13 Books About Words & The English Language That Are Actually FASCINATING

by Charlotte Ahlin

Language is a funny thing. If you're reading this sentence, for example, there's a good chance that you speak and understand English perfectly well. But there's also a good chance that your English is slightly different from my English — we might disagree on whether it's "standing in line" or "standing on line," for example. Or you might call carbonated beverages "pop," whereas I would call them "soda." Or we might have a knock down, drag out fight over whether a long sandwich is called a "hoagie" a "sub" a "grinder" or a "hero." That's because English may seem like a perfectly stable language with rules and standards, but it is, in fact, a lawless jumble of several other languages stacked up, wearing a trench coat. English is a (very interesting) hot dumpster fire of a language that just keeps mutating with every passing day. So here are a few excellent books to help you de-mystify the English language, in all its many forms.

Some of these books delve into the history of English and how it got that way (did you know, for instance, that the word "spit" is roughly 15,000 years old, but the word "orange" is only about 450?). Other books explore different varieties of contemporary English, grammar rules, linguistic bigotry, curse words, and just about everything else you could possibly want to know about the language of English:

'Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue' by John McWhorter

This is the most exciting book on grammar history that you are ever likely to read. Instead of looking at the history of individual words, McWhorter looks at at the very structure of English and all the different languages that comprise it. Check it out if you want to know which syntactic quirks come from ancient druids, which from French monarchs, and which from cutthroat viking invaders.

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'The Everyday Language of White Racism' by Jane H. Hill

It's not an exaggeration to say that reading this book in college genuinely changed the way I think about language. Jane H. Hill looks at everyday, "normal" English, and unpacks all the ways in which it can be a tool of bigotry and oppression. After all, who says that there is one "correct" version of English? Why do some dialects of English sound more "scholarly" or "polite" to our ears? Read this book, and you'll never police someone's grammar on Twitter ever again.

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'Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation' by Lynne Truss

But then, of course, sometimes it's helpful to learn the technical rules of English grammar, even if those rules are problematic as hell. We all need to write grammatically airtight cover letters every once in a while. Eats, Shoots & Leaves is a witty, fun guide to punctuation in English, for anyone who's a secret fan of the much-maligned semi-colon.

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'Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing' by Melissa Mohr

Swears, curses, cusses, and slurs have always been a part of the English language. In this clever micro-history, Melissa Mohr takes us from the obscenities of Ancient Rome to the foul-mouthed kids on the playground today, looking at what our swearwords say about us along the way.

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'Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language' by Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman

Languages change. This is the very simplified thesis of the delightful Origins of the Specious, which debunks popular myths and misconceptions about English. This book will finally explain why it's OK to boldly split infinitives, and how a lot of the grammar "rules" we learned growing up don't actually come from English at all.

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'The Lexicographer's Dilemma: The Evolution of "Proper" English, from Shakespeare to South Park' by Jack Lynch

If you're wondered who, exactly, sat down and wrote the actual rules to English grammar (years after English was already a widely spoken language), then take a trip back in time with The Lexicographer's Dilemma. This book looks at the actual historical figures who make it their business to impose new rules on English, for better or for worse.

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'Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries' by Kory Stamper

What goes into making a dictionary? Besides, you know, a lot of words? Dictionary writer and editor Kory Stamper is here to illuminate the secret life of dictionaries, from defining words to changing definitions to deciding what, exactly counts as a word in the first place.

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'Articulate While Black: Barack Obama, Language, and Race in the U.S.' by H. Samy Alim, Geneva Smitherman

If you've never heard the word "code-switching" before, drop everything and read this book. Articulate While Black uses President Barack Obama as a jumping-off point to explore the relationship between race and language in America (and why calling someone "articulate" isn't always a compliment).

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'Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen' by Mary Norris

Mary Norris spent over three decades in The New Yorker's copy department, so she knows a thing or two about commas. Between You & Me is a lighthearted look at punctuation problems and when, exactly, you should add that extra comma. But she doesn't get too hung up on the official rules. As Norris puts it, "The dictionary is a wonderful thing, but you can't let it push you around."

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'The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way' by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is like your fun uncle and/or the English teacher who brings in donuts on the last day of class. His history of English is jam-packed with tangents and fun facts about how a strange little hybrid peasant language grew up to be one of the most widely-spoken tongues in the world.

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'That's Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms, and What Our English Says About Us' by Erin Moore

Technically, the English and the Americans both speak English. But in reality, there are quite a lot of subtle differences between English English and American English (never mind the dozens of other Englishes spoken around the globe). Erin Moore looks at the awkward, hilarious differences between the two dialects, and what they say about our two cultures.

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'The Dord, the Diglot, and an Avocado or Two: The Hidden Lives and Strange Origins of Common and Not-So-Common Words' by Anu Garg

There are just so many weird words in English. Anu Garg has scratched the surface of the wacky English lexicon with these 300 words and the stories of how they wormed their way into our vernacular. From dord to petrichor, avocado to sprachgefuhl, this book is sheer fun for all you word nerds out there.

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'Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies: A Guide to Language for Fun and Spite' by June Casagrande

Nobody likes a grammar snob. But everybody likes learning for spite, and that's exactly the premise of this laugh-out-loud funny book on English grammar. With chapters ranging from "Semicolonoscopy--Colons, Semicolons, Dashes, and Other Probing Annoyances" to "Is That a Dangler in Your Memo or Are You Just Glad to See Me?" this book is a deeply silly guide to some very practical syntax advice.

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