The Heyday of English grammar books? 2022 certainly ain’t it. Our grammars hide in word-processing software. Living grammarians and usage experts are famous only to those – no doubt a minority of those – who toil in the word trade. To that small number, Bryan Garner’s name should ring familiar. One of the most prolific authors on “standard” English, he is perhaps best known for Garner’s Modern English Usagewhich pulls together facts and opinions on everything from whether “an” should precede “historical” (“avoid pretense and use” a”) to whether “zonal” or “zonary” is the adjective form of “zone” (unless you’re an obstetrician, “zonal”). His urge to collect English extends to English grammar books, of which he owns nearly 2,000. Taming the Tongue documents an exhibition of that collection which ran last year at the Grolier Club, Manhattan’s bibliophile society. New York was under a state of emergency, and few (not even Garner) could make the journey to the exhibition. But this wryly written and richly illustrated catalog is a trip in itself.
The book presents about a hundred items – photographed and explicated – from Garner’s collection, starting in 1711. At that time Joseph Addison and Jonathan Swift were promoting the foundation of an English-language academy that would fix the boundaries of “good English” for evermore . They failed to institutionalize English, so the language remained a free-market commodity. Grammatical competition thrived, with more than 200 British and American grammarians shouting over each other and selling tens of millions of books in the 140 years Garner covers.
The first item in the collection is a pair of Latin grammars, a reminder that English had only recently overtaken Latin and French as the language most used in written documentation. The other ninety-nine tell the story of the burgeoning demand for expertise in English. Each entry brings out the accomplishments, quirks and failures of its grammar – or, more often, those of its author. When they are not discovering oxygen (Joseph Priestley) or exhuming Thomas Paine’s bones (William Cobbett), they might well be going to prison for one treason or another (John Horne Tooke). Garner is an excellent gossip, spelling out grammarians’ legal and financial woes, their rows with each other and their interconnections with the literary and political greats of their time. One author (Edward Smith, 1796–1874) was “a nasty, litigious, chauvinistic, delusional and reckless hypocrite”. Another (Joab Brace Jr, 1814–45) peddled “mere fakery”. The relationships between creativity, plagiarism and bluster criss-cross the collection.
The book’s most deliberate theme is the question of how many parts of speech English has. The “canonical eight” currently taught on the English National Curriculum first appear in the collection with Priestley’s Rudiments of English Grammar in 1761. The matter is hardly settled then. Garner’s grammars divide English into as few as two parts of speech (if you’re willing to consider “if” a verb) and as many as thirty-three. Even where the numbers are similar, the combinations differ. By 1801, fifty-eight distinct inventories of parts of speech had been offered. Many of today’s linguists consider the question unanswerable, but never uninteresting.
An emerging theme is women’s place in language and society – starting with item three: Elizabeth Elstob’s The Rudiments of Grammar for the English-Saxon Tongue (1715). Elstob was raised by an uncle “hostile to women’s learning”, but she had a brother at Oxford who gave her access to the Anglo-Saxon studies of the day. Hers was the first grammar of Old English. In it, she fervently criticized Swift and men like him who idolized Romance languages and disparaged English’s Saxon past, and marvelled at “how a Man can judge of a thing he knowseth nothing of”.
Grammar was generally a seemly subject for young women to study. They needed it to speak well and to raise clever children. Mary Wollstonecraft’s friend Jane Arden Gardiner used French as the model language in her Ladies’ English Grammar (1799), rather than the usual Latin, because Classics was a male realm: girls were taught modern languages. Grammars kept women in their place. While earlier grammars use singular “they” without comment, Ann Fisher, around 1750, decreed that the masculine subsumed the feminine, a “rule” that has only just run its course.
Garner’s collection reflects the transatlantic traffic of books and grammarians, and the shift from American satisfaction with British grammars to Noah Webster’s declarations of linguistic independence. Webster appears several times in the collection, as does the Pennsylvania-born Lindley Murray, whose English Grammar (1795) was an international bestseller for decades. The most surprising item in Garner’s newly collection (missing from any biography of those involved) is discovered paperwork linking the two men: articles of agreement for the sale of a property in Manhattan owned by Murray. Webster bought the shopfront for his Federalist newspaper, The Minerva. Murray had by then moved to England, so his brother John handled the sale. Garner enjoys imagining that Lindley got wind of the fact that his buyer was writing a grammar and that it inspired him to try writing one himself. Given that Murray’s grammar was published within the year, I find this story difficult to swallow, but it’s entertaining nonetheless. Webster later accused Murray of plagiarism – but that was a discourtesy Webster extended to any credible competitor. Lindley wisely urged his brother John to ignore the accusations: “It is better to avoid entirely any controversy with the man.”
The exhibition is the heart of the book, but prefaces, postscripts, expert commentaries and appendices account for about a third of its pages. These are of varied interest and insight. The appendices present curiosities that did not make it into the main exhibition, including amusing illustrations of grammatical categories. In The Illustrated English Grammar, or Lindley Murray, Simplified, an anonymous author demonstrates verb forms through progressive states of inebriation (“IMPERATIVE Let me indulge – FUTURE I will indulge – PRESENT indulging – PERFECT having indulged”). Garner’s feelings about linguistic prescriptivism are presented in a few formats, including a Platonic dialogue between a descriptivist Socrates and a prescriptivist Aristophanes, arguing about whether grammar should be taught in schools:
ARISTOPHANES: You’d let the lowest common denominator dictate the future of the language? That’s not democratic; it’s demotic.
SOCRATES: Look. Not enough people care about your version of “good grammar.”
ARISTOPHANES: They haven’t been taught it. That’s why.
In one of the expert commentaries, Edward Finegan notes the rarity of exhibitions about grammars relative to those of dictionaries. This collection makes clear what we’ve been missing. It also gives us cause to reflect on what we’ve lost – if we’ve lost anything at all – in the demise of grammar books. What will some future exhibition of grammar-checking software be able to tell us about the early twenty -first century? Whatever it is, it will be disappointingly lacking in what we find here: captivating stories of flawed individuals seeking tidy perfection in the glorious mess that is English.
Lynn Murphy is Professor of Linguistics at the University of Sussex, and the author of The Prodigal Tongue: The love-hate relationship between British and American English2018
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