speech) is needed by young native speakers; and she makes heavily negative prescriptive comments about features of children’s non-standard varieties which she wishes (not necessarily unreasonably) to discourage in the school context. Furthermore, some of her own usage is non-standard.

Lynne Truss’ books (2) argue for a quite heavily prescriptivist approach to punctuation (commas, brackets, apostrophes, etc.). Truss’s first book met with intense criticism on various fronts. Ironically and embarrassingly, much of her own punctuation is widely judged non-standard, especially (though not only) by non-British commentators unused to British norms. Louis Menand, for example, identifies many punctuation ‘errors’ in the book, describing these (in an American context) as instances of ‘British laxness’ (3). In contrast, the strongly anti-prescriptivist linguist David Crystal (4) and the English lecturer Nicholas Waters (5) attack Truss’ linguistic purism and offer approaches more tolerant of variation and of a degree of informality in written usage.

Re the title of item (5): note that root means ‘copulate’ in Australian English!


1 Lyn Magree, The Pocket Basics for English and Maths, 2nd edn (Sydney and Melbourne,
2 Lynne Truss, Eats Shoots & Leaves, 3rd edn (London, 2009); The Girl’s Like Spaghetti: Why, You Can’t Manage Without Apostrophes! (London, 2006).
3 Louis Menand, ‘Bad Comma: Lynne Truss’s strange grammar’, The New Yorker, 28 June
2004, available online at
http://www. newyorker. com/archive/2004/06/28/040628crbo_books1#ixzz1EEISWnIY
4 David Crystal, The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot and Left (Oxford,
5 Nicholas Waters, Eats, Roots and Leaves: An Open-minded Guide to English (London, 2005).

More next time!


For my book Strange Linguistics, see:

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