Mr. White's Books

THERE is a very distinct fascination in books about the proper use of language. They appeal to a large audience that is always ready to learn something new about an inexhaustible subject. Since a good part of the writer’s attention is given to pointing out and condemning mistakes in what other people have said, his writing seldom lacks liveliness, and since no one who had anything to say has ever written faultlessly, the original fault-finding serves as an apt text for other and sometimes harsher criticisms. What theological controversy once was we can now see in the pamphlets that those who write about the proper use of language hurl at one another. Just as our ancestors wrangled about the federal headship of Adam do we now attack or defend the use of standpoint, or what not; and in the minds of some people there is no religious heresy to be compared in shamefulness with certain mispronunciations.

These two volumes1 have a charm of their own, inasmuch as they are written, so to speak, for the laity, although they contain a great deal that cannot be overlooked by scholars. The advice that the author gives about a great many words and phrases is very good; he denounces with considerable vigor much of the bad writing that continually meets our eye, and by careful explanations makes clear the justice of his corrections. As manuals for ready reference about this or that phrase, these volumes are excellent. They are entertaining reading, too, and the scholarship that they contain is nowhere made much of. Yet this is but faint praise, and it might indeed be misleading if it should convey the impression that the thousand pages which the two volumes divide between them contained nothing but hints for conversational etiquette. These things are but the bait that brings readers to the more serious discussions.

One of the more serious of these is concerning the so-called spelling reform, which the author opposes with very strong arguments, if indeed they are not unanswerable. In fact, the arguments both for and against the proposed changes are so evenly balanced that probably spelling will remain in stable equilibrium, with but few changes at any one time. Certainly, the objections to introducing a new alphabet could hardly be better stated.

What the author says about the English as a grammarless tongue is well worth study, and is capable of prolonged discussion. Within the last fifteen or twenty years there have been great changes in the study of grammar. Before that time boys not only had to have the whole Latin grammar from cover to cover at the tip of the tongue, but many of them were dragged through the heavy quagmires of English grammar, and were taught laboriously to parse, although this form of instruction was generally reserved for those who had no chance to sharpen their intellects on Greek and Latin sentences. Nowadays, the effort is to see how little grammar boys may learn, instead of how much. Not only have Latin and Greek grammars been shorn of their abundant rules and exceptions, but Professor Whitney, in his new Sanskrit grammar, has been bold enough to turn his back on some of the teachings of his venerable Hindu predecessors.

What Mr. White says about the futility of trying to teach the proper use of the English language by means of arid text-books and frequent exercise in parsing few will deny. Correct speech is learned otherwise; on this point the best teachers agree. That English grammars are often full of ridiculous pedantry and inexactness is also undeniable, yet we cannot help thinking that Mr. White goes too far in his denunciation of all English grammars. The classifications of voice, mood, and tense, for instance, are not mere pedantry ; they serve to show the forms used to express certain definite relations, such as are to be found in all the languages commonly studied as well as our own. The fact that the English keeps some of the words used to denote past time or future time separate from the verb conjugated, instead of uniting the two, as is done in Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, French, etc., does not, in our opinion, make the complete conjugation of a verb a monstrous or absurd thing. Mr. White says, very truly, that it is necessary for any one who wishes to study German to learn German grammar ; but when the pupil comes to the verbs of that language he finds that they have a formation of the future, of the pluperfect, the passive, etc., that is very like our own; for example, ich werde lieben, ich hatte geliebt, ich werde geliebt, etc. Should these formations be expunged from German grammars, as, according to him, similar formations should be from our own ? Mr. White says that have, shall, and will are not auxiliary verbs. “ In I am loved and I will go, am and will are no more helping verbs than exist and determine are in the sentences, I exist loved and I determine to go.” Mr. White’s statement would, to our thinking, be exact only in the case that we expressed “ passivity ” by am and exist indifferently, and futurity by will and determine indifferently. So long as we are not in the habit of doing this, and do express passivity and futurity by forms of the verb to be and shall or will, respectively, it is convenient to distinguish the verbs we do use from the others by giving them another name, and that commonly used is the phrase “ auxiliary verbs.” Mr. White says that they are not “ helping ” verbs ; but even this may be doubted, for they are of great service in expressing the notions of passivity and futurity, and in saving us from such awkward phrases as “ I exist loved,” etc. That they are not consciously helpful may be granted.

That Mr. White clears away a great deal of dead wood from the crowded pages of English grammars is a thing to be grateful for, but we cannot help thinking that there must be something left in the abused text-books which may be of service to the reader and student of English. We find in them a good deal of useful information arranged in a more or less scientific way, and it is through their classification of generally acknowledged facts that they commend themselves to us. In view of Mr. White’s assertion (Words and Their Uses, p. 296) that “ the verb need not, and generally does not, agree with its nominative case in number and person,” it is well to have a book of authority to state the contrary. Mr. White’s iconoclasm is very often a matter of phraseology. He finds fault with the term government to express the relations of words in the sentence, and he suggests that “in English words are formed into sentences by the operation of an invisible power, which is like magnetism.” But is not this something like the exaggerated sensitiveness of those people who have conscientious scruples against writing “Yours truly” at the end of a letter ? The term government is a commonly understood, technical phrase, and life is too short to be spent in altering all the latent metaphors of language because some are not precise. In the same way, the author says it is wrong to speak of the cases, except the possessive, of English nouns and pronouns (Every-Day English,chap. xviii.), and (loc. cit., p. 287) he disposes of some objections in this way. Speaking of the sentences, “ Boil me an egg,” “ Saddle me the ass,” etc., he says, “One English grammarian, whose perceptions have carried him beyond the point of an objective case, ' governed by for understood,’ but no further, declares that in such sentences we have examples of an English dative case. ‘In what case is the pronoun,’ he asks, ‘ if not in the dative ? ’ In no case at all, most excellent grammarian. There is simply a dative sense expressed by the meaning of the words and by their order.” This is not a complete explanation, for the oblique case of the pronoun helps to express the dative sense, and how a dative sense expressed by the formation of a word, its meaning and order in the sentence, differs from a word in the dative case it is not easy to see. In fact, in the minds of most persons, the dative case expresses a certain relation between one word in a sentence and another, and it is entirely independent of the presence or absence of change in the declension of the noun. In “ I gave Charles the hat,” Charles is, to their thinking, in the dative, in spite of the fact that its termination is not altered, just as truly as the first persons singular of the present subjunctive and of the future indicative of Latin verbs of the third conjugation are separate words, although identical in form ; or that race, a nation, and race, to drive rapidly, are separate words. Mr. White so far agrees with this as to say that in the phrase used above, “ I gave Charles the hat,” we have the dative sense, and since it is in the use of language that he differs from the rest of the world there is no occasion for dwelling on the subject, except so far as to say that matters are simplified by employing a phraseology which is understood without difficulty by all educated persons. The trouble lies in the meaning that he gives to the word case. “ Case without special form is impossible,” he says. According to this, in Latin nouns of the neuter gender there are but two cases in the singular, regni and regno.

With the more important part of Mr. White’s argument we agree wholly, and our purpose in defending English grammar is simply to save what seems to us a convenient form of collecting and arranging information about the language. Take, for instance, even Goold Brown’s Grammar of English Grammars, a book in which it would be easy to find errors; yet the arrangement and the system of the book are such that it can hardly fail to be of service to every student. It is not the little lessons in parsing that one will care for, so much as his thorough discussion of many puzzling questions. It shows none of the merits of the modern “ historical method,” but even this volume, dry and faulty as it is, is in our opinion better than none ; and when in it or elsewhere we find such expressions as this word governs that, or such and such words agree, the meaning is more easily gathered than it could be by any other explanation. Even Mr. White finds the grammarian’s lingo serviceable in defining what he has to say, as in Every-Day English, p. 436, and it is for exactly this general convenience that grammar should be defended. With the essential part of Mr. White’s argument, however, we agree most thoroughly.

Part of the ground on which the denunciation of English grammar rests we cannot help looking upon as unsound, and that is the frequent assertion that have and had imply only present and past possession, and consequently are never mere formative elements, as some people imagine them to be in such forms as I have loved, etc. According to Mr. White, there is in these so-called past tenses a subtle, intellectual notion of possession ; or, to take his own example, I shall have been beaten is, in other words, It will be so that I must possess the perfected recipience of the action of beating, a sentence which is also a translation of the Greek future perfect passive. Again, in I shall have a beating and I shall have been beaten, have, he says, cannot have one meaning in one instance, another in the second ; this is the point at issue.

That originally it was the idea of possession in have and its equivalents in other languages that led to its use in the formation of past tenses no one would deny, but Mr. White’s assertion does not make it certain that because, in speaking and writing English, we keep the word have separate from the participle, say, loved, for example, we have the notion of possession clearer in our minds than does the Frenchman when he uses, say, j’aimerai, that is, aimer-ai, j’ai à aimer. If Mr. White affirms that he distinctly feels the notion of possession, well and good; we certainly have no desire to contradict him. A vast number of people, however, lack this perception, and use have and had purely as formative elements, with as little perception of the meaning of have as they have of the pronoun of the first person in the last letter of am, or of the third person in the termination of the third person singular of the present indicative of the verb to love. If I say, I have gone there three times, I possess no feeling of goneness. I use the auxiliary with the same unconsciousness of any feeling of possession as of the reduplication in the word did, or of any notion that went is properly the past tense of the verb to wend, when I say, I went there. I have been Mr. White calls an idiom. I have come and I have gone have less authority in their favor than I am come and I am gone ; I have become holds quite as good a position as I am become. These changes from one form to another show that have is looked upon as a formative element instead of a verb meaning to possess.

Mr. White asks, “ If in 'I have apples,’ have means possess, how is have voided of that meaning in 'I have lived ? ’” Simply, we should say, by the fact that in the first case it retains by usage the meaning given to it, and in the other it exists, by equally common usage, as a sign of the past tense. Language is full of these apparent inconsistencies. If a man says to a child, “ Do come ! ” he does not use do in the same way as he does in the phrase “ Do right.” Hence, when Mr. White says that have means only possession, we should add, except when it is used as a formative element ; but if he acknowledges this power in the word, as distinct from its direct meaning of possess, he would have to grant at the same time that the English verb has a more respectable conjugation than he now allows It.

This clinging to the notion that have means only to possess leads Mr. White to entertain some views that we should have at first sight supposed he would discountenance. The phrases had as lief, had rather, and had better, for instance, fall under his disapprobation ; possibly it would be more exact to say that they are led there by had, which here does not express, what according to Mr. White it always should express, past possession. These phrases, for which there is abundant authority, from before Chaucer to the latest novel, and in the Elizabethan dramatists, too, are objected to by various persons, mainly, we imagine, because they “ will not parse.” With parsing Mr. White refuses to have anything to do, but he undertakes to show the unsoundness of the phrases by methods which are not wholly unlike those of the men who are fondest of parsing, as when he says that the incongruity is the combination of the sign of past time with that of present time. The incongruity exists, and Mr. White says it is the perversion of an idiom, had rather been, in which had = would have. But expressions which are as old as English literature are still in common use, and although objected to by Archbishop Trench, Mr. Wendell Phillips, and Mr. White, might almost stand on their own legs as independent idioms. Instead of looking upon them as originating from the idiom Mr. White mentions, we would suggest their possible connection with the German phrase lieb haben, to like ; but this is a mere suggestion. Mr. White asks if it would not indicate a barbarous poverty of language if we should use had for all the different shades of meaning in might, could, would,, and should. This is a fair question, and certainly no one should be debarred—and we take it no one is debarred — from the use of these serviceable words. But it may be doubted whether they cover the whole force of had in these phrases. We have an example of this on page 294 of Every-Day English, where Mr. White says, “ It [grammar] is a study far beyond the capacity of the pupils at our public schools and academies, into whose hands even Professor Whitney’s Essentials might better not be put.” To our thinking, this form expresses something different from “ had better not be put,” — something less positive. If we are right, is it not a mistake to try to purge the language of venerable idioms that express what no other form can so concisely express ? We are strongly of the impression that were it not for the unfortunate had Mr. White would agree with us. That the whole weight of custom and authority,— Chaucer, Spenser, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Bunyan, Sterne, Goldsmith, Johnson, Macaulay, Thackeray, etc., etc.,—is in its favor Mr. White acknowledges ; of grammarians we need mention only Professor Whitney and Mätzner.

In general, however, Mr. White avoids the evil habit of ironing out idioms from the language. He stands up for the older and better form for which " is being done ” is substituted by those who are morbidly precise, as well as for the customary way of spelling words. Indeed, he recommends the use of the phrase " it irks me,” an expression which is certainly not in common use. That Mr. White throws the weight of his influence in favor of idiomatic English is something we should all be grateful for. It is hard to estimate the harm that is done by ignorant people who affect exactness. We are every day expecting that some one will rise in his might and affirm that we should not say, “ If you please,” because the phrase contains no subject for the verb please. The same spirit is to be found in the way that brakemen and publicschool children pronounce the names of towns; especially in Massachusetts is this vice rampant, as Mr. White has noticed.

Of the value of Mr. White’s books as a sort of manuals for general use it would be hard to say too much. Probably no one person will agree with all his statements, it is true, but, on the other hand, there are few who will not approve of the general tendency of his remarks. The first effect of books of this kind is a perturbing one ; the unfortunate speaker remembers that there is a doubt about some phrase he is on the point of using, and cannot for the life of him recollect what is right and what is wrong, but in time Mr. White’s statements and proofs will make plain to him many things that once were dark. What the author has said against is being done, for instance, has strengthened a number of people in the use of the more agreeable construction of the sentence, and in many ways he helps those who are anxious to speak and write well. He is successful because he makes no pretensions to vast learning, or to the right of dictating what shall or shall not be said ; he continually asserts that his knowledge is limited, although in fact this would not be the general opinion of competent critics. By these means, however, he wins from his readers the attention that other men might not be able to secure. That he should arouse contradiction is not surprising, for there are many points in the subject he has chosen in regard to which usage, authority, and reason may justly differ. Moreover, since taste is the final arbiter, there is here another element of discord. Meanwhile his books remain exceedingly serviceable, and the disputed points will in time receive so full discussion that they may be settled in one way or another. The trouble that Mr. White takes to purge our speech of the many gross errors that are continually creeping into it is something for which eyen his deadliest foes— and we certainly do not belong to that objectionable class — should feel grateful. His directness in speaking of them always does good, and of the extent of his influence we may judge from his mention of the frequent letters from strangers who consult him about doubtful matters. Our only wish is that he were a little tenderer with idioms, even if they appear unreasonable. Mr. White will remember that it was the error of the grammarians, to whom he objects so strongly, that they put everything to the test of parsing, and so tried to crush out all independent constructions, and that is an undertaking that might well be left to them alone.

We cannot close without a word of commendation for what the publishers have done in the preparation of these two volumes. Neater books have seldom issued from any press. Paper, print, and binding are equally excellent.

  1. Words and Their Uses, Past and Present. A Study of the English Language. By RICHARD GRANT WHITE. Third Edition, Revised and Corrected. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1880.
  2. Every-Day English. A Sequel to Words and their Uses. By RICHARD GRANT WHITE. Boston : Houghton, Mifflin & Co. 1880.