I did not become an English professor because of my early public education—but despite it. The standards advocated in the public schools pose a danger to our English-speaking world, and losing our language, or our ability to remake it, is indistinguishable from the diminishment of our Western civilization.

Like most American children who attended public school during the 1980s and 1990s, I took English classes for 12 years. Most of our time was spent in the annual repetition of grammatical activities from worn-out workbooks or fading transparency sheets that were cast upon cinderblock walls by noisy overhead projectors. There was something almost catechismal about reading these exercises aloud, dutifully providing the answers, and copying our responses into notebooks. As with most catechisms, I doubt we were expected to grasp a deeper understanding of the subject matter that was presented to us. Like the macaw, we probably parroted back the information with no comprehension of what a marvel our grammar is.

I did not become an English professor because of this experience—but despite it. In retrospect, I should have been on the same side as my teachers and against those students who used clumsy grammar. Throughout most of my schooling, I was aware of how the arrangement of words or phrases in a poem, story, or speech could create layers of meaning. Yet even as I was drawn to the richness of language, I was against this English instruction that stressed “good grammar.”

Even as a student, I recognized that the English stressed at school was hardly the language I was hearing in the educated circles that surrounded me. We never practiced grammar in any scholastic or literary sense—the activities focused on prattled words devoid of context, character, color, and thus devoid of life. I suspect that the “grammar” we learned was really a compilation of rules and guidelines from whatever handbook the particular teacher had used during the certification process 10 to 20 years before. Either way, I could not reconcile the aspirational English that I read in Shakespeare’s plays or Lincoln’s speeches with the rigid, rule-laden system of communication in the classroom.

During grammar lessons, I saw behavior that qualified as what we call shaming today. Students were made to feel inadequate because of their use of grammar. Of course, their mistakes needed correction, but I saw students who committed understandable slips (such as using the singular “they”) treated as if they had been caught dipping a carrot into a sauce bowl after removing it from their mouth. It was this treating of English grammar as snobby etiquette that offended me. I was tired of seeing slips between the transitive “lay” and the intransitive “lie” treated like flatulence at a garden party. The persons who did the reprimanding took it for granted that the conventions they stressed were written in a dome of sky beyond the stars—rules were proscribed for us, and the idea that we were also stakeholders in the life of the language was never considered.

I disdained the grammar of the classroom. I often rebelled against the approaches that reinforced correct usage. Once in middle school, I pitched a Pyrrhic battle in response to a sermon-like lesson a teacher gave about never splitting infinitives. I remember delighting in the creation of such parried constructions as “John decided to ravenously eat his egg salad sandwich.” As a middle school student, I could not understand why “Our Grammar who art in Heaven” had declared that I couldn’t insert an adverb when the English language provided an infinitive form that was derived from two distinct words. For me this provided an unendurable temptation (the apple in the Garden of Grammar Neatness as I then thought of it) to write in that heretical adverb and adulterate these constructions.

Later at the university, I learned that the split infinitive rule was constructed by Latinists who used the rules of the dead language to standardize English so it would be resistant to regional, dialectical, and cultural adaptations. When it comes to the development of Modern English, the 1700s were a crucial time. What Samuel Johnson wanted to do for English vocabulary, grammarians wanted to do for English syntax. The goals of the English grammarians were threefold: first, codify the principles of the language and reduce it to rule; second, settle disputed points (such as “you was” or “you were” at that time) and then settle cases of divided usage; third, develop lists of what were thought to be common errors. Grammarians hoped that this would improve the language over time.

Compilers of English grammars turned to classical languages, but this presented some problems because Latin and Greek are not analytic languages but inflectional ones. Analytic languages depend on the order of words, whereas inflectional ones rely on the formation of the word itself to convey important information such as tense, number, case, voice, or person. Despite the challenges, the classical grammarians tried to fit as many traditional concepts as possible into our analytic language. Latin terms such as nouns (nōmen), adjectives (adjectīvum), and verbs (verbum) were used to help organize English grammar.

Some writers resisted this attempt to Latinize grammar. One example is the Kensington schoolmaster William Loughton whose book Practical Grammar of the English Tongue in 1734 argued against those who “have attempted to force our Language (contrary to its Nature) to the Method and Rules of the Latin Grammar.” Loughton discarded the use of nouns, adjectives, and verbs in favor of terms such as names, qualifications, and affirmations.[1] Another interesting voice of dissent is Joseph Priestly, who was a theologian and a scientist: among other things, Priestly is credited with the discovery of oxygen.

In his book The Rudiments of English Grammar published in 1761, Priestly claimed that the most important criterion for language is usage. Unlike the grammatical exercises I had in school, Priestly’s work is often colorful. In order to illustrate a contrast, Priestly uses the old inscription: “Beneath this stone my wife doth lie: / She’s now at rest, and so am I.” In contrast to the school instruction some of us had, Priestly’s advice on grammar is generous and understanding. Take the following examples:

This may be said to be ungrammatical; or, at least, a very harsh ellipsis; but custom authorizes it, and many more departures from strict grammar, particularly in conversation.

The word lesser, though condemned by Dr. Johnson, and other English grammarians, is often used by good writers.

It is very common to see the superlative used for comparative degree, when only two persons or things are spoken of . . . This is a very pardonable oversight.

The word whose begins likewise to be restricted to persons, but it is not done so generally but that good writers, and even in prose, use it when speaking of things.[2]

When I was rebelling against the split infinitive rule, I wish I had read Priestly so I could have offered a valuable counterpoint, which is that such a rule can enforce an artificial and (at times) unnecessary restriction on users of English. True, an infinitive split can sometimes sound awkward (though not as awkward, I’ll wager, as never ending a sentence with a preposition, if we remember Winston Churchill’s famous maxim). However, sometimes the split can be appealing, such as the famous line in Star Trek, “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Whether the split sounds awkward or not, it is not heresy to break this rule. First, Latin was the basis for the split infinitive rule, and it is a Romance language. English—though its vocabulary borrows heavily from Old French and Latin—is Germanic, and functions as an analytic language that depends on word order and not inflections. Romance languages cannot split infinitives. Take the Spanish infinitive beber (to drink): it is one word in the language, so adding an adjective into the word (as some languages might) is not correct usage. But since English uses two words for the infinitive form of “drink,” then it is fair usage to say, “I want to voraciously drink this bottle of Gatorade.” Second, the split infinitive prohibition did not come down from Mount Sinai—it is a convention, but our customs of language also have their conventions. On reflection, we might find that our idiolect contains customs of usage that we wish to unlearn or relegate to our informal communications. However, when our personal customs come into conflict with formal ones, this does not mean that ours are wrong by default. As Priestly says, “Must not this custom, therefore, be allowed to have some weight, in favor of those forms of speech, to which our best writers and speakers seem evidently prone.”

What is true about the split infinitive rule is true of other usages as well. Entire books and academic studies exist that examine the history of lexicography, orthography, and what was once called “ascertainment” (the reduction of language to rule). As I began a deeper study of English, I changed my mind about grammar. At the university, I had professors who advocated for the English language instead of a fussy standard. Under their guidance and further study, I embraced English grammar which is the study of syntax, morphology, sentence constructions, features of words according to their order, and the history of usage.

Grammatical instruction is one issue in a larger conflict that concerns the consolidation of power and the endurance of the individual soul. I believe all public school students should learn about the history of English and its grammar. Students need to see the perennial attempt to compile and codify English that helps us as individual users to reshape our personal, sociopolitical, and epistemological needs through the medium of language. Students should also understand the danger posed by those who would transform our language into an algorithm and us into its interchangeable variables. For George Orwell and others, losing our language, or our ability to remake, it was indistinguishable from the diminishment of our Western civilization.

I take comfort in what Priestly says about the grammar of English: it “will never be effected by the arbitrary rules of any man, or body of men whatever.” In other words, grammar is a vital part of our inheritance as individual users of English—it is part of our cultural lifeblood, and we are both participants and stakeholders. Dictatorships come and bureaucracies go, but the final attempt to make our language independent of human thought cannot succeed.

This is the grammar I should have learned at school.

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[1] Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable. A History of the English Language (Fourth Edition). Prentice Hall, 1993 (1957).

[2] Joseph Priestly. The Rudiments of English Grammar. Cambridge University Press, 2014 (1761).

The featured image is a detail from “Madonna del Magnificat” by Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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