Jack Lynch's recent book The Lexicographer's Dilemma was featured last week in the New York Times' Books section, in a review by Neil Genzlinger under the headline "This is English, Rules are Optional". Arnold Zwicky recommended Lynch's book enthusiastically, back in December, and I agree with his opinion. Genzlinger also liked the book, and his review should be worth a well-deserved boost in sales. But there was something about Genzlinger's perspective that struck me as odd.
His review starts out like this:
It’s getting harder to make a living as an editor of the printed word, what with newspapers and other publications cutting staff. And it will be harder still now that Jack Lynch has published “The Lexicographer’s Dilemma,” an entertaining tour of the English language in which he shows that many of the rules that editors and other grammatical zealots wave about like cudgels are arbitrary and destined to be swept aside as words and usage evolve.
Neil Genzlinger has been writing for the NYT for at least a decade, and his Wikipedia page says that he also works as a copy editor there. So it's suprising to see him pitching his review of Lynch as "Gee, who knew?" rather than "Another blow struck in the Grammar Wars". I hope that this was just a rhetorical strategy on his part — but it's possible that he never before stumbled on the notion that (say) the demonization of split infinitives is a relatively recent superstition, not a stalwart defense of ancient verities.
My usual reaction in such cases is to blame the linguists, for failing in our duty to educate the public. But perhaps in this case we should raise an eyebrow at the nation's English Departments as well.
(There's some discussion of another review of Prof. Lynch's book in "Faults 'intollerable and euer vndecent'", 11/17/2009.)
[Update — let me try to clarify what struck me as odd as Mr. Genzlinger's lede.
The publisher's blurb says that "In its long history, the English language has had many lawmakers—those who have tried to regulate, or otherwise organize, the way we speak. The Lexicographer’s Dilemma offers the first narrative history of these endeavors, showing clearly that what we now regard as the only 'correct' way to speak emerged out of specific historical and social conditions over the course of centuries."
Let's agree that this is true, or at least that Lynch's book is more complete, more accessible, and generally better than earlier works. Now think of analogous histories of ideas in astronomy, biology, chemistry, etc., and ask yourself how the NYT might review them.
Specifically, imagine a review that begins
It's getting harder to make a living as an astronomer, what with the recent cancellation of several large telescope projects. And it will be harder still now that Jack Lynch has published "The Star-gazer's Dilemma", which shows that the sun doesn't really revolve around the earth.
And if your response is "But very few people these days are aware of the long-established fact that 'many of the rules that editors and other grammatical zealots wave about like cudgels are arbitrary and destined to be swept aside as words and usage evolve'", my answer is, "Exactly".]