Grammar Is A Waste Of Time!

Insistence on "correct and formal" English is a kind of neurosis, he claims. Why should we slavishly follow the fuzzy precepts of some eighteenth-century clergymen?

DR. RUDOLF FLESCH February 1 1954

Grammar Is A Waste Of Time!

Insistence on "correct and formal" English is a kind of neurosis, he claims. Why should we slavishly follow the fuzzy precepts of some eighteenth-century clergymen?

DR. RUDOLF FLESCH February 1 1954

Grammar Is A Waste Of Time!

Insistence on "correct and formal" English is a kind of neurosis, he claims. Why should we slavishly follow the fuzzy precepts of some eighteenth-century clergymen?


Where angels and editors would fear to tread, the best-selling author of The Art of Plain Talk now says

A LARGE PART of your life was spent in learning English grammar and usage, and your children will spend years absorbing exactly the same knowledge.

What did you get out of it? How often do you use your precious knowledge of moods and tenses, participles and gerunds, demonstrative pronouns, and subordinating conjunctions?

The obvious answer is, Never. You speak, read, write all day long, but throughout your adult life you haven’t spent a single second in deciding whether to put a verb in the indicative or the subjunctive, or in exercising a choice between a definite and an indefinite article. Grammar is something you learn, promptly forget, and dismiss for the rest of your life.

Why should this be so? How did it come about that a considerable part of your school learning was devoted to something so utterly useless? Once you start to think about it, you immediately realize that here is one of the biggest mysteries of our civilization.

Grammar is the only thing you study after having learned how to use it. In everything else the sequence is: ignorance,

learning, application. In grammar it’s the other way round. You start with knowledge and application, and then you learn.

You learned how to walk by taking steps holding on to the hands of your mother or father, and then graduating to taking the first, second and third step alone. Similarly, you learned how to talk by saying “Mummy,” “Daddy,” and “doggie” and proceeding to “I want ice cream” or “Me sound asleep.” Did it ever occur to anyone to teach you walking all over again, explaining carefully the proper sequence of muscle movements and the exact angle at which to bend your knees? Of course not. But you were taught, laboriously and for years on end, that in constructing the sentence “I want ice cream” you were using the first person singular, nominative case of a personal pronoun as the subject, and the present indicative, active voice of a verb as the predicate, whereas in saying “Me sound asleep” you committed the double, unforgivable crime of putting the personal pronoun in the objective case and uttering a sentence fragment in the bargain.

Most people would consider this procedure crazy, and incomprehensible. You learn how to use words; then you use them. What else is there to study? Ask an African Negro or a South Sea Islander—anyone unspoiled by Western habits of thought—and he will look at you in astonishment. He has learned how to master his native tongue; as far as he is concerned, grammar doesn’t come into it. Correctness, purity of speech—what does it all mean?

Of course with us the necessity of grammar is so ingrained that we are embarrassed and disconcerted when someone raises such a question. Children must learn grammar because otherwise they would grow up without having learned grammar; we must have standards of correctness in speech so that we can avoid grammatical errors. But the whole idea is completely illogical; the argument falls to pieces after five minutes of consecutive thought. And yet we all hang onto it for dear life as one of the mainstays of our educational system.

Continued on page 46


To help their campaign for relaxation of the strict rules of grammar, IJ. S. professors who conduct the Current English Forum in the monthly English Journal have collected thousands of examples of bad grammar by distinguished authors. These include:

JANE AUSTEN: E'jerybody has a way of their own.

LORD BRYCE: Tyranny is one of those evils that

tends to perpetuate itself.

IIERVEY ALLEN: Trying to sit up, the whole room had reeled.

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON: You had ought to tell me that.

RUDYARD KIPLING: One don’t begin with writing straight off.

Grammar Is a Waste of Time


The study of English grammar was invented in England in the early eighteenth century. “Many of the writers on language,” writes Professor Robert C. Pooley, of the University of Wisconsin, in his book Teaching English Usage, “were retired clergymen or country philosophers who, though possessing some skill in the classics, had no conception at all of the history of English or the methods of linguistic research . . . The prevailing conceptions of language were (1) that language is a divine institution, originally perfect, hut debased by man; (2) that English is a corrupt and degenerate offspring of Latin and Greek . . . The actual usage of English was ignored or despised by all but one or two of the writers of this age.

“One of the most influential of the eighteenth-century writers on language was BLshop Lowth, whose Short Introduction to English Grammar appeared in 1762. In 1795 an American named Bindley Murray wrote a grammar, nearly all of which he copied from Lowth. Murray’s book had sold more than one million copies in America before 1850. Murray’s successors copied freely from hLs book, so that the direct influence of Lowth persisted well into the latter part of the nineteenth century.”

In a speech in 1950 Pooley brought the issue up to date.

“The eighteenth - century tradition of English grammar continues almost unchanged,” he said, “leaving an everwidening gap between the sound conclusions of our linguistic scholars and the archaic method of teaching the structure of our language.”

And that’s where we are now. Having been brought up on the unscientific ideas of those eighteenth-century clergymen we fervently believe in good grammar and correct usage. An English teacher to us is someone who has drunk deep from the well of the laws and rules of language—strange and unfamiliar to ordinary mortals—and can show us how to mend our sinful ways. Poor infinitive-splitters all, we try to put our best foot forward and ask shyly whether punishment for saying “It’s me” is still on the books.

Sometimes we write letters to newspaper editors or otherwise do our bit to uphold the grammar - and - usage dogmas.

Not long ago the Bacardi rum company announced in an ad that “a Bacardi old-fashioned contains less calories than a lamb chop, a Bacardi cocktail less calories than a boiled egg.” Did people claim that the logic was specious or that the argument was immoral? Not at all. Instead they wrote in, in droves, that the copywriter should have said “fewer” instead of “less” and was corrupting the language of innocent school children, already endangered by exposure to television commercials and the comics.

And just recently the worship at the shrine of the good Bishop Lowth produced an incredible comedy of errors —the kind of thing a fiction writer wouldn’t dare to put into a story. One nice day in the spring of 1953 New York State Assemblyman Philip J. Schupler, a PhD and principal of the summer session of Brooklyn Preparatory School, was reading the State Surrogate Court Act of 1920. His eye fell upon the heading of Section 140. It read: “Who to be cited thereupon:

contents of citation.” Dr. Schupler shuddered. His soul cried out that the first word of the heading should be “whom.” In the next session of the legislature he brought in a bill to change the indecently exposed “who” to a well-behaved “whom.” The legislature of the State of New York voted. The bill was passed. In due course it came before Governor Thomas E. Dewey and was signed.

Newspapers reported the incident and after several weeks Schupler, the members of the New York State legislature, and Governor Dewey learned that they had all overlooked a small but essential piece of information: “Who to be cited” had been grammatically correct all the time, even by the standards of Bishop Lowth, who would never have dreamed of putting the subject of a passive verb in the objective case. At the expense of several hundred dollars the State of New York had created a grammatical error where there had been none before.

Can You Draw a Line?

The point 1 am driving at is that the study of correct grammar and usage is the oldest and most widely known of those mechanical, artificial, completely unscientific linguistic remedies that people grasp at when they feel at a loss for the right word. We have a vague feeling that we could do better in our speaking and writing; the first thing that comes to our minds is that we ought to do something quick to avoid making grammatical mistakes. So the most widely used “communication pills” are books and courses in “better English.” And what do people get when they sign up for one of those courses? You guessed it: the heritage of the immortal Bishop Lowth. Whom for who, fewer for less, and all the rest of the eighteenth-century linguistic revelation.

Of course I don’t mean to say that all grammar and usage being dispensed nowadays is of the Lowth variety. There has been progress, sparked by linguistic scholars and members of the scientifically oriented wing of the English teaching profession, led by such men as Robert G. Pooley, whom I quoted earlier, and Porter G. Perrin, author of the widely used college text. Writer’s Guide and Index to English. Professor Perrin has also contributed excellent up-to-date usage notes to the Thorndike-Barnhart Comprehensive Desk Dictionary. Here’s an example:

In formal English careful distinction is kept between the auxiliary “can” when it has the meaning of ability, “being able to,” and “may” with the meaning of permission. “You may go now.” “He can walk with crutches.” “You may if you can . . .” In informal and colloquial English “may” occurs rather rarely except in the sense of possibility . . . "Can” is generally used for both permission and ability: “Can I go now? You can if you want to.” “I can go eighty miles an hour with my car.” This is in such general usage that il should be regarded as good English in speaking and informal writing.

The typical modern—or even ultramodern—reference book gives you the Lowth type of grammar and usage side by side with the grammar and usage you use yourself—or would use hadn’t your impulse been checked by learning the “correct” way of saying things. You take your choice, those books tell you. In informal speaking and writing you go by your rules, in formal speech and writing by those of Bishop Lowth. , What does that mean? Where are you supposed to draw the line? What is formal, what is informal? If the decision is left to you, you probably figure that informal speech and writing is the kind of talking you do around the house, plus the note-to-the-milkman type of writing. Everything else, you supposetalk and writing at the office and to strangers—must be the formal kind and that’s where you have ! to use the “whom” and “may” type of language. That’s tough, but you decide you’ll do your best. Tomorrow morning you will start. You’ll pick up the telephone and say: “With

whom am I speaking? May I talk to Mr. Smith? Thanks a good deal.”

But that isn’t at all what modern English teachers have in mind. To them, formal and informal means something entirely different. Professor Perrin’s definition of informal English is:

Informal English is the typical language of an educated person going about his everyday affairs. It lies between the uncultivated level on one side and the more restricted formal level on the other. It is used not only for personal affairs but for most public affairs—of business and politics, for example, except in strictly legal matters—for most newspaper and magazine articles, for the bulk of fiction and drama, for a good deal of poetry. In the last generation or so it has come to dominate English writing, partly in reaction against the more elaborate style of the nineteenth century . . . Formal English is passed on chiefly through reading and so represents in many respects the usage and style of the preceding generation of writers; informal English lies closer to speech.

Which means, in plain words: in-

formal English—your kind of English -is what you are supposed to use all the time; formal English —the Bishop Lowth kind—is of as much practical use to you as a top hat. You might as well forget it.

If that’s so, why is all the information you get about up-to-date, scientifically acceptable usage carefully labeled “informal English,” to be sharply distinguished from “formal English” J where all the old rules apply in full force? Why is this useless, once-ina-blue-moon language still being taught in even the most modern books? Why | is Bishop Lowth’s outmoded unscieni tifie grammar and usage still being served up to all and sundry under the deceptive label “formal English”?

In October 1951 Professor Tom Burnam, of the Colorado State College of Education, finding himself again facing an English class filled to the brim with all the nonsense about “formal” English and its glories, exploded in the pages of College English, the official organ of the U. S. National Council of Teachers of English:

Most students are acquainted with two kinds of English: real English, the kind people they know use, and the other kind which a creature whom I call Miss Higginbotham tries to impose in the high-school classroom. This morning I asked my students, among whom are the usual T-done-its” and “it-ain’ts,” to tell me what they remembered most clearly ot the English they had learned up to now.

I said, “Were you taught always to say ‘can’ for ability and ‘may’ for permission?” Vigorous nodding of heads. “Did Miss Higginbotham tell you never to split infinitives?” More nodding. “Did she forbid prepositions at the end of sentences?” They assured me that she had.

“What else did she teach you?” I asked. “Anything else?” Silence. “Can’t you remember a single thing about your previous work except ‘can’ and ‘may’ and split infinitives and prepositions at the end?” I asked. No, they couldn’t. All they could remember was three rules that don’t exist.

Well, so what? Perhaps split infinitives and so on aren’t really very important; still, does it hurt a student to know these things? Yes, I think it does. What a great many teachers of English still do, it seems to me, is to enforce upon the student what can only be called a dreamworld: a dream-world where no

“careful speaker or writer” ever says “awful” or “swell” or “lousy” or “Aren’t I?” or even “Nuts!”

I do not think I exaggerate in placing much of the blame for the college teachers’ troubles squarely on Miss Higginbotham’s shoulders. She is the one, I am convinced, who first introduces her students to that miasmic distinction between “formal” and “informal” English . . . She leaves her students with the impression that full-dress is the proper costume for breakfast, lunch, dinner, the athletic field, the classroom, and the grocery store . . .

I am convinced that even among professors “formal” English accounts for less than one percent of their language activities ... I cannot waste my time training students in elaborate devices concerning an activity to which they will devote, at the most, less than one percent of their time.

“Formal” English is just another fortification in the formidable defensein-depth that protects the disciples of Bishop Lowth. And even that is not the last rampart. Behind it there looms up the mighty bastion called “educated usage” or “standards of the best speakers and writers.” Even in informal speech and writing you are not supposed to do what you feel like: you are told to observe the example of your betters and do likewise;.

For this is the up - to - the - minute word the “liberals” among the English teachers have given out: the old, rigid, eighteenth-century rules are dead; long live the new rules of “educated usage.” Go back through the past few years of the English Journal and you will find, in almost every monthly issue, the Current English Forum, conducted hy leaders of the progressive wing of the profession: Harold B. Allen,

Adeline C. Bartlett, Margaret M. Bryant, Archibald A. Hill, James B. McMillan, Kemp Malone, Russell Thomas. This band of professors is determined to convince high-school English teachers of the superiority of colloquial usage. They use research, data, statistics. Look at all the distinguished ‘Wzo-users,” they cry; observe how the literary great eschewed the subjunctive; see how many respectable people split infinitives. They have collected thousands of specimens (see panel on page 11).

But, to the true believer in strict grammar, I’m afraid this doesn’t prove a thing. So, he would admit, famous writers and speakers occasionally make mistakes; let’s forgive them. Let’s not play up those little lapses and hold them up as shining examples to our youngsters who are in the process of learning what’s right and wrong.

This is a strong argument—strong enough to have called forth a recent editorial in the English Journal, pleading for more research, more data, more statistics to find out once and for all which of those examples are isolated “mistakes” and which represent genuine trends.

And there the matter stands. If it turns out that infinitive-splitting is prevalent among sixty-three percent of “educated speakers and writers,” then we’ll all buckle down and split them, by golly, from there on; if only thirty-nine percent are found to be practicing participle-danglers, then we shall abstain from that ugly habit and return to the rules of Bishop Lowth.

Absurd? Yes, I think it’s absurd. And yet, this is the logic of the present thinking in grammar and usage. The battle cry is “Do what the majority does!” In the final analysis, the scientific rules of grammar and usage would consist in following the herd.

I don’t think that’s the final answer. “Adjustment” is the battle cry of those who want to escape from freedom and responsibility, as psychologists have pointed out. We are not all meant to drive a Buick as soon as six people out of ten in our block drive a Buick.

And so, in grammar and usage, we shall sooner or later recognize the statistical approach as a delusion. We won’t return to a belief in the divine inspiration of Bishop Lowth, but we won’t submit either to rules of grammar and usage by majority decree.

Of course if unconventional grammar makes you feel uneasy, change your habits by all means. There is no doubt that even fifteen minutes a day of eighteenth-century grammar, ridiculous as it may seem, will pay dividends for you: all efforts toward

self-improvement are helpful if they succeed in enlarging the powers of your mind. But don’t expect more than that. Don’t expect that a course, a textbook, an outside authority will ever solve your daily language problems for you. You have to be your own grammarian.

Make Your Own Rules

This is a harsh doctrine, I know, since it puts the responsibility all on your own shoulders. Is there no help and guidance at all then?

It so happens that there is one book, and one only, that gives you advice on grammar and usage that is neither of the musty eighteenth-century type nor of the statistical, “appropriatein-informal-usage” variety. That book is A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by H. W. Fowler. Fowler wrote his masterpiece when he was seventy years old. What he says about questions of grammar, usage, vocabulary, and style is always wise, original, based solely on his deep understanding and sincere love for the English language. Observations such as:

When we say “damn,” it relieves us because it is a strong word and yet means nothing; we do not intend the person or thing or event that we damn to be burnt in hell fire; far from it; but the faint aroma of brim -stone that hangs forever about the word is savoury in wrathful nostrils.

“Of course,” as the herald of an out-of-the-way fact that one has just unearthed from a book of reference, is a sad temptation to journalists.

A potato is a tuber, but the fact should be left in the decent obscurity of agricultural textbooks.

“It stands to reason” is a formula that gives its user the unfair advantage of at once invoking reason and refusing to listen to it.

"Distinction,” as a literary critics’ word, is, like “charm,” one of those on which they fall back when they wish to convey that a style is meritorious, but have not time to make up their minds upon the precise nature of its merit.

That’s the kind of guidance you will get from Fowler. You may not always agree with his recommendations; but you will never be able to dismiss him without doing quite a bit of thinking of your own. For the rest, as I said, you will have to he your own grammarian. Are you then supposed to speak and write as the spirit moves you? Are you supposed to go by feeling and by ear? Yes — provided that your feeling and your ear have not been perverted by “correct” grammar to play you tricks.

Recently I was reading an article on jet planes in U. S. News. One of the interviewer’s questions was this: “Why hasn’t our Air Force ordered a prototype of a jet military transport like the British have done?”

The word “like” is used here as a conjunction. This is a usage strongly condemned in all grammar books and not considered acceptable even in informal writing. Reading the sentence, 1 winced. My inner voice told me that here was an example of bad usage.

And yet, what is the real significance of my wincing? Exposed to a certain type of language stimulus, my nervous system reacted in a certain way. How come? Obviously because at some t ime in the past it was conditioned to react that way. I didn’t wince because “like” as a conjunction is absolutely, by and of itself, “bad grammar;” neither did 1 wince because I was born with a tendency to wince whenever 1 see that construction in print. I winced because the followers of Bishop Lowth had managed to build this pet dogma of theirs into my nervous system.

In other words, rigid and insurmountable dislike of a particular speech form is actually a kind of slight neurosis, produced by instruction in “correct” grammar and usage.

If you can’t talk to a foreign-born cab driver without suffering acutely from his mistakes in English grammar and usage, then you are ill-adapted to current North American life. You want to learn what is considered correct and standard? By all means do so. But use that knowledge to become free -free to feel at home in the English language everywhere and with everybody.

It might help you to know that E. M. Forster, the author of A Passage to India, who is today generally considered a dean of English letters, once began an essay with the words:

“Do you like to know who a book’s by?”

This is a gem. Not only did Forster put the preposition “by” at the end —a practice universally condemned by grammatical fuddyduddies--he also chose the “who” over “whom.” And yet what could anybody do to improve that sentence? “Do you like to know whom a book’s by?” Sounds all wrong. “Do you like to know by whom a book is?” Even worse. “When you read a book, do you like to know by whom it is?” Terrible. It’s just right as Forster wrote it.

Since 1 clearly disagree with those on the right, on the left, and in the middle, chances are that many readers will misunderstand what I was trying to say. Let me add: 1 do not believe that all instruction in grammar and usage is worthless and should be abandoned forthwith. 1 do think and firmly believe that grammatical “correctness” is an eighteenth-century superstition; that “formal speech and writing” are practically nonexistent in ordinary twentieth-century life; the “educated usage, followed by the best writers and speakers” is largely a myth. But there is such a thing as scientific grammar, and there is an intelligent approach to usage, as exemplified in Fowler’s wonderful book.

In expanded form, this article will later be included in a book, How To Make Sense, to be published by Harper and Brothers, if