'Founding Grammars' traces the battles Americans have fought over language

An impassioned history of primary US prose offers 'entertaining historical perspective on these linguistic clashes.'

Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War Over Words Shaped Today’s Language By Rosemarie Ostler St. Martin's Press 320 pp.

Reading Rosemarie Ostler’s terrific new book, Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War over Words Shaped Today’s Language, I recalled a New York Times story from a few years ago about the controversy surrounding a 13-year-old’s quest to become the youngest person to reach the summit of Mount Everest. In an e-mail to the reporter from base camp, the young climber defended his suitability for the arduous endeavor, adding, “I am happy to be doing something big. If I wasn’t sitting here at base camp, I could be sitting in the classroom learning about dangling participles.”

Heaven forbid! Those of us who care deeply about dangling participles – not to mention comma splices, sentence fragments, and subject/verb agreement – must occasionally endure this type of disdain. Of course, the so-called grammar police have no problem dishing out derision, too: Just scroll through the comments section of any grammar-related article or blog post online.

One of the delights of "Founding Grammars" is that it provides entertaining historical perspective on these linguistic clashes. In his 1834 autobiography, for instance, Davy Crockett anticipated criticism of his rough-hewn prose by allying himself with the nation’s first populist president, Andrew Jackson (whose opponent in the elections of 1824 and 1828, John Quincy Adams, called him “a barbarian who could not write a sentence of grammar and hardly could spell his own name”). “I can only say ... that while critics were learning grammar, and learning to spell, I and [Andrew Jackson] were fighting in the wars,” Crockett declared. “Big men have more important matters to attend to than crossing their t’s and dotting their i’s.” Crockett’s point is so similar to the young Everest hopeful’s that it’s easy to believe Ostler, a linguist and former librarian and the author of several books about language, when she writes, “The terms of the grammar debate have changed remarkably little since the late eighteenth century.”

Most early Americans believed that grammar should be taught according to British usage, while a smaller group, whose most passionate advocate was Noah Webster, argued that American speech standards should be based on a natural American idiom. “As an independent nation, our honor requires us to have a system of our own, in language as well as government,” Webster proclaimed. Early in his career he wrote well-received grammar and spelling books, and in 1828 he published his masterwork, the colossal "American Dictionary of the English Language." Ostler notes that the dictionary’s “inclusion of ‘low’ words (bamboozle) and Americanisms (presidential,deputize)” scandalized some critics. The dictionary epitomized Webster’s “bottom up” approach, presenting the language as it was actually spoken, not as it ought to be.

That divide has remained central. Ostler shows how it has played out over two subsequent centuries, within the pages of the best-known grammar manuals – by Lindley Murray,William Dwight Whitney, and Strunk and White, among others – and in the contentious debates between language purists who insist on adhering to the traditional rules and academic linguists who are more sanguine about the fact that languages constantly evolve.

One notable controversy resulted from the famously neutral entry for the word ain’t in "Webster’s Third New International Dictionary" in 1961 (the term had been flagged as “illiterate” or “dialectal” in the previous edition, 27 years earlier). Commentators and editorialists across the country pounced, as if Webster’s Third heralded the end of civilization. One of the few reviewers who defended the updated version argued that a dictionary “does not make language; it records language’s use.”

Ostler describes these skirmishes in an evenhanded way (and, it goes without saying, with impeccable grammar). But her sympathies clearly lie with those who would tell the language sticklers to chill out. She points out that the ban on sentence-ending prepositions was merely one 18th-century grammar book author’s style suggestion for written expression, yet somehow it hardened into a sacrosanct rule. Similarly, while split infinitives were condemned by a 19th-century grammar writer as a “barbarism of speech,” they hadn’t raised eyebrows the century before and have begun to gain acceptance in recent years ("Star Trek"’s “to boldly go” didn’t hurt). Webster may have lost many battles – he was certain you was would become standard English, and he believed the spelling of women should be changed to wimmen – but according to Ostler, he’s won the war.

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