Today is National (US) Grammar Day, one of the high holy days for language lovers (along with free ice-cream day at Ben & Jerry’s). Dorks like me paint it as a fun time to celebrate English, but let’s be honest: it’s a slyly divisive holiday that’s generally observed entirely by pointing out how other people are Englishing all wrong. (Never you, dear reader. You English perfectly). On National Grammar Day, pedants crow and everyone else cowers. There will be countless articles on everyone’s pet peeves and slideshows of apostrophe abuse. People will proudly declare themselves to be grammar nazis, as if it’s okay to just this once obliquely compare yourself to the most infamous genocidal nutjob in Western history. At least one writer will trot out the favorite metaphor among those who care about grammar: “fight the good fight.”
That will be the article which will cause me to roll my eyes and close the laptop, the article that will drive me to pick up one of the usage dictionaries I have on hand and chuck it as hard as I can against the couch. (No, not the wall! That’ll ruin the book, are you mad?) That will be the article that sets me sputtering and hissing like a teakettle boiling over. Most modern grammarians who are “fighting the good fight” have no idea what their own history is, and are doomed to repeat it.
First, an olive branch. I will concede that when the vast majority of English speakers talk about “grammar,” they are not talking about the narrow set of rules by which English words are inflected and interact within a sentence. Yes, I know that linguists love nothing more than to wander around like John the Baptist in the desert, yelling “THAT’S NOT GRAMMAR” whenever someone posts a picture of a misspelled parking sign on National Grammar Day. But descriptivists see how the wind is blowing, and we know that when people talk about someone having “good grammar,” they are talking about the whole megillah: good spelling, usage, consistent style, and–yes–for-reals linguist-type grammar.
And so it’s been since the 17th century. English grammars were born out of etiquette books written for the new 17th-century middle class. The 16th and 17th centuries were a time of huge economic expansion in parts of England, and merchants, lawyers, and other déclassé people were making bank and movin’ on up. In order to move in the best circles–circles that they could now buy their way into–they needed to know the best manners. There was a booming trade in instructive books for the English tradesman–books that taught them how to behave at concerts and at table, how to handle reprobate servants in a fair yet gentlemanly way, how to write letters and how to speak like the upper class.
These last two points gave rise to the 18th-century grammarians that descriptivists and enlightened editors like to dump on. But we are not their target audience: most of us have an education that far surpasses what many of the merchant class had, and what’s considered “a good education” has changed (and no, not for the worse, geez). For those nouveaux riches who were suffering from serious Impostor Syndrome, and for their children who were getting educational opportunities far beyond what their parents or grandparents had, those grammars were a lifesaver. But they were a product of a particular moment in time, and need to be read within that moment.
Within that moment, then, good breeding and education were marked by elegance of expression, and elegance of expression was a moving target. Lindley Murray, an 18th-century grammarian whose work was so popular that it inspired a board game, champions “a plain, native style” in writing. Here is Lindley’s plain, native style:
PRECISION is the third requisite of perspicuity with respect to words and phrases. It signifies retrenching superfluities, and pruning the expression, so as to exhibit neither more nor less than an exact copy of the person’s idea who uses it.
A modern editor would read this extract and fall out of their chair in laughter. Third requisite! Retrenching superfluities! This is not the plain, native style you’re looking for; move along.
It should be noted that, by this point, few grammarians felt that a lack of education was the culprit: the most popular ones thought that it was the language itself that was the problem. Robert Lowth, another 18th-century grammarian and the Bishop of London, gives us the first hint of aggression. After explaining that English “offended against every part of Grammar,” he notes:
A Grammatical Study of our own Language makes no part of the ordinary method of instruction, which we pass through in our childhood, and it is very seldom that we apply ourselves to it afterward. … Much practice in the polite world, and a general acquaintance with the best authors, are good helps; but alone will hardly be sufficient: we have writers, who have enjoyed these advantages in their full extent, and yet cannot be recommended as models of an accurate style.
Ooh, Milton, ya burnt!
What Lowth and Murray did was to champion a form of language that wasn’t actually in common use: in fact, it often went against common use in favor of a synthetic, Platonic ideal. They were not interested in preserving the language, but in breaking it down and reforming it.
And that’s where this “good fight” metaphor falls to hell. The first soldiers in the fight to preserve English radically changed English, not according to the best practices of the great writers of the language, but according to their own views of elegance and correctness. What they wanted to preserve and promote didn’t, for the most part, actually exist: it was a convenient fiction that was painted in moral terms, thereby insuring its own propagation. For every prescriptivist that gives on a minor point, like the use of “above” as a noun, there is an entire peanut gallery of hyperprescriptivists who cast them from the fold and lump them in with those who would see English dissolve entirely. Under this mentality, the idea that the best practices of English change with time is anathema, the hogwash of modern linguistic relativism.1 It doesn’t preserve English so much as pickle it.
You can certainly champion “good grammar” in all its broad meanings, but casting it as a war is stubbornly unhelpful. There are no sides; there is no infantry; there is no territory to be gained; there are no medals of valor. The descriptivists are not your enemy, but are nothing more than heralds that announce when English marches forward. (You might as well declare war on trumpets). There is no enemy; there is just an open meadow of language to study, collect, and sort. Books, speech, whispered private jokes that slowly bleed into the world around them, ridiculous new portmanteaus that drive you batshit and yet set seed and bloom, dialect words that hang around the periphery of language for ages and ages–all of these deserve careful contemplation, not out-of-hand dismissal in the name of “preservation.” You are free to choose (or not!) anything in that meadow as your favorite, as the most lovely, as the fittest and least fit for a tasteful flower arrangement, and so on. You are free to remark on how much you hate burrs, or roses, or meadows in general. But do not make it a battleground.
. By the way, modern linguistic relativism goes back to Horace, Ars Poetica, 18AD:
Multa renascentur quae iam cercidere, cadentque
quae nunc sunt in honore vocabula, si volet usus,
quem penes arbitrium est et ius et norma loquendi.
[Many words shall revive, which now have fallen off;
and many which are now in esteem shall fall off, if it be the will of usage,
in whose power is the decision and right and standard of language.]
What a commie hippie liberal.