Grammar, America's oldest self-help program

These things we know about the American people and their language. Americans see mastery of proper English grammar and usage as a mark of education and social class. Because Americans feel uncertain about their grasp of grammar and usage, they crave instruction. Suppliers of advice promote arbitrary and questionable rules, reinforcing their readers' insecurities with assertions that the English language is speedily degenerating.

What we may not have known is that it was always thus.


In a delightful book, Founding Grammars: How Early America's War Over Words Shaped Today's Language (St Martin's Press, 309 pages, $27.99), Rosemarie Ostler traces an arc that keeps repeating itself: A writer offers advice about language, his followers and schoolteachers convert the advice into dogma, and the public plumps for easy-to-follow rules, however bogus, over nuances and judgments.

At the beginning, in the post-Revolutionary era, the sense of what was proper was heavily influenced by British usage, particularly as laid down by the Rt. Revd. Robert Lowth, bishop of London, whose grammar looks to Latin as "a template for English." Over time, his advice on proper, educated usage hardened into absolutes, particularly at the hands of Lindley Murray, an American born of Loyalist parents who settled in England and incorporated much of what Lowth had written into his English Grammar, Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners, one of the most influential grammars of the nineteenth century.

Noah Webster, whose spellers and dictionaries did much to shape American English, had the insight that "the rules of the language itself and the general practice of the nation, constitute propriety in speaking," but the public wanted rules.

Rational grammarians like William Bentley Fowle preferred "natural language" over teaching Latin as the basis of English grammar. What instead occurred was a supremacy of nineteenth-century genteel critics like Richard Grant White, who, without any particular expertise in lexicography or philology, pronounced as an authority on the basis of his own tastes. The split infinitive became a brand of shame in the nineteenth century, and White flexed his muscles in attacking locutions he disliked, such as pants for trousers and the neologism jeopardize. He had a wide following, and his type is very much among us still.

The twentieth century brought three elements guaranteed to produce conflict. First, the verbal critics in White's tradition remained influential. Throughout our span as a nation, Ms. Ostler writes, "people who wanted to advance in life needed a command of educated-sounding English," and there has always been a supply of self-appointed experts to assist them.

Second, American English became decidedly more colloquial and slangy in the first three decades of the twentieth century, leading to considerable hand-wringing among those self-appointed experts over issues such as the erosion of the shall/will distinction and the rise of new words and new usages.

Third, it was in the twentieth century that nineteenth-century philology developed into modern linguistics. William Dwight Whitney's Essentials of English Grammar of 1877 pointed the way. Whitney, Ms. Ostler explains, "looked to the common everyday usages of reasonably educated people, especially when those usages were backed up by literary precedent," to determine what constitutes standard English, and that empirical approach informs the work of lexicographers and linguists to this day.

The inevitable clash shows up most plainly in the brouhaha and skirmishing over Webster's Third International of 1961, particularly over the word ain't.

And here we are. Many schools appear to have given up formal instruction in traditional grammar (which may be just as well, since they did it so badly), linguistic research has not much penetrated pedagogy or the popular mind, and Strunk and White's Elements of Style receives reverential adoration despite its patent deficiencies.

Many people, Ms. Ostler writes, "still operate with grammatical attitudes that harken back to the days of the early republic, when grammar study and moral behavior were tightly intertwined. For them, a command of standard grammar is more than a practical skill—it is also a virtue." She does, however, see promise in the Internet, which, though it "offers sticklers unprecedented opportunities to lay down the law, it's also exposing more people than ever to expert discussions about language and grammar. Battles that once played out mainly between specialists now take place in the public arena."

We may, she thinks, at long last be catching up to Noah Webster's insight that grammatical standards ought to be consonant with current speech.