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We’re important, so we’re English experts. You’re not.

An original article written by Roger Hartopp, 7 January 2019

Warmer: Is English an easy language to learn, study and understand? What are some of the problems that you have experienced with the English language? Are you ever told one thing or rule about English grammar or vocabulary, and are later told something different about the same rule by somebody else?

Now read the text below and answer the questions that follow.

Every time I ask Google to find my Typical Errors in English website, the list begins with sites of smarmily arrogant self-importance claiming common grammar mistakes can be avoided if you read what they have to say. And some of them are not very good. For example, at oxford-royale.co.uk, they claim that “Whom should I invite? Invite him” is correct. Sorry, but everyone I know says who; I’ve never met anyone who actually says whom unless they’re being pompous. And in authority.pub/common-grammar-mistakes, as regards split infinitives, the site says: ‘There are no grammar rules that prohibit split infinitives, but many experts disapprove of them.’ It then proceeds to tell us we shouldn’t use them. This is one of the oldest and stupidest misconceptions of English that I know.

Now I have to admit that, until fairly recently, I was a bit of a grammar pedant. There are a few elements in my book Typical Errors in English (2014) that embarrass me as parts do come across as overly prescriptive, a fact pointed out to me by a highly respected language research scientist. But rather than be disappointed, I found myself actively encouraged by his comments and so began some considerable research on the matter. And as a result, I’ve discovered there are two schools of thought on the topic: Those self-important individuals who firmly believe that the English language is seriously under threat, and linguists who say it’s in excellent health. I tend to go for the latter argument, and to understand why, we need to look at the history of all this to further explain.

First of all, the English language is constantly developing, a point often missed by grammar pedants. While understandable, even the early days of modern English had constructions very different to what we use today – check out Shakespeare’s manuscripts for proof of that. There was no standard as to how English should be expressed nationally. Spelling and grammar varied widely. Certainly among the well-educated, Greek and Latin were still considered as 'superior' languages.

But then the printing press arrived. When William Caxton set up his own press in 1476, he had to settle on some form of standard that could be understood by everyone, so he chose East Midlands English, which eventually evolved into modern English. Later influences included the Renaissance, which saw a rapid increase in the fields of learning and writing, and Henry VIII’s breakaway from the Catholic Church, with Latin texts and the Bible being translated into modern English.

For a long time it was still deemed strange to be taught your own language (why learn something you already knew?), and Greek and Latin were still considered more important in education. Most of the early 16th and 17th century English language grammar books had their roots and rules based on the latter, and were particularly aimed at helping foreigners or to assist in learning the classic languages. But it wasn’t until around the 18th century that native English speakers took a real interest in their mother tongue and make the language a topic of serious study; it now needed the necessary literature to offer guidance on the subject. 

England and Britain’s influence around the world was expanding, and the powers of the ruling middle classes were increasing. Some chose to place themselves in the position of providing the answers to grammar usage as nothing had been written down in the past to establish the rules. Unfortunately everybody had their own ideas of getting their messages across; even the best writers were unsure what should be used. But many so-called grammarians thought they knew – or rather, decided they knew what was right, and what was wrong. They often imposed a standard that rarely reflected the way most people spoke. And if they didn’t know, they invented their own rules.

The first was that English had to conform to Latin grammar, even though the two languages were completely separate, and nobody really used it conversationally. Latin was still regarded as a ‘perfect language’, even though it was declining considerably as a language of scholarship.

 

Shortly after Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was published in 1755, Joseph Preistley’s The Rudiments of English Grammar (1761) showed the importance of recognising general usage as an authority of grammar. Although popular, it’s a pity no-one paid attention because Robert Lowth’s approach in his Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) was to show the rules by using examples; fair enough, except he chose literary examples he considered to be wrong. He was a man who ‘knew it all’, and so his rules became the basis of several editions. He prescribed.

Robert Baker’s Reflections on the English Language (1770) hadn’t even listened or read anybody, and he seemed really happy about it. He just ‘knew’ the rules. Unfortunately, like Lowth’s, it was quite a successful book, and its ‘rules’ were closely followed by other grammar writers, with many of its prescriptions still lingering today. It was in this period that these ‘grammar experts’ were seen as revered even though they didn’t always agree, often driven by what they preferred. In their minds, their rules and rationality were needed or chaos would ensue. It would be an attitude that would still persist today.

Perhaps the wisest to pass judgement was Noah Webster. He may have been a curse to British English grammarians for his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) as he rationalised spellings to conform more to the spoken language, but he was deeply critical of the approaches of prescriptivists like Lowth and their insistence on a grammar that followed Latin rules, ‘…rejecting many phrases of pure English, and substituted those which are neither English nor sense’.

One 20th century grammarian who is often cited as being the most influential prescriptivist in the UK (as it turns out, unfairly), was H.W. Fowler. What made him different to others of his kind was the fact he had a sense of humour. Although in his books The King’s English (1906) - and 20 years later, A Dictionary of Modern English - he would cite rules that were clearly accepted conventions and would also apply his own ideas. And, like Lowth, he found problems with established authors. Often his comments were thoughtful, but this didn’t stop him being described as ‘a stickler for language’.

If Fowler was regarded the ultimate in the UK, then William Strunk and E.B. White of Charlotte’s Web fame were so for the US. But The Elements of Style (1918) has been highly criticised by modern day linguists such as Geoffrey Pullum and David Crystal for being ‘grammatically incompetent’.

Then there are two modern-day examples of highly-prescriptive guides whose ideas about the language still seem firmly fixed to the 18th century. One is a journalist, Simon Heffer, who has produced two best-selling books on the subject including Strictly English: the Correct Way to Write and Why it Matters (2010), and has essentially said that he is not interested in evidence of common usage but only as to how he sees and writes the language. He is right and we are wrong. End of.

Perhaps even worse than Heffer is Nevile Martin Gwynne, another individual who seems unable to accept that languages evolve. He gained recognition – and criticism – for Gwynne's Grammar (2013), a book filled with the same 18th century prescriptions. Oliver Kamm, a Times journalist and author of Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage (2015) described it as ‘a work of titanic silliness’. Geoffrey Pullum called Gwynne a ‘preposterous old fraud’ with a ‘lack of any grasp of the subject’. But tellingly, the Daily Mail’s Mark Dooley wrote: ‘Gwynne’s Grammar is much more than an excellent introduction to the writing of good English. It is nothing less than a guide to the good life’. This last quote is perhaps indicative of those in his profession, with media commentary taking the line that formal grammar is in decline, and children can’t spell or speak or write properly.

Most interestingly, if you check on Amazon’s public reviews for the books by Heffer and Gwynne, Gwynne’s book gets a 55% five-star rating; Heffer’s books 61% and 58%.

So draw whatever conclusions you want from that.

  1. What did the writer find first when he searched for his own website on Google?

  2. Is the writer a grammar pedant?

  3. How did he feel when his book was criticised as being ‘overly prescriptive’?

  4. According to the author, what point is being missed by grammar pedants as regards the English language?

  5. What was the event that, historically, provided some kind of settled standard in the English language?

  6. Why was it regarded as strange to be taught English during the 14th/15th centuries?

  7. Why was studying Greek and Latin considered to be more important?

  8. What early ‘rule’ was generally accepted about English grammar even though English was a separate language?

  9. What was wrong with Robert Lowth’s approach to explaining grammar?

  10. According to the writer, which two modern-day authors have issued highly prescriptive grammar guides? Who was referred to as ‘a preposterous old fraud’?

  11. Do the author’s conclusions appear to be optimistic or pessimistic about English grammar today? Would this explain the title of the text?

WORDWISE*

smarmily arrogant self-importance – unpleasantly polite and flattering, proud because of a belief that they are more important than others and are right in what they say, even if they are not

to be pompous – to behave or speak in a very serious way because the person thinks they are more important than they really are

split infinitive – when another word, usually an adverb, is added between 'to' and the verb, for example: to eagerly wait, to vastly increase. The infinitive forms 'to wait' and 'to increase' have been split by the adverbs 'eagerly' and 'vastly', and so we get the split infinitive

misconception – an idea that is not correct

grammar pedant – someone who is far too concerned about grammar and vocabulary details, especially with what they believe are 'the rules' of the English language and not accept any argument otherwise

to be prescriptive – here, to tell people what they should do with the English language, rather than simply giving suggestions or describing what is done. A person who does this is a prescriptivist

school of thought – a set of ideas or opinions which a group of people share about a subject but is not necessarily accepted

linguist – here, a person who studies the English language – its history, its evolution, and its usages

Renaissance – a period in Europe in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries, when there was a new interest in art, literature, science, and learning

to deem – here, viewed, or judged, or assessed as being or having a particular quality

to conform to – here, to be of the required type or quality that is expected, particularly of Latin

to linger – to exist for a long time, often much longer than expected

to revere – to respect and admire someone a lot

to persist – to continue to exist for a long time, often much longer than expected

to cite – to quote or mention something, especially as an example or proof of what the person is saying

stickler for language – someone who always demands or requires, in their opinion, good English, even if they may be wrong

grammatically incompetent – to criticize someone because they do not do their job properly, or do a very bad job, of explaining grammar properly

preposterous old fraud – someone who should be wise for their age but is extremely unreasonable and foolish because they benefit from telling lies

tellingly – here, an adverb that means to show the true nature of a person’s opinion

indicative of – adjective phrase that suggests what the other thing is likely to be

in decline – here, something that becomes less in quantity, importance, or quality

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