July 03, 2007

Date that quote

An exercise for the reader: date this quotation, on the basis of its content or form or both:

The present tendency in the teaching of English composition is all for power, for originality, for evidence of intellectual promise and capacity, for striking and vivid expression, -- in a word, for personality.

... There is a gap in the transition from school to college, and the reminders of grammar and good form are too often dismissed in the effort to obtain vigor and freshness of thought.

The general sentiment is a familiar one: critics complain that the teaching of writing has gone to hell in a handbasket because teachers emphasize creativity and the development of an individual "voice", meanwhile slighting grammar and mechanics.  These days, such unfortunate trends are usually attributed to permissiveness (dating back to the '60s), the abandonment of traditional grammar (linguists are often identified as the villains here), and a decline in respect for authority.

But in the quotation above, the blame is laid specifically on college teachers.  The passage assumes that grammar and good form are taught in the schools, but abandoned in college.  Nobody would assume that today, when the critiques are of teaching at all levels.

So we're probably looking at a passage from some time ago, a conclusion supported by aspects of its form ("is all for", "too often dismissed", "obtain").

And so it is: it's from the preface to Manual of Good English by H. N. McCracken and Helen E. Sandison (then the president of Vassar College and an instructor in English there, respectively), published by Macmillan in 1917.  The book was apparently a best-seller in the '20s.

Some things remain the same, some change.  The "Words" section covers different from/than, fewer/less, oral/verbal, individual for person, unique 'rare, odd', "overworked" very, and many other familiar points of usage.  On the other hand, McCracken and Sandison label as "colloquial" -- sometimes acceptably so, sometimes not -- many usages that wouldn't raise an editorial eyebrow these days, for instance the noun raise (in salary) for increase and the verb run (a business) for conduct or manage.  And of course they don't discuss points that have become usage shibboleths since their day: notably, speaker-oriented hopefully and restrictive relativizer which vs. that.  (M&S don't use hopefully, which didn't become common for decades after their manual, but they do use plenty of restrictive which, beginning on p. xix, which has three occurrences.)

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 3, 2007 12:03 PM