Founding Grammars: How Early America's War Over Words Shaped Today's Language
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Who decided not to split infinitives? With whom should we take issue if in fact, we wish to boldly write what no grammarian hath writ before?
In Founding Grammars, Rosemarie Ostler delves into the roots of our grammar obsession to answer these questions and many more. Standard grammar and accurate spelling are widely considered hallmarks of a good education, but their exact definitions are much more contentious - capable of inciting a full-blown grammar war at the splice of a comma, battles readily visible in the media and online in the comments of blogs and chat rooms. With an accessible and enthusiastic journalistic approach, Ostler considers these grammatical shibboleths, tracing current debates back to America's earliest days, an era when most families owned only two books - the Bible and a grammar primer. Along the way, she investigates colorful historical characters on both sides of the grammar debate in her efforts to unmask the origins of contemporary speech. Linguistic founding fathers like Noah Webster, Tory expatriate Lindley Murray, and post-Civil War literary critic Richard Grant White, all play a featured role in creating the rules we've come to use, and occasionally discard, throughout the years. Founding Grammars is for curious readers who want to know where grammar rules have come from, where they've been, and where they might go next.
situation, in Brooks Atkinson, “Webster Editor Disputes Critics; Says New Dictionary Is Sound,” New York Times, March 1, 1962. 14. Philip B. Gove, “A Letter to the Editor of The New York Times,” New York Times, November 5, 1961. 15. Philip B. Gove, “A Letter to the Editor of Life Magazine,” Life, November 17, 1961, 13. 16. Roy H. Copperud, “English as It’s Used Belongs in Dictionary,” Editor & Publisher, November 25, 1961, 44. 17. “Dictionary Dithers,” America, November 18, 1961, 236; “On New
student by giving him “the pleasure of feeling his own powers and progress” in language learning. He also wants to “imbue his mind with sentiments of the highest importance” by “weaving principles of piety and virtue with the study of language.”14 An abridged version of the grammar for younger students and anyone just beginning grammar study also appeared in 1797. Written mostly in short declarative sentences, with a tight organization and few footnotes, it’s a comparatively easy read.
entered a new cultural and political age—the age of Andrew Jackson. Jackson was the first “people’s president.” The six presidents before him had all come from families that were as close to being aristocrats as was possible in the United States. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were wealthy plantation owners; the Adamses were patrician New Englanders. Jackson’s election broke with this tradition. The son of working-class Irish immigrants, he had grown up in the rugged Carolina
chosen library. He sent his son to school at the unusually early age of three. Young William first attended a “dame school”—a school for small children run by a woman rather than a schoolmaster. There he started his mental training by memorizing the Westminster Assembly’s “Shorter Catechism.” He learned it so thoroughly that he could repeat the whole thing “backwards as well as forwards,” much to the delight of his teacher. She often called on him to perform this feat in front of school
uses were already becoming less common two hundred years ago. Today they are obsolete. Americans seldom use shall at all, and it’s usually in the form of a question—Shall we go? All these features, which make eighteenth-century grammar books sound arcane to modern readers, would have seemed unremarkable to grammar students of that day. They expected lesson books to be written in what Lowth calls the elevated style. That meant including thee and thou, which were no longer much used in speaking