Professor David Crystal is one the world’s foremost linguistic experts. His latest book, The Fight for English (published by OUP) assesses the debate over rights and wrongs in English usage, with examples from early modern English via Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson to our modern developments such as email and texting, and explains why he believes that when it comes to spelling and grammar, we should say no to zero tolerance. He chooses his favourite books on the English language.
1. The Oxford English Dictionary
If I were ever asked which book I would to take to a desert island, I would opt immediately for the second edition of the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary – or OED, as it is popularly called – and hope that the island had an electricity supply so that I could download the online version or use the CD. It is without doubt the most comprehensive and detailed account of the history of English vocabulary ever. Its process of continual editorial revision provides a voyage of linguistic discovery that, I am happy to say, never comes to an end.
2. The Use of English by Randolph Quirk
This is the book that opened my eyes – and the eyes of several generations of English students – to the range, versatility, and flexibility of the English language. It brought home the importance of always linking the study of language to the study of literature, and in its range of examples from both linguistic and literary sources it gives a perfect illustration of how the subject should be taught. There was a second edition in 1968, and in 1990 it was replaced by English in Use, which Quirk co-wrote with his wife, Gabriele Stein. But nothing could replace the freshness and impact of the original volume.
3. A History of the English Language by Albert C Baugh
This book just goes on and on. I used its second (1957) edition when I was an undergraduate and was fascinated by both the range of its coverage and the depth of its treatment. It manages to pack an enormous amount of illustrative detail into its 450 or so pages. Numerous other histories of the language have since been written, but this one holds a special place for its balanced views and accessible scholarship.
4. Roget’s Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases
No name has come to be more synonymous with “thesaurus” than Roget’s. He has even become a common noun: I have “a Roget” on my shelves. Indeed I have a dozen Rogets, as his thesaurus has now appeared in numerous editions, and has been revised, expanded, and abridged more times than any other. It was a truly remarkable work for its period, and anyone who has tried to update it or rework its content (as I have) cannot fail to recognise the enormous labour that went into its compilation. It is the best first source of reference we have for those many occasions when we are dimly aware of the meaning we want to express and are searching for the best word with which to express it.
5. Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson
I have the greatest of admiration for non-specialists who take an interest in a subject and explore it with respect and accuracy, adding a level of accessibility and an individual slant that academics would do well to emulate. Few have succeeded; and none have succeeded so well as Bill Bryson in this book. It’s a delightful, easy-to-read survey – though with its good humour, wealth of anecdote, and boyish enthusiasm, “romp” would be a better word.
6. A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language by Randolph Quirk, Sidney Greenbaum, Geoffrey Leech, Jan Svartvik
This was the grammar I had been waiting for since the 1960s – the first real “reference grammar” of modern times. If you think of a dictionary as a reference lexicon – a book in which you can look up any word you want and find out all about it – then this book did the same for grammar – or, at least, it moved closer to that goal than any previous work had done. The Quirk Grammar, as it is often called, is still the book to which I most often refer when exploring a point of English grammatical usage.
7. The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English by Douglas Biber, Stig Johansson, Geoffrey Leech, Susan Conrad, Edward Finegan
The Quirk Grammar was comprehensive in scope, but limited in the statistical information it provided about the different styles of English usage. LGSWE (pronounced “log-swee”) was the first to start filling that gap. It provided a huge amount of data about the differences between British and American grammar, as well as about several important genres – conversation, fiction, news, and academic prose. Because its descriptive framework was largely the same as the Quirk Grammar, it proved easy to relate the findings of the two books. I’m always delving into this book.
8. The Cambridge History of the English Language (editor-in-chief, Richard M Hogg)
This amazing project was years in the making, and appeared over a decade from 1992. I’m not surprised it took so long. Marshalling some 50 academics to write major accounts of their field – in some cases, of 100 or so pages – and getting them to submit their pieces on time must have been a Herculean task. In fact, of course, some of them didn’t submit on time, which is why the project took so long! But it was worth it, despite the wait: nothing is likely to match this history for its range and depth of coverage for a very long time.
9. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage by Pam Peters
If you find it helpful to go to Fowler, Gowers, Partridge, or any of the other famous pundits of the past for advice about English usage, then you will value this book. It is the first usage guide to benefit from the computer age. It is solidly based on a corpus of real data, and it is the first book to be truly international, providing information about differences between British, American, Australian, and other regional variants of English. It points the way forward towards the new, internet-fuelled genre of usage guides that will surely emerge in the present century.
10. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language by David Crystal
I am often asked which of my own books on this subject I have most enjoyed writing. It is a difficult call, because I always enjoy whatever I happen to be writing, and for that brief period the ongoing project is the most important thing in the history of the universe. But this encyclopedia was special. It gave me the opportunity to present, for the first time, a full-colour illustrated account of English, and offered me a collaboration with publisher, picture-researcher, photographer and designer which was both challenging and highly creative. And it all started because the son of a friend asked me why he couldn’t find a book on the English language with pictures in it.