How's Your English? A Celebration of Grammatical Sins

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A misspelled sign near the Colorado River by Charles O'Rear in 1941.
From and

Am I disinterested or uninterested? Does this require a that or a which? And when, if ever, should I be using the word "very"?

We're not looking to start a mutiny here, but according to former dictionary editor Ammon Shea, the rules of English are not as clear as we may believe them to be.

The English language has been evolving for hundreds of years. There have always been critics and there have always been those charting new territory into the linguistic unknown.

Shea's new book, "Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation," comes out tomorrow and is billed as a celebration of grammatical sins of sorts.

And he says that new words, with new meanings and new rules of grammar, are all just signs of a healthy thriving language.

"Everybody who has ever tried to suffer through trying to reading Beowulf or anything that's more than 100-years-old in English prose knows that the language changes and that words mean different things," says Shea. "But one of the things that I think is often overlooked is that the rules that ostensibly govern our language change as well."

As a society changes over time, so too does the society's language. Shea says that during the early 20th century, language commenters thought that the world "dilapidated" should only be used to refer to a stone house because it came from the world lapis. 

"Any fool would know that it couldn't possibly apply to a wood house," says Shea. "But then, of course, we don't pay any attention to that now."

In the second half of the 19th Century, an American by the name of Richard Grant White wrote the book "Words and Their Uses, Past and Present: A Study of the English Language." Shea says that Grant White, a man he considers to be an "utter idiot" despite his education, had an overwhelming desire to correct the language of other people.

Grant White had several language pet peeves, and loathed the word "jeopardize." In his book "Words and Their Uses," Grant White wrote that jeopardize was "a foolish and intolerable word, which has no rightful place in the language."

"He wrote that way about almost everything," says Shea. "He said the same thing about ice cream—he thought it should be 'iced cream,' with a 'D.' He thought 'photographer' was something only fools say because anybody who knows anything about Latin and Greek should know that it's 'photographist.' He thought that 'real estate' was a ludicrous introduction from the realm of law. He went on and on like this."

While Grant White is one of the more extreme examples of a language commenter, Shea says he is not so different from others looking to correct grammatical sins.

"Some of the things that he's saying are really no more extreme than the things that people today say," adds Shea. "I think that changing rules mean that our language is healthy. Healthy languages change, dead languages do not change—that's very simple, and it's been long established."

Listen to the full interview to hear more from Shea.