Use proper English, but be nicer about it!

The Queen’s English: And How to Use It
by Bernard C. Lamb

Rating: 3 out of 5.

I started this book a few years ago, put it down and forgot about it. I just read The Story of Human Language by John McWhorter and decided to give Queen‘s English another chance. By chapter two it was very clear to me that these are two very different books.

McWhorter is all about the development of language. It‘s about natural changes and not at all judgemental. It’s a very organic reading experience. 

Lamb on the other hand is about the proper use of a very static language. It’s a reference book of English grammar, albeit not a comprehensive one. I had expected more. Besides being disappointed in the very narrow scope of this book, its patronizing tone put me off. A lot.

I use ‘low English’ to describe such bad English. It is ungrammatical, badly pronounced and poorly enunciated, with a severely restricted vocabulary, and usually laden with swear words. It suggests that its users are coarse, uneducated and unintelligent.

I give you three more adjectives: rude, pompous and presumptuous. 

Besides being jarred by the tone of the book repeatedly, I did learn a few new facts (or was reminded thereof?). For example:

„Adjectives can cause ambiguity when followed by more than one noun. Consider the brown bird’s nest or the black cab driver. Is it the nest or the bird which is brown, or the cab or the driver which is black? We can use hyphens to resolve the ambiguity: the brown bird’s-nest or the brown-bird’s nest; the black-cab driver or the black cab-driver. 

chapter 10

I much more enjoyed McWhorter lectures on the development of language. For a reminder of the grammar of British English I would have preferred a more comprehensive and objective approach.

The grammar rules presented in this book were informative. The writing style and tone, as mentioned, rubbed me the wrong way. The author sounded patronizing and judgemental. Don‘t get me started on the childish sketches. Additionally the book has aged badly. Or possibly felt old already, when it was published in 2011.

  • Content: 3 stars
  • Presentation: 2 stars
  • Total: 2.5, rounded down because I feel irritated.

Why we talk the way we do…

The Story of Human Language
by John McWhorter

Rating: 4 out of 5.

With some recommendations I stumbled across this book on human language from The Great Courses. This is an audiobook, aka the lecture series by the author.

Here is what it‘s all about:

There are 6,000 languages in the world, in so much variety that many languages would leave English speakers wondering just how a human being could possibly learn and use them.

From the scope of the book / pdf supplement of the audio

The first two lectures were What Is Language? and When Language Began. By the sound of it this seem to be actual lectures. There are reactions from the audience and clapping. It makes for a different listening experience than listening to a professionally narrated book. The author, aka lecturer, is a proficient and coherent speaker. However, the experience is a bit more organic than usual.

The part about Chomsky in the second lecture was new to me and the notion that humans are somehow programmed to speak sounded logical to me. The other side of that argument is, that language develops based on external influences. Here we open the door to philosophical debate. I am benching that one for my next non-fiction book…

The basis of Chomsky’s linguistic theory lies in biolinguistics, the linguistic school that holds that the principles underpinning the structure of language are biologically preset in the human mind and hence genetically inherited.

Accordingly, Chomsky argues that language is a unique evolutionary development of the human species and distinguished from modes of communication used by any other animal species.

Wikipedia about Chomsky

Lecture 3: How Language Changes—Sound Change talks about the great vowel shift — I opened the pdf, that came with the audio. It‘s not the full text, more of a summary, but still… reading along and looking at some of the examples in writing is very helpful. Pretty cool, actually, how vowels and consonants changed over time. That word, „cool“, had a vowel shift, btw…

I won‘t bore you with summaries of every single lecture, suffice to say that the author covers a vast amount of linguistic topics. I spaced out a bit during the many chapters on dialects.

The author‘s casual dismissal of places and people outside of the US was a bit irritating at times. I think he was trying to be funny, with middling success. 

Lecture 26: Does Culture Drive Language Change? presents…

a hypothesis that our ways of processing the world are channeled by the structure of our language. This has been called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

That has always been a really fascinating concept for me. German, language of thinkers and poets, etc. Based on this audiobook course and other sources I looked at over time, this does not seem to hold true. The language you think in or the grammar you use do not seem to shape how you think and do not seem to be influenced by the culture you live in. Although it has never been proven, the idea doesn‘t seem to be going away.

In the chapters after that one we learned about Pidgin and Creole. There is a difference! I did not know that. And I learned a lot more about it that I really cared for. However, a lot of that was grounding for Lecture 32: What Is Black English?Fascinating connection to British English!

Everything was rounded off with a master class, to extrapolate on everything we learned throughout the course.

It was interesting, even with some bits in between that dragged a bit. The accompanying pdf was open most of the time, while I listened to the lectures and served a bit as a blackboard for the lecturer. Good enough to consider further offerings by The Great Courses.


Some of the recommended reading:


This was part of my #ReadPOC2021 challenge. The February prompt is „scientist“.

The March prompt is „A Work of Fiction“. These are on my want-to-read shelf and fit the prompt, in no particular order:

  • The Black Parade by Kyoko M., UF, reviews are mixed
  • The Murders of Molly Southbourne by Tade Thompson, horror/SF, novella
  • Jade City by Fonda Lee, UF
  • Rosewater by Tade Thompson, SF
  • David Mogo, Godhunter by Suyi Davies Okungbowa, UF
  • Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi, Fantasy/SF

About language, a small island and a brief hop to Africa…

Yesterday I posted about my current audiobook read, The Story of Human Language (Audible Audio). The pdf includes Essential Reading at the end of every chapter. And at the end of lecture 3, How Language Changes—Sound Change, to my surprise, a book is listed that I have actually read!

The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way
by Bill Bryson

Rating: 3 out of 5.

In this hymn to the mother tongue Bill Bryson examines how a language treated for centuries as the inadequate and second-rate tongue of peasants has now become the undisputed global language.

Written with his usual humour, Bill Bryson tells you everything you ever wanted to know about how the English language came to be what it is today. Funny and informative, but sometimes he gets a bit carried away. 17 pages on spelling is just a bit excessive.

Bryson is another author that I want to revisit.

Another book about the topics of the English language that has been lingering on my TBR pile for quite some time:

The Queen’s English: And How to Use It 
by Bernard C. Lamb

What is good English, and why do we need it? “The Queen’s English” shows how the English language, used properly, has great power to instruct, move and entertain people, but used incorrectly, can lead to a lack of clarity and confusion. This book informs in a light-hearted way, reminding readers how to use the basics of grammar, punctuation and spelling, as well as further teaching them new tips and tricks of style, rhetoric and vocabulary. The book also shows the perils of using language incorrectly, offering extremely (if unintentionally) humorous examples of where bad English can cause one thing to mean something entirely different!

From the book blurb

Maybe I will manage to get to this book in 2021! It‘s been on my shelf for nine years, which is the reason why I added it to my TBR Bingo card!


Talking about Bill Bryson, these are the two books of his that I have read… I could swear there was more, but I am not sure what book it was — maybe In a Sunburned Country?

Notes from a Small Island
by Bill Bryson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

I laughed myself silly when I read this. Which was quite a while ago, in the mid-to-late 1990s, whilst living in London. Reading it on the tube quite often, no less… That‘s pretty much all I remember.

Bill Bryson’s African Diary
by Bill Bryson

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Nice little book, a very brief read. The usual Bill Bryson humour shows through a little, but it’s really only a teensy-weensy bite in between.