Book review: ‘Founding Grammars’

In the summer of 2014, “Weird Al” Yankovic released “Word Crimes,” a sarcastic blast at what the song parodist saw as the decline of proper grammar, word choice and punctuation. Yankovic is a stickler on “whom” and “literally,” and he is an advocate of diagramming sentences. A link to the song’s video was widely shared on social media, and anyone who works as a writer or editor probably received an email from a friend or relative about it.

Not everyone enjoyed the song’s mocking humor, however. On the Language Log blog, linguist Ben Zimmer called it the “ultimate peever’s anthem.” Mignon Fogarty of the University of Nevada-Reno, perhaps better known as Grammar Girl, wrote on her website: “I don’t believe in word crimes, and I don’t believe in encouraging people to think about language that way.”

Such a battle between prescriptivists and descriptivists of language feels like a contemporary phenomenon. Certainly, the Internet has led to plenty of chatter about “they” as a singular pronoun as well as debates about serial commas, split infinitives and prepositions at the end of sentences.

foundgrammarsBut in “Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War over Words Shaped Today’s Language,” author Rosemarie Ostler shows that this conversation about language has been taking place since the founding of the United States. It is not new, but it is fascinating.

In eight chapters, Ostler takes the reader through grammar’s evolution in the United States. She does so in a roughly chronological way, from Noah Webster through Geoffrey Pullum. In between, Ostler covers the inside stories on “The Elements of Style” and the Merriam-Webster dictionary, as well as lesser-known works such as “The Institutes of English Grammar” by Goold Brown and “Every-Day English” by Richard Grant White.

“Founding Grammars” begins with an origin story. Shortly after the American Revolution, Webster sought to further declare the new nation’s independence via a distinctly American way of speaking and writing. He and others saw grammar knowledge as essential to the country’s success.

Grammar books and dictionaries were, as Ostler describes them, “the self-help manuals of their time.” These grammarians, however, did not always agree on the details, leading to the type of debates over language that we still see today.

Elsewhere, Ostler weaves issues of politics, ethnicity and class into grammar’s history. In the presidential election of 1828, Andrew Jackson was criticized for his “shaky spelling skills” among other language-based shortcomings. Abraham Lincoln faced similar attacks when he ran for the White House in 1860. Ostler explains the motive for such criticism: “Saying that Lincoln didn’t know how to use the language correctly was an indirect way of saying that he was from the lower classes and therefore unworthy to be president.” Yet both men were popular with the American public because of their plain-spoken manner, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address used what was considered the proper grammar of the era.

After the Civil War, the “verbal critics” emerged, dispensing advice on English as a way to raise and maintain a person’s social status. Some of these grammarians had a streak of bias in their guidance, disapproving of words such as “smithereens” and “hooligan” brought to America by immigrants from Ireland.

At the same time, the study of language took hold at U.S. universities. Academics such as Thomas Lounsbury of Yale University argued that English was constantly changing and that the elitist directives of the verbal critics were based on whim rather than science.

“Founding Grammars” includes debates about changes in spelling and word choice as well as grammar itself. A linguist and former librarian, Ostler leans toward the descriptivist camp. Maintaining a neutral tone, she tips her hand on occasion, describing “The Elements of Style” as “relentlessly conservative.”

But this is a history book, not a writing guide, and it’s a successful and entertaining one. Ostler’s level of detail is impressive throughout “Founding Grammars.” The reader learns, among other things, that Webster worked on his famous dictionary using a standing desk and that Davy Crockett inspired the phrases “kick the bucket” and “bark up the wrong tree.”

Ostler provides the background on not only how different grammar texts and dictionaries came about, but also how popular media reacted to them at the time. For example, The New York Times, Toronto Globe & Mail and The New Yorker were apoplectic in 1961 when Webster’s Third International Dictionary took what they saw as a permissive view on “ain’t.”

Throughout the book, Ostler’s writing is clear, concise and engaging. She connects the threads of the story of America’s English with grace and authority. Even Strunk and White would approve of the way “Founding Grammars” unfolds.

This review also appears in the Winter 2015 edition of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.