February 22, 2006

Richard Grant White

Just off the phone with Erin McKean, talking Oxford University Press business, during which I suggested that someone should write about the life and works of Richard Grant White, the great American grammar ranter of the 19th century.  White turns out to be an even more interesting character than I'd imagined.

I came across RGW in the "Brief History of English Usage" essay at the beginning  of MWDEU.  From p. 9a:

    The most popular of American 19th-century commentators was Richard Grant White, whose Words and Their Uses, 1870, was... compiled from previously published articles.  [The book went through dozens of editions.]  He did not deign to mention earlier commentators except to take a solitary whack at Dean Alford for his sneer at American English.  His chapters on "misused words" and "words that are not words" hit on many of the same targets as [Edward S.] Gould's chapters on "misused words" and "spurious words," but White's chapters are longer.  Perhaps his most entertaining sections deal with his denial that English has a grammar, which is introduced by a Dickensian account of having been rapped over the knuckles at the age of five and a half for not understanding his grammar lesson.  White, who was not without intellectual attainments--he had edited Shakespeare--was nevertheless given to frequent faulty etymologizing, and for some reason he was so upset by the progressive passive is being built that he devoted a whole chapter to excoriating it.

To my mind, RGW's chapter on the progressive passive is definitely the high point of the book. Delicious stuff.  I do a little performance about it for my sophomore seminars on prescriptivism.

(I am indebted to Elizabeth Daingerfield Zwicky for finding a copy of Words and Their Uses for me a few years ago.)

RGW was not only a Shakespearean scholar and a loose cannon on the grammar front, but also clearly a man of culture.  He was a cellist, and founded a string quartet (named after him) that survived into the 1930s.

In addition, he was the father of Stanford White, who is famous for being the great architect of the Gilded Age in America and for having been shot dead in 1906, on the roof garden of Madison Square Garden (which White designed), by Harry Thaw, whose wife, Evelyn Nesbit Thaw, White had been having an affair with.  (See Ragtime for a fictionalized version of some of this story.)

RGW came back to my attention last week when I finally laid hands on a copy of J. Lesslie Hall's English Usage (1917) -- more on Hall and his book in a later posting -- and discovered that Hall spends a lot of space critiquing RGW, not at all kindly; one of Hall's longer sections is on the progressive passive, in fact.

In any case, RGW deserves a book.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 22, 2006 06:02 PM