The Magazine

Take Your Medicine

This ‘prescriptive’ is a hard pill to swallow

Sep 1, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 47 • By BARTON SWAIM
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In 2007, I went to work as a speechwriter in a political office. Although my boss didn’t care much for my writing, the rest of the staff considered me an authority on grammar and usage. I was the writer, they seemed to reason, so I must understand the deep magic of the English language. Nearly every day my phone would ring and someone would ask, “Is it ‘none is’ or ‘none are’?” or “Can you use ‘impact’ as a verb?” or “Do you capitalize ‘judicial branch’?” 

Grammar Lesson in New York (1961)

Grammar Lesson in New York (1961)

At first I tried to respond with nuanced explanations about how this rule wasn’t followed much anymore or that usage was pretty common but best avoided. But I sensed impatience. All my questioners wanted to know was what was right and what was wrong. They didn’t care what was “generally accepted” or defensible; they wanted to know what they should say in order not to sound stupid. So I gave it to them on my own authority: “none is”; “impact” is never a verb; “judicial branch” is lower case. That seemed to satisfy.

And that’s all most readers want from a book on English grammar and usage. They want to know what to write and what to avoid—not because they want to follow arbitrary rules set down by the anonymous rulemakers of the past, but because they want to express themselves in ways that don’t cause distraction. Similarly, an American preparing for a holiday in Italy may want to know if Puglia is pronounced with a hard or silent “g”—not because pronouncing it incorrectly will mystify his Italian hosts, or because he doesn’t understand that pronunciations are mere conventions and not laws of nature, but because he doesn’t want to sound like an ignoramus. 

It doesn’t matter how many academic linguists tell us that language changes over time and that what’s accepted today was considered ungrammatical a century ago. It doesn’t matter how many books—Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct (1994), David Crystal’s How Language Works (2005), Ammon Shea’s Bad English (2014)—explain that grammatical rules stifle expression and stunt a language’s natural evolution. All of this may be true, but none of it matters. Educated people still want to know whether they should write “amuck” or “amok,” “between” or “among,” “flounder” or “founder,” “infer” or “imply,” “it’s he” or “it’s him.” 

The market is constantly ripe, therefore, for any book that will flout the fashion for permissiveness and explain to readers in direct, unfussy prose how they should construct sentences and what mistakes they should avoid. Hence, the success of Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage (1998), a highly prescriptivist guide to usage that’s now in a third and much-expanded edition as Garner’s Modern American Usage. (A typical entry in Garner: “Impactful, adj., is barbarous jargon from the 1970s.”) Similarly, the transatlantic popularity of Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots, & Leaves (2003)—a book purporting to lay down the law on matters of punctuation—suggests that readers don’t want to be told one more time that the rules don’t matter.

Another book, this one more narrowly concerned with grammar, has been enjoying success in Great Britain and has just been published here: Gwynne’s Grammar by N. M. Gwynne. The author, a retired businessman, teaches Latin and English grammar in a variety of settings. His book explains the rudiments of grammar—parts of speech, punctuation, and so on—in a manner that’s at once warm and utterly self-assured. 

I suspect the appeal of Gwynne’s Grammar derives, in large part, from the author’s profoundly counter-cultural approach. He is an unashamed prescriptivist: someone who believes it’s legitimate to prescribe conventions by which people ought to abide rather than merely describe what those conventions are. On the question of whether the masculine pronoun may be used for a person of either sex (e.g., “When a diplomat claims immunity, you can’t help but assume he has done something wrong”), Gwynne’s judgment is unambiguous. Many writers would substitute “he or she” to avoid the charge of sexism; some, reveling in political correctness, would write “she.” A distressingly large majority would use the ungrammatical “they.” Gwynne thinks this last is “offensive to logic and common sense” and “shockingly illiterate when in writing.” 

He is an enthusiastic proponent of memorization, too, putting him well outside post-1950s conventional wisdom. He urges readers young and old to memorize the book’s definitions of keywords (“subjective,” for example).

Merely to understand a rule is almost never sufficient. Unless it is memorized, and in such a way as to keep it in the memory, all too soon, typically, children are as incapable of applying the rule as if they had never come across it.

Nor has Gwynne any patience with the fashion for pictorial graphics in educational textbooks: “Pictures in textbooks actually interfere with the learning process.” Gwynne’s Grammar, therefore, would seem to be everything hidebound reactionaries like this present reviewer could hope for. But it isn’t.

Gwynne, though refreshingly opinionated, has an unfortunate penchant for indefensible generalizations. For instance: “[Mistakes] such as ‘Between you and I’ and the politically correct illiteracy ‘Anyone in doubt should ask their teacher,’ ” he writes, “would never have been made at any level of society fifty or sixty years ago.” One appreciates Gwynne’s enthusiasm, but that last statement is completely untrue. When Dickens, Scott, Hardy, and many others put bad grammar into the mouths of their lower- or lower-middle-class characters, they did so because that’s the way many people actually talked. 

Worse than that, Gwynne isn’t a very good writer. Any author dishing out strictures like the ones in Gwynne’s Grammar had better make sure his own prose is above reproach. Yet Gwynne’s is consistently awkward. He repeatedly uses the superfluous phrase “very much” and several times uses the word “relatively” when it makes no sense to do so (“Let no one be deceived into thinking that learning grammar is a luxury of relatively little purpose”). His sentences are also distractingly replete with italics, as if he doesn’t trust the reader to know where to place the emphasis.

The middle third of the book is made up of William Strunk’s booklet Elements of Style, originally published for Strunk’s Cornell students in 1919 and expanded by one of them, E. B. White, in 1959. I am not sure that Strunk’s original, and far shorter, guide is as superior to White’s expansion as Gwynne thinks. It’s certainly superior to the more recent revisions of the original Strunk and White, but a writer won’t go far wrong by following Strunk, with or without White. 

If only Gwynne would follow Strunk’s advice more regularly. Against Strunk’s instruction, Gwynne seems to relish using the passive voice. The second sentence of Gwynne’s Grammar, a plea to the reader not to skip the book’s preface, says: “The reader is urged not to skip past it, and indeed is urged to read it with some care.” Gwynne prescribes rules, he says, “under the authority of being a conscientious conveyor of what can be shown to be true.” 

Gwynne’s Grammar has its strengths, to be sure. In a chapter on the importance of writing properly metrical verse, Gwynne argues—a little forcefully in my view, but nonetheless with sound logic—that metrical versifying was for centuries an indispensable part of learning how words work together, and that the destruction of poetic meter was therefore a tragedy for written English. Furthermore, Gwynne’s contention that English doesn’t change nearly as much as descriptivist grammarians claim is bound to elicit howls of outrage from the usual quarters. 

At the same time, though, a poor stylist with a propensity to gross overstatement probably shouldn’t write a book on English grammar and usage. The reader is urged to leave this one alone. 

Barton Swaim is the author of Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere: 1802-1834