March 08, 2006

A Hearty Second for Richard Grant White

Over the years I've collected a number of antique grammars of English. I say this guardedly, because all grammars of English appear to be antique these days, with the notable exception, of course, of Huddleston and Pullum's Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (note: we newly hired should always flatter the corporate high mucky-mucks).  These ancient books offer fascinating reflections of the thoughts and biases of self-proclaimed experts. But they make fascinating reading, as Arnold Zwicky reminds us in his recent Language Log post. (See here.)

Apparently he and I share a deep appreciation for Richard Grant White's 1870 book, Words and Their Uses.  In his post, Arnold referred us to White's chapter on the present progressive, which is only one of the delightfully modern rants in the book. What's really cool, though, is to read how White rails against the same sort of language advice that we see in the current popular press. To whet your appetite to read White, if you haven't already, here are a few samples:

  • From the Preface:
    "It is from the man who knows just enough to be anxious to square his sentences by the line and plummet of grammar and dictionary that his mother tongue suffers most grievous injury."
  • From Chapter IX, Grammar English and Latin, page 258:
    "When, at last, it dawned on the pedagogues that English was a language ... and they set themselves to giving rules for the art of writing and speaking correctly, they attempted to form these rules upon the models furnished by the Latin language. And what wonder? — for those were the only rules they knew. From this heterogeneous union sprang that hybrid monster known as English grammar, before whose fruitless loins we have sacrificed, for nearly three hundred years, our children and the strangers within our gates."
  • From Chapter X, The Grammarless Tongue, page 274:
    "But the truth of this matter is, that in the rules given in the books called English Grammars, some are absurd, and the most are superfluous."
  • (Commenting on the Greek language),  p.277:
    "Its complication, so far from being an element of its power, is a sign of rudeness, and a remnant of barbarism; that the Greek and Latin authors were great, not by reason of the verbal forms and the grammatical structure of their languages, but in spite of them. Our mother tongue, in freeing itself from these, has only cast aside the trammels of strength and disguises of beauty."

As Arnold says, the book is a delicious read and it does indeed suggest that  a new  book should be written about his work. As an antique myself, I second this idea.

Posted by Roger Shuy at March 8, 2006 10:51 AM