It was probably John Dryden who started the ban on ending sentences with prepositions; Jonathan Swift couldn’t stand contractions.
Who decides whether it’s acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition or to use the word “infer” as a synonym for “imply”? Who decides whether the phrase “free gift” is redundant and therefore incorrect, and whether it’s proper to speak of a “mutual friend” since “mutual” refers to a relationship between two, not three? Most literate people still want these questions decided for them by some authority, whether H.W. Fowler, the usage notes in the American Heritage Dictionary or the guy in the next cubicle who knows a lot about grammar. This urge for clarity remains despite the best efforts of academic linguists and other “descriptivist” grammarians who dismiss the notion of grammatical “correctness” and insist that “rules” are wholly determined by usage.
The trouble with descriptivism—the idea that the grammarian’s job is to describe the language, not to issue judgments about propriety—isn’t that it’s theoretically unsound. Rules really are just conventions. The trouble with descriptivism is that it’s inhuman. People will always want to know the right way to say a thing. The secretary writing a letter or the corporate communications drone writing a press release doesn’t care whether “impact” as a verb is “generally accepted,” as modern usage manuals put it; he wants to know if using “impact” as a verb will make him sound stupid.
Henry Hitchings, in “The Language Wars,” seems to appreciate the fact that propriety is part of human life, even if it’s given no room in the lifeless principles of linguistics. He has plenty of criticisms for those “inveterate fusspots” who understand just enough English grammar to lord it over their supposed inferiors, but he isn’t so naïve as to think we can be rid of “rules” in the old-fashioned sense of the word.
The story begins in the 17th century. The distinction between “will” and “shall” was first proposed in 1653 by John Wallis in a book—oddly, written in Latin—called “Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae.” In 1660 the newly formed Royal Society established a “committee for improving the English language,” and in 1667 the society’s historian Thomas Sprat was inveighing against excessive ornament and “fineness” in English prose. It was probably John Dryden, we learn, who originated the prejudice against ending sentences with prepositions. Early in the next century Jonathan Swift thundered against contractions, and Daniel Defoe suggested that the interdiction against coining new money ought to apply equally to words.
By the 19th century, with the use of English reaching higher and higher levels of sophistication and complexity, English-speakers became much more receptive to rule-making. Noah Webster taught America to spell “labor” without a “u” and “public” without a “k”; the Rhode Islander Goold Brown invented the rule (still followed by some) that “between” applies to a relationship of two, and “among” to three or more; and in 1897 an anonymous writer in a British magazine named the “split infinitive” as something to be avoided.
Mr. Hitchings finds that some of the most stringent 18th- and 19th-century grammarians were far more thoughtful about language than their modern descriptivist critics have supposed. Bishop Lowth, whose “Short Introduction to English Grammar” (1762) conceived the rule against double negatives and established many other prejudices, was in fact remarkably nuanced in his judgments. Samuel Johnson, the greatest of all prescriptivists, had no faith in etymology and regarded as sheer folly the idea that an “academy” should be established to “protect the language.” There is evidence, too, that some of the old-school grammarians didn’t take themselves nearly so seriously as might be thought: John Ash’s “Grammatical Institutes” (1763), for example, contains this marvelous explanation: “A Parenthesis (to be avoided as much as possible) is used to include some Sentence in another.”
Mr. Hitchings writes with exceptional efficiency and clarity, and he appears to realize that the conventions of English—we used to call them rules—are precisely what allow the versatility, subtlety and grace of the best writing. Yet he defers obediently to the verities of modern linguistics, and when he tries to defend the older conventions he ends up tying himself in knots. Take his discussion of the rampant use of “they,” “them” and “their” to refer to singular antecedents, as in: “When someone shouts ‘Fire!’ in a theater, they’re not exercising their right to free speech.” Mr. Hitchings treats this and other questions the way some people treat abortion: personally he’s opposed to it, but he won’t call it wrong. Saying “he” is widely considered sexist, he notes, and saying “he or she” can be cumbersome if done too often. He makes a fair point that “everyone” should be considered plural in order to avoid ambiguity: the sentence “Christine met everyone at the camp site before John arrived with his tent” sounds ridiculous if “his” refers to “everyone” rather than John. But ambiguity arises just as easily when the antecedent is singular. For instance: “If a visitor arrives with flowers, take them to the sitting room.” Take the visitor to the sitting room, or just the flowers?
Indeed, Mr. Hitchings is of two minds about proper English. He complains about the “imperious” attitudes of Fowler and Strunk and White, but concedes that modern descriptivist grammars don’t supply “decisive, straightforward answers” to problems that “feel uncomfortably real.” He knows that the meanings of words change over time, and rightly deplores the conceit of those “fusspots” who berate people for incorrect usages, but “I wince,” he admits, “when ‘hysterical’ is used as a synonym for ‘hilarious.’ ”
Ambivalence is an excellent quality in a historian, however, and for all Mr. Hitchings’s hand-wringing, even the fusspots will relish his latest book.
The Language Wars
By Henry Hitchings
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 408 pages, $28)
Mr. Swaim is the author of “Scottish Men of Letters and the New Public Sphere, 1802-34.”