As much as McWhorter gave David Crystal a raking over the coals in Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, I suspect he and I share Crystal’s stance on prescriptive grammar, the usage police, and grammar punditry – pointless and futile at best, downright pernicious at worst.
This book is a brief history of language punditry, and how they all got it so wrong.
The first half consists of a chronological history of curmudgeonly commentary on the state of English, while the second half branches out into a more in-depth discussion of why language punditry is unnecessary and even detrimental to the language, and what ought to be done about it.
The real travesty that Crystal traces here is the generation I belong to, whose parents, perhaps like mine made to feel the sting of a ruler for the sin of dangling a participle, eschewed not only the stark prescriptivism of their parents, but the entire study of grammar. One reason books like Eats, Shoots and Leaves do so well is that a generation has been cast adrift, and those like myself, who out of interest and curiosity found themselves clinging to a branch, often seek out reinforcement for a fussy prescriptivism such as that offered in a book like that.
My Freshman English teacher, who after retiring more than a decade ago spends her time overseeing a dozen or so book clubs (and even got a writeup in the New York Times for it,) chose to teach us grammar (which she called ‘Grammar and Grandpar,’) but I don’t believe it was still required at that stage, and I don’t recall studying it again after that until college. I always thought of myself as a ‘grammar nerd,’ though ‘usage buff’ might be a more accurate term. I had more than one copy of the Elements of Style, and also read the style handbook from my freshman year of college from cover to cover. I perceived that these were structural touches, but also still held the mistaken belief that they were the only possible way to build that edifice. I was uptight about things like misplaced commas, you’re instead of your etc.
Then at one point I helped to tutor a friend who, although he was an engaging speaker who could always carry the thread of a conversation, had never been taught the rules of how to build sentences, paragraphs, essays, etc, at least not in a way that clicked. I realized that all along I knew what he was saying, it just didn’t fit into the form demanded by whatever class he was taking. So I helped him learn how to translate his meaning into that form, and at the same time realizing the only reason he couldn’t write just as he talked was convention. It started me down the road to the position Crystal expounds in this book.
I still have fun with grammar, but I prefer now to see it in all of its remarkable variety, rather than getting hung up on griping about the rules. There are plenty of other avenues for that anyway.