Jean Aitchison’s quote

The Grammar Mavens (Steven Pinker’s term) cite rules of English only to denigrate those who “break” them. The rules they refer to are not the rules linguists talk about, the unutterably complex set of parameters and settings for pronunciation, morphology, syntax and semantics that allows us to communicate with each other without consciously thinking about the language. The next time your spouse calls you to tell you they (yes, they) have just had a car accident, be sure to “think” about the grammar, syntax, etc. as they relate their situation to you.

The rules the grammar mavens invoke were made up several centuries ago and Jean Aitchison, in her book Language Change: Progress or Decay, describes the situation this way on pp 10-12:

“Against this background of admiration for a written language [Latin]which appeared to have a fixed correct form and a full set of endings, there arose a widespread feeling that someone ought to adjudicate among the variant forms of English, and tell people what was “correct’. The task was undertaken by Samuel Johnson, the son of a bookseller in Lichfield. Johnson, like many people of fairly humble origin, had an illogical reverence for his social betters. When he attempted to codify the English language in his famous dictionary he selected middle- and upper-class usage. When he said the he had “laboured to refine our language to grammatical purity, and to clear it from colloquial barbarisms, licentious idioms, and irregular combinations,? he meant that he had in many instances pronounced against the spoken language of the lower classes, and in favour of the spoken and written forms of groups with social prestige. He asserted, therefore, that there were standards of correctness which should be adhered to, implying that these were already in use among certain social classes, and ought to be acquired by the others. Johnson’s dictionary, rightly had enormous influence, and its publication has been called “the most important linguistic event of the 18th century’. It was considered a worthwhile undertaking both by his contemporaries and by later generations since it paid fairly close attention to actual usage, even if it was the usage of only a small proportion of speakers.

However, there were other 18th century purists whose influence may have equalled that of Johnson, but whose statements and strictures were related not to usage, but to their own assumptions and prejudices. The most notable of these was Robert Lowth, Bishop of London. A prominent Hebraist and theologian, with fixed and eccentric opinions about language, he wrote A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762), which had a surprising influence, perhaps because of his own high status. Indeed, many schoolroom grammars in use to this day have laws of “good usage? which can be traced directly to Bishop Lowth’s idiosyncratic pronouncements to what was “right? and what was “wrong’. His grammar is bespattered with pompous notes in which he deplores the lamentable English of great writers. He set out to put matters right by laying down “rules,? which were often based on currently fashionable or even personal stylistic preferences. For example, contrary to general usage, he urged that prepositions at the end of sentences should be avoided:

“The Preposition is often separated from the Relative which it governs, and joined to the verb at the end of the Sentence…as, “Horace is an author, whom I am much delighted with’…This is an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to; it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style of writing; but the placing of the Preposition before the Relative is more graceful, as ell as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated style.” [he liked semicolons, too]

As a result, the notion that it is somehow “wrong? to end a sentence with a preposition is nowadays widely held.

In addition, Lowth insisted on the pronoun I in phrases such as wiser than

I., condemning lines of Swift such as “she suffers hourly more than me,?

quite oblivious of the fact that many languages, English included, prefer a

different form of the pronoun when it is detached from its verb: compare the

French plus sage que moi “wiser than me,? not *plus sage que je. In

consequence, many people nowadays believe that a phrase such as wiser than I

is “better? than wiser than me. To continue, Lowth may have been the first to argue that a double negative is wrong, on the grounds that one cancels the other out. Those who support this point of view fail to realize that language is not logic or mathematics, and that the heaping up of negatives is very common in the languages of the world. It occurs frequently in Chaucer (and in other pre-eighteenth-century English authors). For example, in the Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, Chaucer heaps up negatives to emphasize the fact that the knight was never rude to anyone:

“He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde

In all his lyf unto no maner wight.

He was a verray, parfit gentil knyght.”

Today, the belief that a double negative is wrong is perhaps the most widely accepted of all popular convictions about “correctness,? even though stacked-up negatives occur in several varieties of English, without causing any problems of understanding: “I didn’t know nothin? bout gettin? no checks to (=for) nothin,? no so (=social) security or nothin’.” This 65-year old black woman originally form the Mississippi River area of America was clearly not getting the social security payments due to her.

In brief, Lowth’s influence was profound and pernicious because so many of his strictures were based on his own preconceived notions. In retrospect, it is quite astonishing that he should have felt so confident about his prescriptions. Did he believe that, as a bishop, he was divinely inspired? It is also curious that his dogmatic statements were so widely accepted among educated Englishmen. It seems that, as a prominent religious leader, no one questioned his authority.”

End of Quote.

Let me add a few things: regarding the last paragraph, upper class Englishmen did not and do not consider themselves to be beholden to grammar instruction since they take their own speech to be the model for proper speech. It is, as in this country, the insecure strivers who worry about using “correct grammar? in their own language! From other things I’ve read, it wasn’t Lowth’s religious position that secured his eminence in language matters but his provision of rules to follow for people who were too insecure to follow their own internalized model of their native language.

And finally, this is not to say in any way that people might not want to add Standard English to their repertoire; this is what we teach in school and hope that most of our students learn. Aitchison cites the double negative silliness not in order to get us to start using double negative but rather to stop embellishing our teaching with silly, untrue statements and to recognize that double negatives have nothing to do with logic, morals, IQ or anything but an odd quirk of history that requires us to teach students to avoid the double negative, at least in formal to semi-formal speech e.g. teachers talking in the lounge. English is hardly the only language to have slightly different grammar for formal and written media.

The real trick is how to teach the standard effectively.

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