Grammar is simply the set of rules that governs language use and enables humans to use language for communication. Humans are born with an innate ability to acquire language and its grammar. For thousands of years, humans simply used grammar without much concern for any hard-and-fast rules. With the invention of writing, however, things began to change. An elite group of proscriptive grammarians developed which proclaimed the rules of grammar to guide both spoken and written language.
Proscriptive grammarians have drawn the rules for English grammar from other languages (often Latin), from logic, and by simply declaring them ex nihilo. Grammar did not come from the users. In fact, some of the “great” writers such as Shakespeare were seen as having violated some of the basic rules of grammar.
Robert Lowth was the first bestselling English grammarian. He studied at New College, Oxford and distinguished himself in religious scholarship. While he was at Oxford, he wrote A Short Introduction to English Grammar. The book was published anonymously in 1762 and was subsequently reprinted every year or two until 1838. This little work influenced many of the proscriptivist grammarians who would follow him. The work was often quoted (and sometimes plagiarized) word for word.
The proscriptivist position is quite clear: the rules are rules and stand above the actual use of the language. Lowth wrote:
“Our best authors have committed gross mistakes, for want of a due knowledge of English grammar.”Lowth declared that while people often end sentences with prepositions in conversation, the practice should be banned in formal writing. The statement “I don’t know what it is made of” is thus incorrect and should be banned. This has inspired several generations of English teachers to make lots of red marks on student papers in the battle against the final preposition.
Using logic, Lowth banned the use of the double negative:
“Two negatives in English destroy one another, or are equivalent to an affirmative.”At this time, the double negative was common in many English dialects and authors such as Chaucer and Shakespeare used them. Generations of English teachers have gravely informed their students that writing “I didn’t do nothing” means “I did something.”
Lowth also proclaimed that the double superlative was to be considered poor grammar: thus Shakespeare’s “the most unkindest cut of all” should be “the unkindest cut of all.” While writers might view the double superlative as a way of reinforcing a statement or concept, this was not to be considered good writing.
While Lowth’s grammar was a bestseller, his basic rules were promoted by an American: Lindley Murray. In 1795 his book English Grammar help set Lowth’s rules in stone, particularly the rules regarding the double negative and ending a sentence with a preposition. In eleven years, his book went through twenty-one editions in Britain and more than forty in the United States. He viewed grammar and morality as intertwined: people who did not use the language properly by following the rules of grammar were obviously immoral and depraved.
In 1834, an author known only as “P” pronounced the prohibition against the split infinitive. Soon this new rule was echoed in grammar books throughout the United States and several generations of students would learn that it was barbaric, perhaps immoral, to place a word between “to” and a verb. In spite of this rule and the red marks made by English teachers, the use of the split infinitive actually seems to have increased since 1834. Grammarians might make the rules, but people who speak and write the language often ignore them, making the language more vibrant, flexible, and living. Henry Watson Fowler would later write:
“The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish. Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and a happy folk, to be envied by most of the minority classes.”Henry Watson Fowler and his younger brother Francis brought out a book on usage, The King’s English, in 1906. The book was intended as a manual for better writing and it discouraged the use of Americanisms, overuse of Latin vocabulary, circumlocutions, and new vogue words. It was a best seller because of its rather punchy style. With regard to Americanism, they write:
“Americanisms are foreign words, and should be so treated. To say this is not to insult the American language.”With regard to slang, they write:
“There is a real danger of our literature’s being Americanized, and that not merely in details of vocabulary—which are all that we are here directly concerned with—but in its general tone.”
“The place of slang is in real life. There, an occasional indulgence in it is an almost necessary concession to our gregarious humanity; he who declines altogether to let his speech be influenced by his neighbour’s tricks, and takes counsel only of pure reason, is setting up for more than a man.”Later Fowler would produce A Dictionary of Modern English Usage which is known today simply as “Fowler’s.” Fowler scorned those who refused to end sentences with prepositions. While many grammarians have decreed that “none” cannot be used with a plural verb, Fowler disagrees: “None of us are happy” is just as good as “None of us is happy.” He also writes that the prohibition against starting a sentence with “and” and “but” is “ungrammatical piece of nonsense.”
Fowler died in 1933, but his dictionary is still in print, now in its third edition.
Not all proscriptive grammarians have been successful in gaining a following and influencing how English is to be taught. In 1878, William Barnes brought out his grammar, An Outline of English Speech-Craft. He advocated that English be purged of words derived from Greek and Latin. He proposed that “photograph” should become “sun-print;” “botany” should become “wort-lore;” “enthusiasm” should become “faith-heat;” “agriculture” should become “earthtillage;” “conscious” should become “inwit;” and “commandment” should become “bodeword.” His suggestions were not met with great wort-lore.
Proscriptive grammarians have continued to pontificate through the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, battling against what they see as the destruction, degradation, and misuse of the language. In the meantime, the English language continues to grow and to change, often ignoring the “rules” being laid down for its “preservation.”
For those wishing to explore the controversies over English grammar more fully, let me recommend Lynne Truss’s delightful little book Eats, Shoots & Leaves. For a different viewpoint, let me suggest Robert Lane Greene’s You Are What You Speak and John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue.