STARTING LAST SPRING, a new figure began popping up everywhere on British television and radio and in newspaper pages, berating his audience for their grammar abuses: a spry, white-haired Latin and English grammar tutor named N.M. (or Nevile) Gwynne. His claim to fame was a short polemical guidebook, “Gwynne’s Grammar,” which brings a bewitching zeal—and a defiantly old-fashioned approach—to the study of English grammar and usage. “What I maintain is that our ancestors created this language, which is one of the three best languages in history,” Gwynne said (he considers the other two to be Latin and classical Greek). “And we know how they passed that on from generation to generation….The children were jolly well made to learn it exactly.”
“Gwynne’s Grammar,” which began as a pamphlet put out by the father of one of Gwynne’s students, has become massively popular in the United Kingdom. After a mainstream press published it in 2013, in a longer form and with the curious addition of the 1918 version of William Strunk Jr.’s “The Elements of Style” (known best in its 1959 form revised by E.B. White), it spent five months on the top-ten best-seller list. Prince Charles called the book “outstandingly useful.” Michael Gove, the former Conservative secretary of education who returned grammar to national curriculums, assigned Gwynne’s book to all the members of his department. This week, it will be published for the first time in the United States.
And yet the enthusiasm with which people read Gwynne suggests that, outside academia, there’s some continuing appeal in being lectured about split infinitives and misplaced apostrophes. In fact, for hundreds of years, English-speakers have reveled in scolding each other and being scolded about language. Gwynne’s little book is just the latest to put the spotlight on an enduring conundrum: In a world where hundreds of millions of people use the language effectively every day, why do so many of us love to hear that we’re doing it wrong?
THE VERY EARLIEST GUIDES to English were not nostalgic. Their goal was to establish that the vernacular of the common people—as opposed to courtly Latin and French—could be seen as a respectable, proper language at all. In 1640, Ben Jonson wrote that the purpose of his English Grammar was to “free our Language from the opinion of Rudenesse and Barbarisme, wherewith it is mistaken to be diseas’d.”
No sooner did Renaissance English became accepted as the standard form, however, than the public scolding began. Jonathan Swift’s 1712 “Proposal for Correcting, Improving, and Ascertaining the English Tongue” bemoaned “Manglings and Abbreviations” like “Drudg’d, Disturb’d, Rebuk’t, Fledg’d.” The answer, he said, was a learned society that would toss out half of contemporary English and bring back everything the Elizabethans had done.
That society never materialized. But the idea that English had once been great and was now somehow degraded would persist. As Henry Hitchings writes in “The Language Wars: A History of Proper English,” 18th- and 19th-century grammarians were united in “lamenting the passing of a golden age of England.” In search of this lost glory, writers became preoccupied with tiny matters of correctness: the length of a pause indicated by a period, for instance. Victorian grammarians, even more censorious, threw down absolute edicts against “low expressions” like “currying favor” and “pellmell.”
Gwynne rejects the linguistic notion that language changes over time (“a heresy”).
In the 20th century, a growing and sometimes political divide over English usage opened between “descriptivist” academic linguists—who were interested in understanding slang and dialect forms—and “prescriptivist” grammar experts. The latter were often conservative journalists, like William Safire or John Simon, who blasted academics for their jargon and accused dictionary writers of adopting too many words from slang and daily speech. (Of course, in everyday practice prescriptivists and descriptivists actually agree on a lot: “Certainly I’m a descriptive linguist, but when I mark my students’ essays I say, oh you’re using that word wrong, or make your noun and verb agree,” said Lynne Murphy, a linguist at the University of Sussex.)
The Internet has given grammar scolds both new scapegoats and a new place to hang out and complain—perhaps while wearing a “Grammar Police: To Serve and Correct” T-shirt. These days, said Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg, “everybody can have an opinion.” Authors of chatty, nonscholarly books from Sharon Eliza Nichols’s “I Judge You When You Use Poor Grammar” to Lynne Truss’s “Eats, Shoots & Leaves” have capitalized on what he calls a grammar-nagging “free-for-all.”
Gwynne, however, is more in the mold of an 18th- or 19th-century grammarian than a modern-day prescriptivist. Like his predecessors, he treats Shakespeare’s English as a grand summit of the literary language, which must be preserved through extremely traditional forms of education. He believes students should start memorizing Latin verbs at age 3. He even argues that children as young as 2 shouldn’t be given books with pictures (except ones that instruct on “the most beautiful art”), because “one has got to have one’s brain trained…to do difficult things.”
Gwynne fervently rejects the commonly accepted linguistic notion that language changes over time (“a heresy”). In fact, he said, this acceptance is exactly what makes us so wishy-washy about allowing new words: “When you just change every word and its meaning, you just add stupid words….It’s all done under the excuse that language evolves.” (He regards the online Oxford Dictionaries site, for instance, which just added the word “YOLO,” “as a joke.”) His preferred strategy would be to ban all change except what’s absolutely necessary. “I’m desperate to preserve for our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren what we have had passed down to us with such loving care,” he said. “There’d have been no nonsense about descriptive grammar up to about 50 years ago.”
Accordingly, Gwynne insists on some rules that have been given up for dead by most modern grammarians, such as avoiding split infinitives (“to go carefully,” not “to carefully go”) and the correct usage of “hopefully” (to mean “in a hopeful manner,” not “it is to be hoped that”). Such strictures put him at the very fringe of contemporary prescriptivism, said Bryan Garner, a law professor at the University of Texas, Austin, and the author of “Garner’s Modern American Usage.” “Anyone who in 2014 is railing about split infinitives—it sounds to me like on that basis alone that he does not know what he is talking about.”
But Gwynne’s appeal in England has been less about the rules themselves and more about his ability to invoke pre-1960s, cold-shower rigor. The British grammar debate “is more capital-p Political,” said Nunberg, associated with divisive 1960s-era reforms that dismantled rote grammar memorization and have been blamed for ensuing moral declines as well. “Fighting public battles over the minutiae of language is, in effect, a means of waging a campaign by stealth against those who are commonly identified by traditionalists as the agents of moral anarchy—university professors,…Prius-driving liberals, etc.,” Hitchings, a writer on language and the London Evening Standard theater critic, said by e-mail.
ON THIS SIDE of the Atlantic, British language experts gain an extra set of credentials: Coming from the birthplace of our mother tongue, they seem to have more right to lecture us on it. That explains some of the appeal of the 2003 blockbuster “Eats, Shoots & Leaves,” which purported to be a brisk and no-nonsense take on punctuation, as if Mary Poppins had decided to apply herself to commas. But as Louis Menand put it in a New Yorker evisceration, “An Englishwoman lecturing Americans on semicolons is a little like an American lecturing the French on sauces.” British English is very different from American English—in fact, it has fewer restrictions on punctuation, as well as different vocabulary. “Americans would be wrong to think that the British/English way of doing things is necessarily coherent and consistent,” said Hitchings.
Gwynne’s no exception. When the Daily Telegraph ran Gwynne’s “good grammar quiz” in 2013, bloggers noted problems like a confusion regarding restrictive clauses and nonrestrictive clauses, and the Telegraph published two corrections. As Ammon Shea, author of “Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation,” pointed out to me, Gwynne’s website nmgwynne.com contained some minor style problems and a sentence fragment (“The first two editions which were in effect try-out editions”), which Gwynne said were due to the site not being recently checked.
Even to a hardened American reader, however, “Gwynne’s Grammar” has its undeniable pleasures. So much of grammar and usage is instinctual—what sounds right—or half-remembered scraps from childhood. There’s a reassuring solidity to Gwynne’s system, with its numbered chapter headings and definitions in bold print, which, he writes, “should be learnt exactly by heart, including even their word order.” Despite decades of descriptivist linguistics, the notion prevails that there’s one correct way of speaking and writing, and any deviation could reveal something important—and potentially damning—about you. For non-expert language lovers, simply knowing the rules is a source of power. “Everybody craves the illusion of certainty,” Shea said. “It’s almost like a religious thing. They want to think that salvation is possible, even if just for a select few.”
And yet no matter how many people join Gwynne’s crusade, our notion of proper English continues, stubbornly, to change. That is transparent when you read old grammar guides, even Gwynne’s own beloved Strunk. Not 100 years after it was published as an aid for Cornell undergrads, this guide—even with what Gwynne said are his extensive edits—wages some arcane battles, insisting that “worthwhile” before a noun is “indefensible” and that “all right” should be avoided except as a detached phrase meaning “go ahead.”
These anachronisms, in what Gwynne calls a “minor work of genius,” suggest that “Gwynne’s Grammar” probably won’t halt the tide of language change any more than its predecessors did. But given our fascination with such books, in another century someone may be quoting Gwynne with equal fondness, while our great-grandchildren take pleasure in getting scolded all over again. It’s a cycle as old as the language, and one that promises to endure as long as English itself.
Britt Peterson is an Ideas columnist. She lives in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter@brittkpeterson