Below: Time to Change the Grammar Texts?

English Plus+ News, January 2000

How Did We Get English Grammar Rules?

Who made these rules and why?

Virtually every written human language has developed rules for its use. English is no different. Sometimes people wonder where these rules came from and who made them. God did not give them on a mountaintop. Why are we taught them? Why do so many people try to follow them?

In European nations, grammar was developed to teach Latin. Latin had become the lingua franca of Western Europe because of the Roman Empire. The Romans ruled, and people from all over Europe could communicate in that language regardless of what their native language was. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Latin language was still used as a lingua franca because most literate Western Europeans had learned it. A little later it became the official language of the Western (later Roman Catholic) Church.

Latin after the Fall
By the eighth or ninth century, the language of Rome had changed. It was no longer the language of Julius Caesar or even of St. Jerome the Bible translator (the Latin of the Catholic mass). There were no native speakers of classical or church Latin any more. Still, it was very useful for literate people to learn it. It was the language of the Western Church, international politics, and most existing European literature.

The Origins of Grammar as We Know It
Since there were no longer any "conversational Latin" classes, teachers of Latin began teaching it according to its patterns - the way the words related to one another and formed sentences.This became known as grammar, the art of writing.

The word grammar comes from the Greek word gramma which means "writing" or "letter." This root is also found in other English words like parallelogram and telegram. Grammar school was the basic school where students learned to read and write. In the late Roman period and Middle Ages that meant reading and writing Latin.

Consequences of Grammar
The system for analyzing Latin became codified. This was useful for two reasons. First, readers could read older Latin documents. Second, writers could communicate with people who knew Latin, regardless of their native tongue, and be understood because schools throughout Western Europe taught it according to the same rules.

Some argue that Julius Caesar might not have been able to completely understand the Magna Carta (A.D. 1215), but that is not the point. Any educated person living in Europe in 1215 would have understood it!

What about English?
At this time the vernacular languages, the native languages of the people, did not really have grammar rules as such. Those languages were of more limited scope. They tended to be local. On the island of Great Britain alone there are recognized between thirty and fifty distinct dialects of English. In the Middle Ages, most of them would not have been mutually intelligible.

The West Saxon (Wessex) dialect had become the literary standard in Old English because that is where rulers like Alfred the Great came from. When the French-speaking Normans conquered England in 1066, there was no standard at all for three centuries. The spoken language of the government was French. The language of the Church and official government documents was Latin. English was the language of the conquered lower classes.

The 1300's & London English
By the fourteenth century, England had lost most of its Norman domains to the French. The leaders lost their connections to French speakers. Serious writers like poet Geoffrey Chaucer and Bible translator John Wycliffe began writing in English. Their standard became the English of London. If we read their work, however, we begin to see that it was not terribly standardized by our reckoning. Words were sometimes arranged unusually and frequently spelled differently. English of the Late Middle Ages was not at all like the orderly Latin of the grammar schools.

Frankly, there was no great need for it to be standardized. Most of the population was illiterate. Most spoke dialects different from the Midlands English of London. If someone had gone to a village or city in Yorkshire with a written document from London, he would probably have to translate it for the locals whether the document were written in Latin, French, or English.

Now the English dialects at this time were not entirely static. As London grew in influence, its words and style became more recognizable in other parts of the realm. When the government began conducting its official spoken work in English, it became more necessary to be able to understand and be understood in the Midlands English. But this mostly affected the elite minority, those in government and those literate in English.

The BIG Change
In the fifteenth century something would happen that would change all that. Something so revolutionary that it would completely alter the history of the continent and in England would contribute to making the language of the London middle and upper classes the standard for English.

To be continued...

Answer to last issue's quiz:
Paraphrase - (literally "speak alongside") is putting something into different words but with the same meaning.
Periphrase - (literally "speak around") means speaking indirectly, not saying exactly what you mean. More common as the adjective periphrastic.

Let's Correct the Textbooks

Time to Change the Grammar Texts?

This is the fifth of a series of guest editorials by retired English teacher Donald Hibbard.. English grammar terminology comes largely from Latin, and over the centuries there have been problems trying to fit English to a Latin mold. He may help us re-think some of the things we have learned--even some of the things in Grammar Slammer!

As we saw in the
September newsletter, the distinction between participle and gerund is an artificial one in English. It would be more accurate to say that the present participle, like the infinitive, can be noun, adjective, or adverb.

If we keep this in mind, and also consider the differences between the simple tenses (a.k.a. basic or potential tenses), we can get a good handle of how many different forms a verb can be used in the English language.

First, there are sixteen forms which are not tenses. They are the two kinds of verbals, participles and infinitives. Each verbal has four verbal tenses and two voices.

Tense ActivePassive
Presenteating eaten
Pres. Progressiveeatingbeing eaten
Pres. Perfecthaving eatenhaving been eaten
Pres. Perf. Prog.having been eatinghaving been being eaten

Tense Active Passive
Presentto eatto be eaten
Pres. Progressiveto be eatingto be being eaten
Pres. Perfectto have eatento have been eaten
Pres. Perf. have been eating to have been being eaten

Notice how the participle is just as accurately described as the passive participle rather than the past participle. We can consider the infinitives in the same way.

The fact that eating is listed twice can be understood if one considers the following examples. What participle do you use for something that has the potential of action as in "Our cabin has running water"? The water is not running but has the potential of doing so. This is the simple or basic tense.

Consider "Look at the running deer." This action is progressing. This is the present progressive active participle. Though spelled and pronounced like the present simple participle, it is a separate form.

How Many Tenses are There?
Tenses are grouped in families. The present tense, past tense, future tense, and conditional tense are the simple (or basic or potential) family. The progressive family includes the present progressive (am, are, or is eating), past progressive (was or were eating), future progressive (will or shall be eating), and the conditional progressive (could, would, must, might, may, or can be running).

Each family has four members. To save space only the first person present plural members are shown here.

The Four Tense Families in the Present
SimplePresent simpleWe meetWe are met
ProgressivePres. Progressive We are meeting We are being met
Perfect Pres. PerfectWe have metWe have been met
Perfect ProgressivePres. Perf. Prog. We have been meeting We have been being met
We can do the same for the other three tenses: past, future, and conditional.

Using all the auxiliary and/or "helping" verbs, which I prefer to call "helping parts," one can list 115 tense forms of any transitive verb. Of course, transitive verbs, having no passive voice, have only half as many.

Granted, some of those passive progressive forms are seldom, if ever used, but isn't this a more practical way to consider English verbs?

News from English Plus+

Well, Y2K has come and gone. One English Plus+ product does have one Y2K issue. As mentioned before, WinAlter, which alters the time and date stamp of files is unable to stamp the February 29, 2000, date. Originally we had blamed this problem on the supplier of one of the programming components. It turns out that this is a feature of Microsoft Windows 3.1®. Windows 3.1, even with the millennium patch, is unable to accept Feb. 29, 2000, as a valid file date. Since WinAlter was written with a Microsoft language compatible with Windows 3.1, WinAlter is unable to do this either. (See Because it is built into the operating system, there is nothing we can do about it at this end - other than rewrite the program for a different operating system. At this point we would rather stick with our specialty - the English Language.

Want to find out more about verb tenses?

Take a look at the glossary in Grammar Slammer, the easy pop-up English grammar reference from English Plus+. Most definitions include illustrations to make them better understood; many also include references or "links" to other parts of the reference program.

Consider also Grammar Slammer Deluxe which includes both Grammar Slammer and Spelling Slammer, a pop-up reference for English spelling. This includes spelling rules and over a thousand words that spell checkers often overlook.

Download a trial copy from This download site includes trial copies of Grammar Slammer that can be loaded into various word processors as well as "legacy" Windows 3.x format (with no Y2K bugs).

May all your anguish be vanquished!
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