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A Brief History of Sticklers

Robert Lane Greene, a correspondent for The Economist, has just published a thoroughly engaging book sure to fascinate all linguaphiles: You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity. In this excerpt, Greene argues that there has never been a "golden age" for English: fears of the language's demise have been with us for centuries, stoked by "sticklers" castigating the usage around them.

The fact is that scolds have been bewailing others' vocabulary, pronunciation, and grammar virtually since English was written down. The first printer in English, William Caxton, complained about English's diversity and change in a story he told around 1490:

For we English men are so borne under the domination of the moon, which is never steadfast, but ever wavering, waxing one season and waning and decreasing another season.... [O]ne of them named Sheffield, a textile trader, came into a house and asked for food, and especially he asked for eggs[eggys], and the good woman answered that she could speak no French. And the merchant was angry, for he also could speak no French, but wanted eggs. And she did not understand him. And then at last another said that he wanted eyren. Then the good woman said that she understood him well. Lo, what should a man in these days now write, eggys or eyren? Certainly it is hard to please every man by cause of diversity and change of language.

By the Elizabethan period a century later, a "standard" English based on the London dialect was being built, though other dialects persisted around England. At the same time, poets and playwrights played with still-fluid conventions. Shakespeare violated virtually every rule that would later become a prescriptive shibboleth, gleefully splitting infinitives, using "they" with a singular antecedent, verbing nouns, ending sentences with prepositions, and so forth.

The new standard English, arising after Caxton and still developing in Shakespeare's time, was based on the scribes of London's Chancery, which produced government documents. And with the growth of standard English, a growth in prescriptivist dictates could not be far off. The existence of an emerging standard meant the beginning of linguistic self-consciousness: the desire to speak "correctly," and the fear of being looked down on.

Why is it "wrong" to end a sentence with a preposition? Did you even notice that I just did it two sentences ago? Unless you are a copy editor, you probably didn't. That's because this is the natural way to frame that sentence. Who, upon seeing a cake in the office break room, says, "For whom is this cake?" instead of "Who's the cake for?" Where did this rule come from?

The answer will surprise even most English teachers: John Dryden, the seventeenth-century poet less well known as an early, influential stickler. In a 1672 essay, he criticized his literary predecessor Ben Jonson for writing "The bodies that these souls were frightened from." Why the prepositional bee in Dryden's syntactical bonnet? This pseudo-rule probably springs from the same source many others do: the classical languages. Dryden said he liked to compose in Latin and translate into English, as he valued the precision and clarity he believed Latin required of writers. The preposition-final construction is impossible in Latin. Hence: it is impossible in English. Confused by his logic? Linguists remain so to this day. But once Dryden proclaimed the rule, it made its way into the first generation of English usage books roughly a century later and thence into the minds of two hundred years of English teachers and copy editors.

The rule has no basis in clarity ("Who's that cake for?" is perfectly clear); history (it was made up from whole cloth); literary tradition (Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Samuel Johnson, Lord Byron, Henry Adams, Lewis Carroll, James Joyce, and dozens of other great writers have violated it); or purity (it isn't native to English but probably stolen from Latin; clause-final prepositions exist in English's cousin languages such as Danish and Icelandic). Many people know that the Dryden rule is nonsense. From the great usage-book writer Henry Fowler in the early twentieth century, usage experts began to caution readers to ignore it. The New York Times flouts it. The "rule" should be put to death, but it may never be. Even those who know it is ridiculous observe it for fear of annoying others.

Some of these invented rules managed to make their way into our lives, to plague us endlessly. But more often throughout history, prescriptivist grousing has utterly failed to stop language change. Jonathan Swift, writing about a century after Shakespeare, was the wickedest satirist of his generation. But when it came to language, the humor drained from him. In 1712, to the Earl of Oxford, he wrote:

[O]ur Language is extremely imperfect; that its daily Improvements are by no means in proportion to its daily Corruptions; and the Pretenders to polish and refine it, have chiefly multiplied Abuses and Absurdities; and, that in many Instances, it offends against every Part of Grammar.

To Swift, English had borrowed too much French. The young nobility were no longer getting a proper education. Spelling was slowly being altered to match pronunciation changes. He even wrote that "I would rather have trusted the Refinement of our Language, as far as it relates to Sound, to the Judgment of the Women, than of illiterate Court-Fops, half-witted Poets, and University-Boys." Women! Things must have been bad indeed.

One writing change annoyed Swift in particular:

There is another Sett of Men who have contributed very very must to the spoiling of the English Tongue; I mean the Poets, from the Time of the Restoration. These Gentlemen ... to save Time and Pains, introduced that barbarous Custom of abbreviating Words, to fit them to the Measure of their Verses; and this they have frequently done, so very injudiciously, as to form such harsh unharmonious Sounds, that none but a Northern Ear could endure: They have joined the most obdurate Consonants without one intervening Vowel, only to shorten a Syllable.

The offending examples? Swift offered "Drudg'd, Disturb'd, Rebuk't, Fledg'd, and a thousand others." He thought the -ed ending should be both spelled out and pronounced in every instance. Before Swift, it always had been, but by his time, there was some free variation, depending on what fit better into poetic meter, for example. Over time, though, the trend against pronouncing the -ed ending was too strong. Today, "disturbed," "rebuked," and so forth must be pronounced in the way Swift hated so much. Yesterday's abomination is today's rule.

Excerpted from You Are What You Speak by Robert Lane Greene Copyright © 2011 by Robert Lane Greene. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Dell, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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