Tuesday, September 27, 2016

On Grammar

One might think that English grammar, even more than its lexicon, would be something that would have long been intrinsically understood, and little in need of explication or improvement. And yet, the services of a dictionary having proven valuable, that of a printed grammar seemed a logical step -- after all, Latin Grammars were vital school textbooks, and the idea that English should be more like Latin, or at least described in Latin terms, caught on widely. We owe most of our grammatical terminology -- adjective (from adiectus, "to annex a territory"), to preposition (from præ-positiones, to place before), to conjunction (coniunction, to link together) -- to this idea.

Many different authors, mostly schoolmasters writing books for their own students's use, tried their hand at it, but two in particular proved to have long-lasting influence. Robert Lowth, who enjoyed a sinecure as Bishop of Oxford, was perhaps the most notable. Among his many contributions was the notion -- by false analogy -- that a "double negative" was an error because, in mathematics, two negatives equalled a positive. Math, alas, is not grammar, but the idea stuck and double negation is almost universally regarded as an error, never mind its long history (Chaucer, among others, even enjoyed double and even triple negation wihout any doubt as to its import). He also originated the idea that a sentence should not end with a preposition (since its name indicates that it must "come before" something else) -- which, although a reasonable guideline for written texts, is common and perfectly sensible in everyday speech.

Lowth is also often blamed (though in fact it came much later) for the "rule" that to place an adverb between "to" and the main verb (as in "to boldly go") was to "split the infinitive" -- again, on the mistaken analogy with Latin. Latin, like most ancient languages, has an infinitive (or non-finite) form that is actually a distinct one for every verb -- e.g. amare, "to love" -- so it would never be "split"; although Engish uses the preposition "to" to indicate a non-finite verb, the "to" is not actually part of the verb. In the example above, the non-finite form of the verb is in fact just "go" (which in English, confusingly, is identical to the first and second person present indicative form). George Bernard Shaw, among others, has minced few words in decrying this foolish supposed "rule."

Lowth's successor, Lindley Murray, was actually an American ex-pat, born in the woods of Pennsylvania, who moved to York at the age of 39 and spent the rest of his life in England. He kept most of Lowth's prescriptive rules, though his method of instruction was somewhat gentler, and adapted -- as the title-page puts it -- "for the different classes of readers." Among his innovations was a rule that one could not apply "more" to an adjective already in the superlative form (e.g. "more worst") -- and yet he extended this to adjectives which he regarded as "innately superlative" (chief, unique, extreme, etc.), so the would be no "more perfect union" for him!

Like dictionary-writers, grammarians saw themselves as arbiters, refiners, and polishers of the language -- the more so since, as their books were used for actual instruction on a daily basis -- and in that they surely succeeded. And yet, at the same time, they have given all of us a vague sene of guilt about the possible errors of our usage, and the sense -- entirely unjustified! -- that "bad grammar" is almost a sort of sin.

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