A Review of Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation by Ammon Shea

by Michael Bedford, TEC Freelance Blogger

Published at 2018-03-15



Ammon Shea's Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation (Penguin, 2014) is a usage guide of sorts, but far from being a prescriptive guide like Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage or Bremner's Words on Words, Shea's book records a variety of grammar and usage peeves, and, by examining their roots, exposes them as unfounded compulsions foisted on English users by grammar scolds.


Having previously written Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages, and worked as a consulting editor of American dictionaries at Oxford University Press, Shea draws on his knowledge of etymology and lexicography to expose grammar and usage rules as either modern inventions or logically flawed and arbitrary proscriptions.


Aside from being an interesting and helpful usage guide, which includes an annotated glossary of 221 words that were at one point considered taboo, Bad English is one of the more entertaining books on language and usage that I’ve read.


A Bit about Its Structure

The glossary of 221 taboo words acts as both a window into outdated usage hang-ups of centuries past and as a resource for editors working for publishers with so-called traditional usage tastes. It includes some of the usual suspects, such as the old “rule” against using like as a conjunction, but it also contains some surprising ones, such as the proscription against using brand to describe anything but a product manufacturer, e.g., “I don’t like her brand of grammar.”


As a glossary of historical usage hang-ups, the 221-word list is interesting and somewhat helpful, but the more instructive majority of Shea’s book focuses on ongoing controversies surrounding the use of specific words. Shea presents common usage controversies, like the correct use of literally, next to usage controversies the reader might not be familiar with, like the correct use of decimate, aggravate, and balding.


I’ve probably read and written balding hundreds of times and never worried about whether to bald was a verb, but by presenting these rules alongside one another Shea underlines the absurdity of defending one “rule” in preference to another and shows that the “rules” people prefer are largely a result of the arbitrary tastes of whomever taught them the basics of grammar and usage.


Shea’s tone is conversational and respectful. Unlike some usage guides that seek to shame their readers into toeing the linguistic line, accusations of ignorance and barbarity are reserved for those English users who impugn others’ ignorance of grammar and usage rules while simultaneously exposing their own. And, as evidenced by Bad English’s extensive nine-page bibliography which features writers like Brontë, Orwell, and Nabokov, a number of usage guides, encyclopedia, and dictionaries, Bad English is the product of a great deal of research.


Emily Post or William Shakespeare?

One item that Shea refers to when backing up a few of his points is that although grammar and usage authors are frequently insistent that their token rules not be broken, William Shakespeare, regarded by many as the greatest English writer, frequently disregarded such rules, and even invented new senses of established words when it suited him.


According to Shea, the Oxford English Dictionary’s website records that Shakespeare was responsible for inventing approximately 8,000 new word senses. Shea chastises grammar pedants for their lack of imagination. If one of the greatest English writers routinely invented new senses of old words, why do English experts frown on the linguistic inventiveness of individuals, such as young people, who have given new meaning to words such as like and friend.


If Shakespeare’s apparent invention of a new meaning of rub in “there’s the rub” doesn’t offend usage pedants, why do they find the practice of using nouns as verbs offensive, and why don’t they give credit to modern-day linguistic pioneers rather than repress them?


Being on the Right Side of Linguistic History

Although several linguistic mores have fallen out of vogue, like the taboo against saying leg in polite society, there are others that most English users know and fear being reprimanded for ignoring. I have a few personal usage dicta that I observe: one that I feel strongly about is never using impact where effect or affect can be used, as in, “That had a great impact effect.”


Because effect serves its purpose, there’s no reason to substitute it for a different word that already has a different meaning, i.e., an impact is a collision between two bodies. Similarly, in the world of misused verbs, impact stands in for affect when it needn’t, as in, “I saw it was impacting affecting him.” Again, impact bulldozes a suitable word.


This specific example of semantic drift is frustrating because it indicates a general linguistic laziness among English writers. Apparently, some people find the distinction between effect and affect difficult to remember, so rather than consult a dictionary they abandon these words in preference of the seemingly versatile impact.


My diatribe concluded, Shea’s point that my concern for this specific example of semantic drift is arbitrary is well taken: as Shea describes, some people think that impact should never be used as a verb, but I think that’s nonsense. I don’t see a problem with saying, “The tooth was impacting,” or using a similar construction, although when describing the act of impacting, hit or collide are generally better verb choices.


Even the much-defended word literally has uncertain etymological roots. Although savvy editors appear to be correct when they claim that literally originally meant “without metaphor,” its root, literal, which was first used decades before the first use of literally, originally meant “relating to letters, or the alphabet,” and made no mention of how the word interacted with the word figurative or metaphor.


It follows, then, that if the original use of literally is based on an apparent semantic drift of the word literal, English users should probably lighten up about literally drifting towards synonymy with figuratively. Thankfully, if you fear living in a world where people can no longer make sense of the meaning of literally, Shea offers these words of encouragement, “English is a flexible language, and it generally is clear what people mean when they use literally, based on the context in which it is used.”


Rather than there being any rhyme or reason to which meanings of words get defended as others seem free to drift, word usage in English appears to be at the populist mercy of public opinion. So, try as you might, but your efforts to defend the “correct” meanings of words will likely come to little more than annoying your friends and family.


Uninterested in the Correct Usage of Disinterest?

If you’re someone who likes reading books on language and usage, Bad English will be an enjoyable and informative read. If you’re someone who finds the topics of English grammar and usage boring but you want to become a better writer or speaker, this is a great book to pick up. Non-judgmental in his presentation, Shea takes time to describe everything, even basic grammar terms when necessary, so that the reader can engage with Bad English with or without a copy of the OED at their side.*


*To those who take issue with my use of the neuter singular their in this sentence, I refer you to page xiv in Shea’s Introduction.




Michael Bedford is a freelance editor, copywriter, and performer living in Mount Hope, Ontario. He can be reached at