Below: Time to Change the Grammar Texts? and Major Upgrade Announced

English Plus+ News, March 2000

How Did We Get English Grammar Rules?

Who made these rules and why?

Last time we read about how Latin (and to a lesser extent Koine Greek and Hebrew) had become studied in Europe and analyzed using Latin grammar techniques. This was not the case with the living languages such as English until the late 1400's when a major development changed things. Suddenly it became more important that English and other European languages follow some sort of rules.

That major devlopment, of course, was the Printing Press.

Suddenly it was possible for people to make many copies of the written word. It was possible to disseminate information much more quickly and widely. And, naturally, those who disseminated the information wanted it to be understood by as many readers as possible.

The English Patent and King Arthur

The first printing press in England began operation in 1485, the same year that the War of the Roses ended. The printer was William Caxton, an educated scholar and translator. The first book that he printed was made for his English audience--Sir Thomas Malory's collection of King Arthur stories known as La Morte D'Arthur.

With some 30 or so regional dialects in England, Caxton knew that he could not publish so that every reader would understand every word. Instead, he chose to write and translate English into a form that would be understood by as many people as possible.

There are two obvious reasons for this. First, he wanted to communicate. He wanted to make the writings as widely understandable as possible. Second, he wanted to profit from his printing press. The larger his potential audience, the larger his potential sales.

The Problems with Language Anarchy

Caxton wrote about some of the problems that he had. Since London was the nation's capital and largest city, he chose as much as possible the language spoken in and around London.

Even then he had some problems. He wrote, for example, that folks from one side of the Thames normally said twa eggis, or two eggs. Those from other side normally said zw' eien for the same thing (more like modern Dutch or German). He decided that he liked the sound of twa eggis better. Today it is pronounced two eggs, and some scholars say that Caxton's choice may be why we say two instead of zwa for the second whole number.

In order to make the written word more intelligible, Caxton and others realized that it would be necessary to try to make spelling more uniform and to organize grammar rules for English in the manner that languages like Latin were taught in the schools.

The Evolution of the Rules

This is what happened. It did not happen all at once. Gradually, the Midlands or London English became the standard for writing. It also became a standard at least in England for pronunciation in some influential schools. Widely published works like Bibles and the Book of Common Prayer often became standards for spelling because more readers were familiar with these. By the 1700's, writers were compiling dictionaries and English grammars as English literacy grew.

The overall effect was that a Standard Written English evolved. There was an element of snob appeal, in that the "correct" English was often that spoken by the more educated. However, since the educated class included most clergy and teachers, the standard spread and most people became familiar with it. More important than educational uniformity, though, was simple necessity. People wanted to do business and communicate with one another. A standard grammar and spelling would help. It still does.

Free Trade vs. Elitist Intervention
Interestingly, in England most of the standards were set or codified by individuals like Caxton. Printers copied the spelling and gramamr used by other printers. The first English dictionary was compiled by Samuel Johnson, pretty much working on his own. Several grammar books became widely used, all done by individual teachers usually using familiar Latin models.

About the only "sanctioned" effort in English was the committee of 54 translators authorized by King James I to translate the Bible in 1611. That Authorized or King James Bible became a standard only because it was widely used, not because the King authorized it. (Technically, he only authorized the translation of it. No one authorized the final product.)

Other languages, notably French, have attempted to have an official elite sanction what is proper or taught. Even today, the French Academy does this. English has never done this. If there have been any standards, it is because people recognized them.

This has meant a few things for speakers and learners of English.

The Effects of a Popular Language

First, it meant that dialects and distinctive pronunciations are OK. That does not mean that certain snobby London English or Northern United States speakers will not treat other dialects with condescension. It does mean that standard usage should effectively communicate.

Second, it means that extreme Latinists in English grammar can be taken with a grain of salt. The standard is for effective communication, not to impress others. In America, for example, the standards used by the New York Times, the University of Chicago, Noah Webster's Dictionary of the American Language and blue-backed speller, Francis McGuffey's Eclectic Readers and Strunk and White's Element's of Style have probably had more effect than anything else.

Third, because there is no standard vocabulary or "academy," English is remarkably tolerant of accepting new words, whether coined from existing words or roots or taken from another language. This makes English the richest language for words and shades of meaning. It also makes the language challenging for foreign learners. English speakers tend to point out spelling difficulties, but those are a small minority of words in the language. What is really trickier is just the large vocabulary with many shades of meaning such a vocabulary brings.

Anyway, where did the rules come from? It came from common usage. In the long run, they have been a boon. They have helped printers sell more wares. They have helped businesses do business more precisely. They have helped everyone communicate more clearly.

The Future of English and other Widespread Langauges

Certainly, things change. Vocabulary changes. Even some grammar changes. Time Magazine predicted that the word whom will be gone by the end of the 21st century just as thee and thou had disappeared (except among Quakers) by the end of the 18th century.

What else will change English? It will be very difficult to change much except vocabulary. Prior to the printing press, dialects ruled all languages. In the last century with phonograph recordings, broadcast media, faster transportation, and what followed, even pronunciation has become more standard. Many dialects have disappeared.

Geographical distances and divisions used to account for most language changes, and the relatively rapid changes of languages. We can speak of Latin in the year AD 500, but by AD 1000 at the latest, Latin no longer existed. It had become French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, and so on.

Between 1500 and 2000 English has changed little. The printing press brought standardization. The growth in transportation and communication technology, especially since the early 1800's, has increased uniformity.

As a result, English and other widely spoken languages have become more easily understood by all who speak them, and the rules make it easier for others to learn the languages. The "rules" of English should continue to be recognized as more of the world does business in the language.

Let's Correct the Textbooks

Time to Change the Grammar Texts?

This is the sixth 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!

Re-Thinking English Parts of Speech

Part 6--Substitution

Grammar texts do not give enough attention to the number of cases in which a grammatical unit departs from its accustomed use and substitutes for another. Ordinarily we expect a noun to name, but it can also modify, both adjectivally and adverbially as in fence post or a mile high.

When one part of speech substitutes for another, it remains what it is. It does not change according to the function it is being used for. Fence is a noun used to modify post adjectivally. A mile is a noun used to modify high adverbially.

Verbs, in any of their verbal forms, are used to name, to modify adverbially, or to modify adjectivally. Phrases are just as versatile. Even a prepostional phrase can occasionally be used as a noun; for example, The child crept from beneath the bed.

Too often teachers and others confuse the name of the word with its function. In "I enjoy eating," the direct object of enjoy is a verb. The term gerund, as explained before, only confuses the student. It is a useless term. It is a participle used as a noun in spite of what the dictionary may tell us. The dictionaries follow the fallacy followed by scholars who insisted on making English grammar fit the Latin mold.

Latin is an inflective language. Functions of words are shown by their endings. English is a syntactic language. Functions of words depend on their positions in a sentence. The two are nothing alike.

The following chart may be helpful in understanding substitution and parts of speech in English. The last column (#5) independent expressors or interjections include such words as oh, well and various cuss words. Lexcographers erroneously call some of them adverbs, again demonstrating their inadequacies. This is a more realistic picture of the way the words in English are used and the way they relate to one another.

1. Namers 2. Predicators 3. Modifiers 4. Connectors 5. Independent
Words Nouns
Verbs AdjectivesAdverbs Prepositions
Participial (gerund)
Verb phrasesPrepositional
Compound Prepositions
Compound Conjunctions
Interjectory phrases
ClausesNoun Clause(None) Adjective Clause Adverb Clause(None) (None)

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