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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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