Thursday, April 27, 2006

Prescriptive Grammar and the much maligned Bishop Lowth

People love to bash prescriptive grammar nowadays. Of all the objects of this fashionable hatred, no one seems to suffer more than Bishop Lowth, whose 1763 Short Introduction to English Grammar has been blamed as the source of all our present trouble with prescriptivists. Among the evil prescriptions sometimes attributed to this work are the rules against split infinitives and stranded prepositions. Lowth, so the story goes, was so infatuated with Latin grammar that he did not realize that rules for Latin prepositions were not necessarily applicable to English ones, or that Latin infinitives, being single words, were obviously unsplittable in a way that English infinitives with "to" are not.

Now I have always been doubtful of the assertion that English prescriptive rules are due to a foolish overreliance on Latin grammar. People writing in the prescriptivist tradition were serious about what they were doing, and thought hard about it: while it is true that they drew their grammatical concepts from what they had learned in school about Latin, it was obvious to them, as to any idiot, that Latin and English are different languages with very different idioms. Especially suspect in this respect is the idea that the prohibition against split infinitives is derived from the impossibility of splitting them in Latin. I do not know where this prohibition comes from originally, but it looks to me that attributing it to overreliance on Latin is a straw-man argument, deliberately preposterous so as to be easy to refute. Who does not know the difference between one word and two? and would any intelligent, well-meaning prescriptivist really cite the fact that Latin infinitives consist of one word as grounds for treating English infinitives as if they were one word, too?

I was on the case, and decided to look for the origins of these prohibitions where they supposedly lay, in Lowth's 1775 grammar. Not surprisingly, I discovered that Lowth was much more subtle and reasonable than anyone was willing to grant him. His ideas are often confused and out of date, it is true: for example, he seems to have trouble distinguishing between the pronunciation of words and their spelling, that is between sounds and letters. But the idea that he tried to stuff English grammar into ideas from Latin grammar-books seems to me to be wrong. In general, his method of argumentation is to look for analogies within the English language, and to argue from these. Of course, this type of argument has its problems. Just because one construction works one way does not mean that the analogous construction must work analogously. English is capricious. But it is a far more persuasive kind of argument than the dogmatic Latinizing of English that I have seen attributed to him.

For example, on the question of whether "wert" is subjunctive or indicative, he quotes examples from authors using "wert" as indicative but continues:
"Shall we in deference to these great authorities allow wert to be the same with wast, and common to the Indicative and Subjunctive Mode? or rather abide by the practice of our best antient writers; the propriety of the language, which requires, as far as may be, distinct forms for different Modes; and the analogy of formation in each Mode; I was, Thou wast; I were, Thou wert; all which conspire to make wert peculiar to the Subjunctive Mode." (p. 73)
Of course, there are a lot of problems with this reasoning, and it would not be accepted now. He is trying to go against the accepted practice of the language in order to set up a distinction he wishes were present, but is not; and against real authorities he cites "our best antient writers" which, however, he does not name or quote from. Nevertheless, I think this argument is not unreasonable. How many of us know the forms to be used with "Thou"? In his day, the forms were falling out of use, and he was trying to set up a system that made sense to him. If I were ever going to use "thou" in writing (in comedy, for example), and did not have a reliable grammar to tell me how this used to be done, I would probably use "wast" for the past tense and "wert" for the subjunctive for the very reasons he mentions: analogy with the other forms. Of course, once I saw the contrary evidence from the other writers I would probably concede that my little system was wrong -- something which Lowth fails to do. But it should be noted that his method of argumentation is by analogy with other aspects of English which he is surer of than he is of the point in question: NOT by analogy with Latin.

If this example makes Lowth seem a little shaky, another example will (I think) show him at his best. In his chapter on Sentences, he turns to discuss the construction represented by the example "God, who didst teach the hearts of thy people, by THE SENDING TO THEM THE LIGHT of thy spirit...." (pp. 140-141). The construction in question involves a gerund preceded by the definite article but nevertheless followed by a direct object without "of". It appears to have been somewhat common in the beginning of the eighteenth century, but sounds incredibly odd to us, and did to Lowth, too, and for exactly the same reasons, which he articulates clearly.
"Sending is in this place a Noun; for it is accompanied with the Article: nevertheless it is also a Transitive Verb, for it governs the Noun light in the Objective Case: but this is inconsistent; let it be either the one or the other, and abide by its proper Construction. That these Participial Words are sometimes real Nouns is undeniable; for they have a Plural Number as such: as, 'the outgoings of the morning.' The Sending is the same with the Mission; which necessarily requires the Preposition of after it, to mark the relation between it and the light; the mission of the light; and so, the sending of the light. The phrase would be proper either way; by keeping to the Construction of the Noun, by the sending of the light; or of the Participle, or Gerund, by sending the light."
The method he uses to test whether the gerund can be a real noun is perfectly contemporary: he sees if it can take nominal inflections, and he replaces it with what he knows to be a noun. This is a very reasonable way of proceding. The only point of difference is that he refuses to accept counterexamples: since they do not fit his theory, he explains them away as wrong. Obviously, this is not a "scientific attitude", but his purpose was not to be scientific. It was to look at constructions he found odd or unacceptable, and to explain by rational analysis just what made them that way. The only difference between him and the modern linguist (in this respect) is that he allows his judgments of what is grammatical, correct or acceptable to override the evidence of other speakers. His data colletion may be unscientific, but his arguments are reasonable.

Far from relying on analogy with Latin grammar, he criticizes other grammarians for doing just that in his passage on the absolute construction (pp. 134-135). He quotes Milton's "God from the mount of Sinai, whose grey top Shall tremble, HE DESCENDING, will himself In thunder, lightning and loud trumpet's sound, Ordain them laws," which, he says, correctly employs the "Case absolute, [which] is in English always the Nominative," and then adds:
"On [this] place says Dr. Bentley, 'The Context demands that it be, - Him descending, Illo descendente.' But him is not the Ablative Case, for the English knows no such Case; nor does him without a Preposition on any occasion answer to the Latin Ablative illo. I might with better reason contend, that it ought to be "his descending," because it is in Greek autos katabainontos, in the Genitive; and it would be as good Grammar, and as proper English. This comes of forcing the English under the rules of a foreign Language, with which it has little concern...."
He objects to overconfident comparisons of Latin and English grammar on principled grounds: cases that appear analogous are not really analogous at all; we should treat English grammar on its own terms, not those of Latin or still less Greek, since obviously each language has its own natural constructions.

This much should suffice to clear Lowth of the charge of fatuuous Latinization. What he really has to say about stranded prepositions and split infinitives (which is quite different from what his critics suppose him to say), I will save for another post.


Blogger Ben said...

Yeah - I don't understand why everyone Lowthes him.

Ooh, that was bad. Even for me.

4:39 PM  
Blogger Gheuf said...


2:59 PM  

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