Thursday, September 20, 2012

Re: My Hackles

I just had to write one more time about Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue. He got my hackles up. I’ve enjoyed 90% of the book immensely, but that other 10% is really bugging me. How the Vikings affected English, how new words are formed, where names come from, how British English and American English differ, why our pronunciation varies so much both from that of other speakers of English and, in many instances, from the spelling of the word – all these topics fascinate me, and Bryson has informative and entertaining things to say about each of them. But when he starts talking about rules and standards, he suddenly becomes crazy.

OK, so I know that English doesn’t have a linguistic academy regulating its use. (According to this list on Wikipedia, English is seemingly the only language that doesn’t have an academy.) And I recognize that, as a result of the lack of an academy, all teachers of grammar are self-proclaimed experts. I gladly characterize myself as a self-proclaimed expert on grammar and proudly join myself to the ranks that include Robert Lowth, an amateur grammarian from the eighteenth century who, according to Bryson, single-handedly came up with, among others, the rule to say “different from” rather than “different than” and the rule to say “the largest of several objects” but “the larger of two.” But I’m the first to admit (in many, many students’ lives, I’m literally the first to admit) that some of the rules of English grammar and punctuation are completely arbitrary.

But Bryson goes too far and says that the rules of English grammar are all arbitrary, that they make no sense, that they are illogical. Let’s take his disdain for Lowth’s insistence that we say “between” when locating one object with reference to two others but “among” when using more than two reference objects. Nonsense?! Bryson offers a lot of amazing details about the history of the language in other chapters. Can’t he look at the “tw” in the middle of that word and see that “two” played an essential part sometime in its history? That doesn’t mean we have to use the word in the same way Chaucer did, but at least the distinction isn’t arbitrary. As for the word “different,” we might have no discernible reason for saying, “This differs from that” and not “This differs than that.” But given that we do (and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone use the second construction), it’s completely logical and consistent to say, “This is different from that” and not “This is different than that.” The example Bryson gives to demonstrate this issue doesn’t even apply; I won’t bog the paragraph down with more details except to say that his example doesn’t compare two nouns in a way that could be rephrased as “X differs from Y.” So sure, if you don’t allow the premise, there’s no logical argument.

Bryson notes that we use a plural verb after “many” in a phrase like “many men were” but a singular verb in a phrase like “many a man was.” He says there is “no inherent reason” why we should do so and even that the distinction is “not defensible.” I admit that the second construction is quirky, but if it uses a singular article and a singular noun, then what’s not defensible is to say that it’s not defensible to use a singular verb. Does he think we should say, “Many a man were”?

Regarding the traditional rule that forbids splitting an infinitive, Bryson says (correctly as far as I know) that the rule comes from an antique thought that English grammar should conform in this case to rules of Latin grammar. (Since the infinitive consists of one word in Latin, it can’t possibly be split.) No, English doesn’t need to follow – and in many, many respects doesn’t follow – Latin rules. But Bryson shows the chink in his armor when, after listing several authorities, says, “All agree that there is no logical reason not to split the infinitive.” If he’s right, why didn’t he seize the opportunity to say, “no logical reason to not split the infinitive”? My theory is that Bryson, an excellent writer whose grasp of grammar is obviously more intuitive than conscious, has instincts based on a lifetime of reading that tell him it sounds better not to split. Come on! “Great is the LORD and to greatly be praised”?! “To be or to not be”?! I know Captain Kirk’s mission was to boldly go. But (1) is there any reason it couldn’t have been “to go boldly”? And (2) are we really supposed to model our grammar after a fictional character who left his communications officer and head nurse altogether out of the mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before”?

I could overlook it all – Bryson’s ridicule of rules he himself follows and the inconsistencies in arguments about consistency. But the gloves come off when he takes on Samuel Johnson. This man is my hero. To paraphrase Captain Kirk again, of all the souls I have encountered in my travels through great literature, his was the most . . . [mouth twitches] . . . human! I couldn’t resist that one. Actually I was going to say that of all the people I’ve encountered in my reading (both as an author and as a subject), he is the one I most admire and most want to be like. He had his flaws, to be sure; his devoted biographer pointed out many of them. But you have to make a really, really good case if you expect me just to stand by while you criticize Dr. Johnson.

Bryson says that “there were holes in Johnson’s erudition.” That totally gratuitous observation only says that humans aren't perfect; Johnson was one of the most erudite people ever to have lived. But then he goes even further:
Even allowing for the inflated prose of his day, he had a tendency to write passages of remarkable denseness, as here; “The proverbial oracles of our parsimonious ancestors have informed us, that the fatal waste of our fortune is by small expenses, by the profusion of sums too little singly to alarm our caution, and which we never suffer ourselves to consider together.” Too little singly? I would wager good money that that sentence was as puzzling to his contemporaries as it is to us.
I confess I had to read the sentence twice myself, but after the second reading it was perfectly clear to me. We fritter away our money because we spend it repeatedly on expenses each one of which (i.e., singly) is too little to notice. Boswell’s beautiful account of the life of Dr. Johnson says nothing if it doesn’t say that there was once a time and there was once a pub where people met and did in fact understand sentence after sentence just like this one and responded in kind. Bill Bryson! I wish you were here so I could take you up on that wager!


  1. I think normally I would have trouble reading the example sentence of Dr. Johnson's, but I've been reading Sense and Sensibility recently, and I had no trouble with it. I actually think the sentence quite eloquent in giving an example of what it's speaking of, adding words here and there that, by themselves, would not make the sentence overly large, but added together do. :)

  2. Nice point! And I've had the same experience having to get into a different style of English. It often takes me a page or so of Shakespeare to get into the swing of it. Same with Austen. When I'm in the middle of reading from Boswell's _Life of Johnson_, Johnson's long,complex sentences usually make sense the first time.