View Full Version : A brief treatise on the English language

04-01-2016, 08:32 PM
Hi, folks --

This was started on LLapp's thread, "Classic Comments on the Quotes." Halfway through, I realized it was turning into a lengthy digression and perhaps merited a thread of its own. Perhaps not, but here goes.

"I am the Roman Emperor, and am above grammar."
Emperor Sigismund

abra on 2015-05-29 10:03:27
I was thinking about this just yesterday. Many of you know so much about grammar. It's something that changes with time though. I was wondering, when did things become really "rigid'?' At what point were the rules of grammar and punctuation set in stone. I'm guessing probably the early twentieth century, was it earlier than that? I'm curious. I can't find it by googling.

LLapp on 2015-09-04 15:25:10
abra, that's an interesting question; it could be the opening question of a semester-long seminar. I don't know the answer, but here I go anyway.

First: no grammar is unchangeable, so "rigid" and "set in stone" may not be the right terms, but I think you're referring to the fundamental rules of syntax -- you're asking, when did they become "rules"? Of course the answer would be different for every language (since all have developed in varying eras on their own schedules). If you mean English, then I would look to the times when the first lexicographers began to document English in dictionaries -- because syntax was part of what they were documenting -- and I would allow for continual evolution and plasticity of syntax running through to the present day. (Also, you'd have to specify "proper English" for your question, since regional and class dialects have all kinds of fast-changing rules.) For myself, as a writer, my sense of "correct" English grammar goes into lock-down mode after Fowler's "Modern English Usage," published in 1926. I think he nails correct syntax on every point: his logic is exquisite, he respects linguistic roots but holds clarity and elegance above all, and he is a champion of the remarkable elasticity that gives English its greatest strength. I should probably sell his book.

Now, part two of my response is that I recall vaguely from college intro classes that 20th-century philosophy and psychology together attribute the fundamental syntax of ALL languages to an inborn logic in the human mind. Which would mean that another answer to your question is that the rules of syntax were established at the moment of conception of the language -- that syntax is the original DNA from which the language is built. And if you read this far, I'll buy a beer.

marnita on 2015-11-21 13:50:54
I would claim that beer, LLapp, except that I don't like beer. Very interesting discussion.

04-01-2016, 08:48 PM
OH MY GOD, DID I WRITE THAT? I must have been avoiding a deadline.

And that last sentence should have been, "If you read this far, I'll buy *you* a beer."

Marnita - Actually, I don't like beer either. Let's get a cup of tea instead.

04-01-2016, 08:48 PM
Is that beer still chilling, seven months later? I'll take Blue Moon, Sam Adams, or Heineken.

Closed out the Comments page on this quote -- accidentally -- so my two cents remains right here. I will check out Fowler's "Dictionary of Modern English Usage," which has been revised a few times since 1926. Do you have the original publication, Ms. Lapp? My local library system does not. How about 2nd edition, revised by Sir Ernest Gowers, published in 1983 by Oxford University Press and reprinted with corrections? As a purist, I won't touch the "New Fowler's," published in 2000, even granting large changes in the vernacular since 1926. My interest is historical as well as prescriptive, and that includes hearing the author's original voice.

Then I might dig out Strunk and White.

My own suggestion would be "Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen," by Mary Norris, 30-plus year veteran copy editor at the New Yorker magazine. Her book combines reflections on usage with autobiography and biography, e.g., Noah Webster, who published the popular "Blue-Back Speller" and invented American English -- thus ensuring that the United States and Great Britain would ever remain two countries divided by a common language.


Finally, you referred to Noam Chomsky's theory of Universal Grammar, an ability that is hard-wired into the brain. This seems obvious now, but at the time he introduced it, B.F. Skinner was arguing that language learning is essentially stimulus and response, with the human mind a tabula rasa or blank slate. Chomsky insisted otherwise.

I don't begin to understand the specifics, but despite huge differences among the world's languages, there is in every normal child a "Language Instinct" (Steven Pinker). Just expose that child to spoken language at the right age, and he or she will learn to speak automatically, using the correct rules. So there must be properties shared by all natural human languages, an innate grammar built into the brain, encoded by our genes, incorporated into all true languages or dialects.

Hmm. Did I earn that beer yet? If anyone else is still reading, my turn to buy.


04-01-2016, 09:02 PM
OH MY GOD, DID I WRITE THAT? I must have been avoiding a deadline.

No worries. If you were avoiding a deadline, I must be doing the same.

(And it's called bedtime.)

As you see, I upped the Geek quotient radically with my reply. So I'll see your undergrad seminar and raise you one term paper with end notes.

I'm guessing this thread will be ignored and move down the slush pile to oblivion.

Now, to all a Good Night.


04-01-2016, 09:19 PM
Off the point, but one thing I am SO happy to have learned from the grammarians here, especially LLapp, is that ending a sentence with a preposition, is not taboo. I hated this rule, because it makes you jump through hoops, and end up with a sentence that sounds contrived, and usually awkward and stilted.

Also, you will catch me beginning sentences with "and" and "but" occasionally. Sometimes I just don't see a good way around it.

I guess I'm just trying to keep the English language evolving. I'm not sure what this has to do with anything, but ;) , I felt like saying it. Carry on.

04-01-2016, 09:29 PM
No wait, before we sink into the slush pile....

For Fowler's Modern English Usage, I recommend the second edition -- which would mean any of the many reprints revised and edited by Sir Ernest Gowers. The one I have is dated 1965. I think he kept updating it in subsequent reprints but in all of them stayed faithful, for the most part, to Fowler's original text. Yes, stay away from the third edition; it is a full rewrite, and an inferior and needless one at that, and so it should not even be using the same title; "Fowler's" is not a franchise, for heaven's sake.

I will check out Mary Norris's book. I had a childhood neighbor/friend/classmate who grew up in a theater family and somehow wound up at that same copy desk with Mary Norris, where she has worked for many years now. Your recommendation reminds me that maybe I should go to our upcoming class reunion after all, if only so I can talk with my old friend and ask her how she wound up with my dream job. I mean, all my memories of her involved Broadway show tunes -- I remember her belting "Sam, You Made the Pants Too Long" at age 9 for the school talent show -- and not anything involving English syntax.

04-01-2016, 09:32 PM
Abra!! That makes me so happy that you are freed from the preposition-at-end myth! Yay!!!

04-01-2016, 10:00 PM
I have nothing of importance to add to this conversation except that I happen to have a very large book titled "Webster's Encyclopedic Dictionary"
of the
English Language

by Noah Webster, LL.D
Greatly Enlarged and Thoroughly Revised to 1891

It's a wealth of information on grammar and usage, plus so much more information.

It was one of my mother's treasures, but I have no family members who are even interested in it. I would be so happy if one of you would want it just for the shipping charge! I would so love for it to go to someone who could appreciate it. It's fragile, but very much intact.
Sorry to interrupt your amazing thread.

04-01-2016, 10:22 PM
Beth, I would love to have that book on my shelf for reference and rainy-day perusing! I just googled the full title and I see the only place it lives anymore is in the special-request stacks of university libraries.

Please message me if you want to make arrangements. I would be honored to honor your mom's treasure.

Very cool. Worthy of an emoticon, even.


04-02-2016, 07:56 AM

Where's the emoticon?

I woke up thinking I never should have started this thread -- and never would have earlier in the day. Something about the midnight hour (where's that witch on her broomstick?).

But, look, people are talking, laughing, sharing... how cool is that? A discussion thread resembles a virtual party, and thanks for coming on over, folks!

Sorry to interrupt your amazing thread.

Nuts to that, Beth. The thread is banal, and my naive speculations would be ripped to shreds elsewhere -- on YouTube, for example. :rolleyes:

But you own a treasure worthy of Antiques Roadshow, the 1891 edition of "Webster's Dictionary," is that right? If Ms. Lapp hadn't already claimed it, I would. Your family, the younger generation, probably think of books as totally outdated, like recordings on vinyl LPs or -- does anyone remember this -- 78 rpm albums on shellac disks. They weigh a ton, cannot be updated without reprinting, not interactive...

Full disclosure, I've used nothing but online dictionaries for ten years now.

Oh, well!

04-02-2016, 08:33 AM
Off the point, but one thing I am SO happy to have learned from the grammarians here, especially LLapp, is that ending a sentence with a preposition, is not taboo. I hated this rule, because it makes you jump through hoops, and end up with a sentence that sounds contrived, and usually awkward and stilted.

This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.
Winston Churchill -- ??

The attribution is apocryphal but appropriate. Several versions exist -- I like this one.

My father loved this quotation. That particular rule, no preposition to end a sentence, was imported by the pretentious from Latin -- which is, incidentally, a dead language. So here's what I say.

Tell him his [rules] stink, and kick him down the stairs.

Does anyone know the movie from which I stole this, original quote, and the play on which it was based? Several movies, I guess, but the one most remembered starred Cary Grant with Rosalind Russell, directed by Howard Hawks. Original movie, 1931 (I would love to see it). Broadway play, co-authored by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur in 1928, retains its relevance nearly 90 years later. It should be revived.

But as a lifelong Chicagan, I may be biased about that. Another favorite of my late father, who trained in journalism but abandoned that field for advertising.

04-02-2016, 08:45 AM
Also, you will catch me beginning sentences with "and" and "but" occasionally. Sometimes I just don't see a good way around it.

Look at the last two posts, Abra. Without thinking, I started three short paragraphs using the word "but."

Conversational style, aided and abetted by the transcription I've done for several years now. People don't talk the way we are expected to write. Heck, people don't write the way we think they should.

04-02-2016, 08:46 AM
i've never seen as many comments about the "evils" of prepositions ending sentences as i have here on the crypto site comments sections! for some reason, it was never a big deal during my schooling in the '50s and '60s, and i've never tried to avoid it.

abra, besides ending sentences with prepositions, i also sometimes start sentences with conjunctions--especially in crypto sites like chat, comments, and forum. i feel that these are loose, informal sites and we certainly should neither judge each other (in print, anyway--ha!) nor correct another's grammar. we're usually in a hurry and should be 'forgiven' a lot, except for bigotry and bad manners.

and munchlet, i have some of those 78s!

04-02-2016, 11:56 AM
Munchlet - I'll play. The movie you're quoting is His Girl Friday (1940), the second and best-known film version of Hecht and MacArthur's 1928 Broadway play The Front Page. The other two versions (1931 & 1974) used the play's original title and original genders, without any reporter-editor romantic connection.

That classic Howard Hawks fast-talking-woman movie is a favorite that I've not seen in a long time -- I'm due for a re-watch. Feel free to go solve some puzzles while I ramble on.

The 1940 version turns the original leading character, Hildy -- a male ace reporter leaving journalism to get married and go into (ugh) advertising -- into Rosalind Russell (still Hildy), a female ace reporter leaving journalism to marry an insurance salesman and go into (ugh) homemaking. In this version, Hildy is also the ex-wife of news editor Cary Grant, who is determined to keep her near him and in the career she loves, and he uses the news scoop of the decade to keep her from leaving. (Come to think of it, the Grant-Russell relationship here is very much like the one between Cary Grant and Kate Hepburn in George Cukor's Philadelphia Story -- also 1940.)

And I just now learned from Wikipedia that Hecht and MacArthur wrote the 1928 play based on their own experience as news reporters in Chicago in the 1920s! Another vote for "Write what you know."

I haven't seen the 1931 version, but I see on IMDB that the wonderful Edward Everett Horton -- narrator from Rocky & Bullwinkle -- plays one of the reporters. I did see the 1974 version when it came out, because it should have been great -- directed by Billy Wilder, starring Matthau and Lemmon so how could they lose? -- but somehow it was not memorable.....except for Austin Pendleton's lovely work as the convict and Carol Burnett's over-the-top cameo as the prostitute in love.

Well gosh, that was fun . . . for me, anyway. When it comes to movies I have no restraint and will ramble forever.

04-03-2016, 07:37 AM
I recollect, but could easily be wrong, that English grammar rules were based on Latin, which isn't surprising, given that the people who wrote the earliest English grammar books all knew Latin, and they'd learned Latin grammar before they paid attention to English grammar. So we aren't supposed to split an infinitive, because in Latin the marker that signifies 'this is an infinitive' is an unsplittable couple of syllables at the end of a word (e.g. ambulare) rather than two separate words (e.g. to walk). I expect that's where the prohibition against ending sentences with prepositions comes from also, since Latin prose as I recall doesn't separate the preposition from the words that depend on it. Of course the problem is that English is not Latin.

People are less worried about infinitive-splitting, I think, than they used to be -- I'm pretty sure I see it in the NY Times.

As for prepositions at the ends of sentences, I wouldn't discard the old-fashioned rule especially if it makes the sentence easier to understand For example: 'The hot dog vendor who I got the bratwurst from that I raved to you about lost his license.' I would change that to 'The hot dog vendor from whom I got the bratwurst that I raved to you about lost his license.' I'm keeping 'from whom I got the bratwurst' together because I want to make sure that 'from' doesn't get attached to 'bratwurst,' but I don't care so much about changing 'that I raved to you about' because I'm thinking that 'rave about' is a verb phrase and the 'about' should stick closer to 'rave' than to the bratwurst. So the upshot of it is that considering a rule as a guideline gives you more liberty to adjust your style depending on the context which is always good (like having skirts of different hem lengths for different occasions).
Chomsky and generative grammar -- I took a linguistics class in college with a professor who was friends with Chomsky, and he came to class one day and explained deep structure and surface structure to us. I didn't know the phrase 'paradigm shift' but I could tell these two middle-aged guys in the front of the room were in the middle of making one, and it was great to watch.

04-03-2016, 11:55 AM
Roxanne, I love the bratwurst example. Yes, to what you said -- "The problem is that English is not Latin." One thing I love about Fowler's approach is that he sees English for the beautiful amalgamation that it is and celebrates the strength it takes from its many roots.

What a great moment you experienced with your professor and his friend Noam Chomsky talking to your class about deep structure. In my related, post-paradigm-shift college memory, we had a chimpanzee in the psych lab who was learning English, and his name was Nim Chimpsky.

04-04-2016, 03:35 PM
As a linguistics nerd, this thread makes me happy! Descriptivism, not prescriptivism!