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Book Review of: Righting the Mother Tongue

From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling

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Review of Righting the Mother Tongue, by David Wolman (244 pages, Hardcover, 2008)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

David Wolman and I see things differently, but I enjoyed his well-written and informative book. While it provides a great deal of information about how we write English and how our language got into its present form, it also provides insight into how people view language.

Wolman jarred some of the beliefs I have long held sacrosanct regarding English usage. Spelling and grammar are important, but Wolman says the competence with which a person uses them isn't a good measure of a person's attitude or intellect. When I was in grade school, teachers drilled into us the idea that it is. I'm going to keep Wolman's perspective in mind for a while and see if I don't change my own.

Wolman poses many interesting questions in this book. Even the title poses a spelling question. One of the key concepts this books addresses is how words are spelled (that is, how we write). It looks at what a mess our spelling system is. It provides a rich history of efforts to make that system "right." Wolman could have chosen to spell "writing" instead of "righting" in the title. When read aloud, it would sound the same either way but carry a different meaning. That's a case in point for another issue addressed in this book.

I admit it, I loved English in school and I love it now. I'm a grammar nut, word junkie, and spelling whiz. Each year, I read more books than four dozen average Americans do. The dark side of this intimacy with English is it tends to leave a person expecting others to adhere closely to Standard Written English (SWE). I have long seen those who don't as on par with those who  chronically underdress or lack table manners. Perhaps my view has been a bit harsh. Maybe SWE simply isn't keeping up.

Wolman claims he's not a great speller or a stickler for all the rules of grammar, and he justifies the value of this position in a way that is hard to refute. He does break a few grammatical rules here and there, but I noticed that in these instances he never sacrificed clarity. When someone writes in parallel sentence structure or misplaces modifiers, the logic of that person's writing makes the meaning unclear at best. In Holman's case, he wrote in a logical fashion that differed sometimes from academically correct English. Not all of our grammatical rules make sense.

Not all of our spelling rules make sense, either. Many of them are downright silly, and Wolman gives many examples to show this. The sheer number of rules and exceptions makes our system far from intuitive. People who learn English as a second language have a tough time with our confusing lexicon. The difficulty of dealing with the spelling mess is a sore spot with ESL students.

But it's also a problem for native English speakers as they slog through their first years of school. At some point, most kids resign themselves to simply "spelling bad" and not worrying about it. They see that other things in life also need attention. When they reach adulthood, they are still "getting by" and not worrying about it. This approach is not without merit, as Wolman adroitly points out.

Thankfully, this book is free of a common flaw in nonfiction today. That is the practice of inserting unsupported personal political views into the book as though those views are fact. Those views are seldom relevant to the book, and I have yet to find a case where they are congruent with reality. The reader doesn't know Wolman's political views, and that's how it should be. Thank you, David Wolman.

I'm also grateful that Wolman didn't get overly academic or lurch off into arcane explanations that test a reader's ability to stay focused. Instead, he made this a good read. With this topic, that is not easily achievable, but he did it.

The book has an engaging and flowing narrative. It also has a structure. I recently reviewed a book that was essentially a collection of magazine articles that could have been arranged in any order. I believe a book should be a cohesive whole, with each chapter built on the one(s) before it. This book is exactly that. Once you start reading, you want to see where Wolman is going next.

So, that's my opinion of what Wolman said in this book. It's worth reading. It's worth having a friend or two read, so you can get together to pontificate on the various points it raises.

Now, a summary of what you'll find. This book has eleven chapters, an epilogue, extensive footnotes, and extensive backnotes. It is impressively researched.

The first chapter takes us to 1906. If you're any kind of American history buff, you know this era was particularly interesting. It was during the Presidency of Teddy Roosevelt and just a few years before the Titanic sank. Remember also, we were leading up to world war at this time and the political intrigue was intense. In 1906, efforts at spelling revision were in full swing.

From there through Chapter Six, we watch English unfold and see how various aspects of it came to be. At several points,  Wolman relates the events to the present. We also see the efforts of people to "keep the language pure." But there never was a time when it was pure. It has always been in flux.

In Chapter Eight, Wolman takes us to the Scripps National Spelling Bee. He's with a group of protestors who are members of a spelling simplification group. This venue allows various viewpoints to come out. Wolman examines them in a balanced way.

Chapter Nine is Wolman's story of undergoing a series of formal examinations. He was sure he had some deficiency, possibly a form of dyslexia. His goal was to get the diagnosis. It turns out there was nothing wrong with him. In fact, his spelling abilities are above normal. They just aren't as far above normal as those of his siblings. His whole life, he'd been measuring himself against too high a standard and concluding he was inherently deficient.

Chapter Ten takes us deeper into the spelling reformation movement. Chapter Eleven looks at how the Internet is affecting our spelling, our vocabulary, and other aspects of our language. In the epilogue, Wolman takes us to the Portland Spelling Bee. He competes and does well, but still loses. He uses this to segue into his view of where spelling is headed next.

Even if you're not an English buff, you should find this book enjoyable and informative. If you are an English buff, you will find it downright stimulating.




About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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