Grammar for Today

Professor of English at Northwestern University, BERGEN EVANS has made a reputation for himself as a linguistic expert, in his program, THE LAST WORD, and in his book, ADICTIONARY OF CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN USAGE,which he compiled with the assistance of his sister, Cornelia. Last month the ATLANTIC published Wilson Follett’s stricture on current American usage, “ Grammar Is Obsolete.”Mr. Evans takes the more optimistic view.

IN 1747 Samuel Johnson issued a plan for a new dictionary of the English language. It was supported by the most distinguished printers of the day and was dedicated to the model of all correctness, Philip Dormer Stanhope, Fourth Earl of Chesterfield. Such a book, it was felt, was urgently needed to “fix” the language, to arrest its “corruption” and “decay,” a degenerative process which, then as now, was attributed to the influence of “the vulgar” and which, then as now, it was a mark of superiority and elegance to decry. And Mr. Johnson seemed the man to write it. He had an enormous knowledge of Latin, deep piety, and dogmatic convictions. He was also honest and intelligent, but the effect of these lesser qualifications was not to show until later.

Oblig’d by hunger and request of friends, Mr. Johnson was willing to assume the role of linguistic dictator. He was prepared to “fix” the pronunciation of the language, “preserve the purity” of its idiom, brand “impure” words with a “note of infamy,” and secure the whole “from being overrun by . . . low terms.”

There were, however, a few reservations. Mr. Johnson felt it necessary to warn the oversanguine that “Language is the work of man, a being from whom permanence and stability cannot be derived.” English “was not formed from heaven . . . but was produced by necessity and enlarged by accident.” It had, indeed, been merely “thrown together by negligence” and was in such a state of confusion that its very syntax could no longer “be taught by general rules, but [only] by special precedents.”

In 1755 the Dictionary appeared. The noble patron had been given a great deal more immortality than he had bargained for by the vigor of the kick Johnson had applied to his backside as he booted him overboard. And the Plan had been replaced by the Preface, a sadder but very much wiser document.

Eight years of “sluggishly treading the track of the alphabet” had taught Johnson that the hopes of “fixing” the language and preserving its “purity" were but “the dreams of a poet doomed at last to wake a lexicographer.” In “the boundless chaos of living speech,” so copious and energetic in its disorder, he had found no guides except “experience and analogy.” Irregularities were “inherent in the tongue” and could not be “dismissed or reformed” but must be permitted “to remain untouched.” “Uniformity must be sacrificed to custom . . . in compliance with a numberless majority” and “general agreement.” One of the pet projects of the age had been the establishment of an academy to regulate and improve style. “I hope,” Johnson wrote in the Preface, that if “it should be established . . . the spirit of English liberty will hinder or destroy [it.]”

At the outset of the work he had flattered himself, he confessed, that he would reform abuses and put a stop to alterations. But he had soon discovered that “sounds are too volatile and subtle for legal restraints” and that “to enchain syllables and to lash the wind are equally undertakings of pride unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.” For “the causes of change in language are as much superior to human resistance as the revolutions of the sky or the intumescence of the tide.”

There had been an even more profound discovery: that grammarians and lexicographers “do not form, but register the language; do not teach men how they should think, but relate how they have hitherto expressed their thoughts.”And with this statement Johnson ushered in the rational study of linguistics. He had entered on his task a medieval pedant. He emerged from it a modern scientist.

Of course his discoveries were not strikingly original. Horace had observed that use was the sole arbiter and norm of spcech and Montaigne had said that he who would fight custom with grammar was a fool. Doubtless thousands of other people had at one time or another perceived and said the same thing. But Johnson introduced a new principle. Finding that he could not lay down rules, he gave actual examples to showmeaning and form. He offered as authority illustrative quotations, and in so doing established that language is what usage makes it and that custom, in the long run, is the ultimate and only court of appeal in linguistic matters.

This principle, axiomatic today in grammar and lexicography, seems to exasperate a great many laymen who, apparently, find two hundred and five years too short a period in which to grasp a basic idea. They insist that there are absolute standards of correctness in speech and that these standards may be set forth in a few simple rules. To a man, they believe, of course, that they speak and write “correctly” and they are loud in their insistence that others imitate them.

It is useless to argue with such people because they are not, really, interested in language at all. They are interested solely in demonstrating their own superiority. Point out to them — as has been done hundreds of times — that forms which they regard as “corrupt,” “incorrect,” and “vulgar" have been used by Shakespeare, Milton, and the Bible and are used daily by 180 million Americans and accepted by the best linguists and lexicographers, and they will coolly say, “Well, if they differ from me, they’re wrong.”

But if usage is not the final determinant of speech, what is? Do the inhabitants of Italy, for example, speak corrupt Latin or good Italian? Is Spanish superior to French? Would the Breton fisherman speak better if he spoke Parisian French? Can one be more fluent in Outer Mongolian than in Inner Mongolian? One has only to ask such questions in relation to languages other than one’s own, languages within which our particular snobberies and struggles for prestige have no stake, to see the absurdity of them.

The language that we do speak, if we are to accept the idea of “corruption” and “decay” in language, is a horribly decayed Anglo-Saxon, grotesquely corrupted by Norman French. Furthermore, since Standard English is a development of the London dialect of the fourteenth century, our speech, by true aristocratic standards, is woefully middle-class, commercial, and vulgar. And American speech is lower middle-class, recking of counter and till. Where else on earth, for instance, would one find crime condemned because it didn’t pay!

IN MORE innocent days a great deal of time was spent in wondering what was the “original" language of mankind, the one spoken in Eden, the language of which all modern tongues were merely degenerate remnants. Hector Boethius tells us that James I of Scotland was so interested in this problem that he had two children reared with a deaf and dumb nurse on an island in order to see what language they would “naturally" speak. James thought it would be Hebrew, and in time, to his great satisfaction, it was reported that the children were speaking Hebrew!

Despite this experiment, however, few people today regard English as a corruption of Hebrew. But many seem to think it is a corruption of Latin and labor mightily to make it conform to this illusion. It is they and their confused followers who tell us that we can’t say “I am mistaken" because translated into Latin this would mean ”I am misunderstood,”and we can’t say ”I have enjoyed myself" unless we are egotistical or worse.

It is largely to this group — most of whom couldn’t read a line of Latin at sight if their lives depended on it — that we owe our widespread bewilderment concerning who and whom. In Latin the accusative or dative form would always be used, regardless of the word’s position in the sentence, when the pronoun was the object of a verb or a preposition. But in English, for at least four hundred years, this simply hasn’t been so. When the pronoun occurs at the beginning of a question, people who speak natural, fluent, literary English use the nominative, regardless. They say “Who did you give it to?" not “Whom did you give it to?” But the semiliterate, intimidated and bewildered, are mouthing such ghastly utterances as a recent headline in a Chicago newspaper: WHOM’S HE KIDDING?

Another group seems to think that in its pure state English was a Laputan tongue, with logic as its guiding principle. Early members of this sect insisted that unloose could only mean “to tie up,” and present members have compelled the gasoline industry to label its trucks Flammable under the disastrous insistence, apparently, that the old Inflammable could only mean ‘’not burnable.”

It is to them, in league with the Latinists, that we owe the bogy of the double negative. In all Teutonic languages a doubling of the negative merely emphasizes the negation. But we have been told for a century now that two negatives make a positive, though if they do and it’s merely a matter of logic, then three negatives should make a negative again. So that if “It doesn’t make no difference” is wrong merely because it includes two negatives, then “It doesn’t never make no difference” ought to be right again.

Both of these groups, in their theories at least, ignore our idiom. Yet idiom — those expressions which defy all logic but are the very essence of a tongue — plays a large part in English. We go to school and college, but we go to the university. We buy two dozen eggs but a couple of dozen. Good and can mean very (“I am good and mad!”) and “a hot cup of coffee” means that the coffee, not the cup, is to be hot. It makes a world of difference to a condemned man whether his reprieve is upheld or held up.

There are thousands of such expressions in English. They are the “irregularities” which Johnson found “inherent in the tongue” and which his wisdom perceived could not and should not be removed. Indeed, it is in the recognition and use of these idioms that skillful use of English lies.

Many words in the form that is now mandatory were originally just mistakes, and many of these mistakes were forced into the language by eager ignoramuses determined to make it conform to some notion of their own. The s was put in island, for instance, in sheer pedantic ignorance. The second r doesn’t belong in trousers, nor the g in arraign, nor the t in deviltry, nor the n in passenger and messenger. Nor, so far as English is concerned, does that first c in arctic which so many people twist their mouths so strenuously to pronounce.

And grammar is as “corrupted” as spelling or pronunciation. “You are” is as gross a solecism as “me am.” It’s recent, too: you won’t find it in the Authorized Version of the Bible. Lesser, nearer, and more are grammatically on a par with gooder. Crowed is the equivalent of knowed or growed, and caught and dug (for catched and digged) are as “corrupt” as squoze for squeezed or snoze for sneezed.

Fortunately for our peace of mind most people are quite content to let English conform to English, and they are supported in their sanity by modern grammarians and linguists.

SCHOLARS agree with Puttenham (1589) that a language is simply speech “fashioned to the common understanding and accepted by consent.” They believe that the only “rules” that can be stated for a language are codified observations. They hold, that is, that language is the basis of grammar, not the other way round. They do not believe that any language can become “corrupted” by the linguistic habits of those who speak it. They do not believe that anyone who is a native speaker of a standard language will get into any linguistic trouble unless he is misled by snobbishness or timidity or vanity.

He may, of course, if his native language is English, speak a form of English that marks him as coming from a rural or an unread group. But if he doesn’t mind being so marked, there’s no reason why he should change. Johnson retained a Staffordshire burr in his speech all his life. And surely no one will deny that Robert Burns’s rustic dialect was just as good as a form of speech as, and in his mouth infinitely better as a means of expression than, the “correct” English spoken by ten million of his southern contemporaries.

The trouble is that people are no longer willing to be rustic or provincial. They all want to speak like educated people, though they don’t want to go to the trouble of becoming truly educated. They want to believe that a special form of socially acceptable and financially valuable speech can be mastered by following a few simple rules. And there is no lack of little books that offer to supply the rules and promise “correctness” if the rules are adhered to. But, of course, these offers are specious because you don’t speak like an educated person unless you are an educated person, and the little books, if taken seriously, will not only leave the lack of education showing but will expose the pitiful yearning and the basic vulgarity as well, in such sentences as “Whom are you talking about?”

As a matter of fact, the educated man uses at least three languages. With his family and his close friends, on the ordinary, unimportant occasions of daily life, he speaks, much of the time, a monosyllabic sort of shorthand. On more important occasions and when dealing with strangers in his official or business relations, he has a more formal speech, more complete, less allusive, politely qualified, wisely reserved. In addition he has some acquaintance with the literary speech of his language. He understands this when he reads it, and often enjoys it, but he hesitates to use it. In times of emotional stress hot fragments of it may come out of him like lava, and in times of feigned emotion, as when giving a commencement address, cold, greasy gobbets of it will ooze forth.

The linguist differs from the amateur grammarian in recognizing all of these variations and gradations in the language. And he differs from the snob in doubting that the speech of any one small group among the language’s more than 300 million daily users constitutes a model for all the rest to imitate.

The methods of the modern linguist can be illustrated by the question of the grammatical number of none. Is it singular or plural? Should one say “None of them is ready” or “None of them are ready”?

The prescriptive grammarians are emphatic that it should be singular. The Latinists point out that nemo, the Latin equivalent, is singular. The logicians triumphantly point out that none can’t be more than one and hence can’t be plural.

The linguist knows that he hears “None of them are ready” every day, from people of all social positions, geographical areas, and degrees of education. He also hears “None is.” Furthermore, literature informs him that both forms were used in the past. From Malory (1450) to Milton (1650) he finds that none was treated as a singular three times for every once that it was treated as a plural. That is, up to three hundred years ago men usually said None is. From Milton to 1917, none was used as a plural seven times for every four times it was used as a singular. That is, in the past three hundred years men often said None is, but they said None are almost twice as often. Since 1917, however, there has been a noticeable increase in the use of the plural, so much so that today None are is the preferred form.

The descriptive grammarian, therefore, says that while None is may still be used, it is becoming increasingly peculiar. This, of course, will not be as useful to one who wants to be cultured in a hurry as a short, emphatic permission or prohibition. But it has the advantage of describing English as it is spoken and written here and now and not as it ought to be spoken in some CloudCuckoo-Land.

The descriptive grammarian believes that a child should be taught English, but he would like to see the child taught the English actually used by his educated contemporaries, not some pedantic, theoretical English designed chiefly to mark the imagined superiority of the designer.

He believes that a child should be taught the parts of speech, for example. But the child should be told the truth — that these are functions of use, not some quality immutably inherent in this or that word. Anyone, for instance, who tells a child — or anyone else — that like is used in English only as a preposition has grossly misinformed him. And anyone who complains that its use as a conjunction is a corruption introduced by Winston cigarettes ought, in all fairness, to explain how Shakespeare, Keats, and the translators of the Authorized Version of the Bible came to be in the employ of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company.

Whether formal grammar can be taught to advantage before the senior year of high school is doubtful; most studies — and many have been made — indicate that it can’t. But when it is taught, it should be the grammar of today’s English, not the obsolete grammar of yesterday’s prescriptive grammarians. By that grammar, for instance, please in the sentence “Please reply" is the verb and reply its object. But by modern meaning reply is the verb, in the imperative, and please is merely a qualifying word meaning “no discourtesy intended,” a mollifying or de-imperatival adverb, or whatever you will, but not the verb.

This is a long way from saying “Anything goes,” which is the charge that, with all the idiot repetition of a needle stuck in a groove, the uninformed ceaselessly chant against modern grammarians. But to assert that usage is the sole determinant in grammar, pronunciation, and meaning is not to say that anything goes. Custom is illogical and unreasonable, but it is also tyrannical. The least deviation from its dictates is usually punished with severity. And because this is so, children should be taught what the current and local customs in English are. They should not be taught that we speak a bastard Latin or a vocalized logic. And they should certainly be disabused of the stultifying illusion that after God had given Moses the Commandments He called him back and pressed on him a copy of Woolley’s Handbook of English Grammar.

The grammarian does not see it as his function to “raise the standards” set by Franklin, Lincoln, Melville, Mark Twain, and hundreds of millions of other Americans. He is content to record what they said and say.

Insofar as he serves as a teacher, it is his business to point out the limits of the permissible, to indicate the confines within which the writer may exercise his choice, to report that which custom and practice have made acceptable. It is certainly not the business of the grammarian to impose his personal taste as the only norm of good English, to set forth his prejudices as the ideal standard which everyone should copy. That would be fatal. No one person’s standards are broad enough for that.