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munchlet 04-01-2016 08:32 PM

A brief treatise on the English language
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.

LLapp 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.

munchlet 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.


munchlet 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.


abra 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.

LLapp 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.

LLapp 04-01-2016 09:32 PM

Abra!! That makes me so happy that you are freed from the preposition-at-end myth! Yay!!!

gryhnd51 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.

LLapp 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.


munchlet 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!

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