September 09, 2006

18th-Century Grammarians vs. Shakespeare et al.

I got back early this week from a conference on World Englishes at the Mekrijärvi Research Station of the University of Joensuu, Finland, just 30 km. from the Russian border. As with most conferences, the papers ranged from terrific to uninspiring. One of the best talks was Terttu Nevalainen's, on "Default Singulars with Existentials in the Normative Eighteenth Century" -- specifically, on the use of singular there is and there was with plural noun phrases, as in there has been great Benefits (from ca. 1755). Faithful readers of Language Log will be intrigued by one particular comment Prof. Nevalainen made during her presentation. She said that, in a 1991 survey of 200 18th-century prescriptive grammarians' works, the following authors and works were most commonly cited as sources of errors (not quite in this order): the New Testament, Shakespeare, the Old Testament, Pope, Dryden, Swift, Addison, and The Spectator. (Prof. Nevalainen's source was Bertil Sundby, Anne Kari Bjørk, and Kari E. Haugland, A Dictionary of English Normative Grammar, London: Longman.) So now we know, those of us who might have had doubts about it: the horrors of non-agreement denounced by the 18th-century grammarians was perpetrated by some of the greatest writers in the history of the English language. If we adopt an all-too-common mode of reasoning, we can conclude that if we does the same, we too can achieve the status of Great Writer of English. As someone else cited by Prof. Nevalainen wrote in 1800, there is some small hopes of that.

For a typical Language Log take on the closely-related issue of plural pronouns with singular antecedents, see Geoff Pullum's Shakespeare Used They with Singular Antecedents So There.

Posted by Sally Thomason at September 9, 2006 10:55 PM