Shapers of the Language 5: The Baddies

The linguistic insecurity in which many native speakers still find themselves can, with considerable justification, be traced to a number of eighteenth century writers and grammarians. Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) was one of our greatest satirists, yet he wrote:

I do here, in the Name of all the Learned and Polite Persons of the Nation, complain . . . that our Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions . . .

That could have been written by any of today’s harrumphers, except that they don’t usually have that kind of skill in the language. Then, as now, the language was reckoned by many to have been in a better state in the past. Thomas Sheridan (1719-1788), father of the playwright Richard Sheridan, wrote that only seventy years earlier,

during the reign of Queen Anne [1702-1714] . . . it is probable the English was . . .  spoken in its highest state of perfection.

The most influential was perhaps Robert Lowth (1710-1787), who published ‘A Short Introduction to English Grammar’ in 1794. In the Preface he tells us, like others before and after him, that the language is in a sorry state, as he explains in these extracts:

. . . whatever other improvements the English language may have received, it hath made no advances in Grammatical Accuracy.

The truth is, Grammar is very much neglected among us.

It will evidently appear from these Notes, that our best authors have committed gross mistakes , for want of a due knowledge of English Grammar, or at least of a proper attention to the rules of it.

Lowth condemned ‘forcing the English under the rules of a foreign Language’, yet he himself seems to have tried to apply to English grammar the structure of Latin, which was often thought to be a model for all other languages. The poet John Dryden (1631-1700) seems to have been the first English writer not to have liked stranded prepositions, but Lowth developed the idea, presumably because the construction wasn’t possible in classical Latin. He concedes that in fact it does happen. ‘This is an Idiom’, he says, ‘which our language is strongly inclined to’. (It isn’t clear whether or not he was aware that in writing that he was going against his own advice.) He continues that ‘it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style in writing’. However, ‘the placing of the Preposition before the Relative is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated Style.’ He expresses his objection in more measured tones than some of his successors, but it is, nevertheless, mere opinion. In some cases a terminal preposition may for some stylistic reason, be best avoided, but it isn’t a matter of grammar. If it was, Shakespeare wouldn’t have been able to allow Hamlet to speak of ‘the heartache and the thousand natural shocks / That flesh is heir to’.

Another thing Lowth didn’t like was whose being applied to things. It is done, he admits, by ‘some authors’, but, he thinks, ‘improperly’. He gives no further explanation. Lowth may also have begun the great who /whom debate, which is still with us. He objects to the sentence ‘Who should I meet the other night, but my old friend?’ by Joseph Addison (1772-1719) on the grounds that, as in Latin, the pronoun needs to be inflected to ‘whom’ when it is the object of a clause. In doing so, he fails to make the very important distinction between formal and informal use. It says much that Addison is remembered as a writer in a way that Lowth is not.

You can see the appeal of Lowth and those like him. Taking a dogmatic approach, rather than dealing with the complexities of the way the language is actually used, makes life easier for teachers, and Lowth’s influence was long-lasting. The tradition he helped to establish has been continued in the United States by Strunk and White and, more recently in the United Kingdom by Simon Heffer, and now by Nevile Gwynne (on whom I have posted here and here). Unfortunately, the approach they espouse receives more attention than the sane, well-informed voices of the professionals, such as Geoffrey Pullum, who has written damning appraisals of both Strunk and White and Simon Heffer.

Lowth, however, has at least one supporter in Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade of the Faculteit der Geesteswetenschappen, Leiden. She develops her rather different view of Lowth in ‘The Bishop’s Grammar’, and she also has a blog on the bishop-grammarian.

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