Founding Grammars: How Early America's War Over Words Shaped Today's Language

Founding Grammars: How Early America's War Over Words Shaped Today's Language

Rosemarie Ostler

Language: English

Pages: 320

ISBN: 1250046122

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


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.

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much Latin. Students were not faced with long lists of verb conjugations and noun declensions to be memorized. Murray also provided material targeted to specific groups. For young children and other beginners, the abridgment was available. For those who wanted extra practice, there was the exercise book. The overall message of English Grammar was also clear and straightforward, in contrast to A Grammatical Institute, Part II. Murray did not explore alternative theories of usage or argue that It

he stops short of actively encouraging nonstandard speech. The book does offer some sensible suggestions for making grammar easier to learn. Fowle labels nouns according to their use in the sentence—“agent” or “object”—rather than with the case names “nominative” and “accusative.” He also provides easily intelligible definitions for the few parts of speech that he accepts, saying that nouns are “names of things” and verbs are “words which express what nouns do.” He instructs teachers to explain

could still maintain a distinction between themselves and their social inferiors through careful speech. One purpose of their books was to explain how. While the grammarians of earlier days came mainly from the ranks of schoolteachers, the verbal critics were often writers—either journalists like White or professional men concerned about language use. Like White, they believed that superior speech habits were largely a matter of good background—in White’s words, of “social culture which began at

Lounsbury, “what must have been the feelings of the purist of the twelfth century … when he saw the preposition to … prefixed indiscriminatingly to the infinitive.”33 Somehow the usage caught on in spite of him. Next, Lounsbury takes care of the argument that split infinitives are a recent innovation by noting that people have been splitting to and the simple infinitive almost as long as the two words have been joined together. Among the earliest examples in print are several that appear in John

speaking and writing. Readers wrote in requesting, “If space permits, please condemn ‘localisms,’” or asking for “a practical rule” for deciding between you and me and you and I, or wondering what the difference is between loan and lend. Their questions were answered with calm authority. The Journal editor advises that when confused about whether to use you and me or you and I, the reader should drop the you and to see which of the remaining pronouns sounds better. The distinction between loan

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