writing bio research bagatelle home
Leaves from a Language Commonplace Book

First stirrings of relativism:
Ah, sir -- a distinct universe walks about under your hat and under mine -- all things in nature are different to each -- the woman we look at has not the same features, the dish we eat from has not the same taste to the one and the other -- you and I are but a pair of infinite isolations, with some fellow-islands a little more or less near to us. Thackeray, The History of Pendennis, Ch 16

Language and Sanity:
Mrs. Cadwallader said privately, "You will certainly go mad in that house alone, my dear. You will see visions. We have all got to exert ourselves a little to keep sane, and call things by the same names as other people call them. Middlemarch, Ch. LIV

One notices, if one will trust one's eyes,
The shadow cast by language upon truth.
Auden, "Kairos and Logos

My own view is that we have been wrong in taking communication as secondary. Many people seem to assume as a matter of course that there is, first, reality, and then, second, communication about it. We degrade art and learning by supposing that they are alsways second-hand activities: that there is life, and then afterwards there are accounts of it. Raymond Williams, Communications

The boy calls the knaves jacks. Estella of Pip in Great Expectations

A youth who had been deservedly whipped a few months previously, and who spent his pocket-money on tarts and hardbake, now appeared before Pen in one of those costumes to which the public consent, which I take to be quite as influential in this respect as 'Johnson's Dictionary,' has awarded the title of 'Swell.' Thackeray, The History of Pendennis, Ch 3

Why Grammar Matters, 1:
"'Not without regard to the import of the word as conveying unity or plurality of an idea' -- tell me again what that means, Ben." (Mrs. Garth, like more celebrated educators, had her favorite ancient paths, and in a general wreck of society would have tried to hold her Lindley Murray' above the waves.)
"Oo it means you must think what you mean," said Ben, rather peevishly. "I hate grammar. What's the use of it?"
"To teach you to speak and write correctly so that you can be understood," said Mrs. Garth with severe precision. "Should you like to speak as Old Job does?"
"Yes," said Ben stoutly; "it's funnier. He says, 'Yo goo' that's just as good as 'You go.'"
"But he says, 'A ship's in the garden,' instead of 'a sheep,'" said Letty with an air of superiority. "You might think he meant a ship off the sea." "No you mightn't, if you weren't silly," said Ben. "How could a ship off the sea come there?"
"These things belong only to pronunciation, which is the least part of grammar," said Mrs. Garth.
George Eliot, Middlemarch, Ch. XXIV

Why Grammar Matters, 2:
"And you would like a rich daughter-in-law, quite regardless, then?"
"Oh, not quite so bad as that, Tom," said his father. "A little youth, a little beauty, a little good sense and pretty behavior -- one musn't object to those things; and they go just as well with money as without it. And I suppose I should like her people to be rather grammatical."
William Dean Howells, The Rise of Silas Lapham, Chapter V

The Futility of Grammar:
... I know a gentleman who gave knowledge of his life only by the workings of his belly. You would see on display at his home a row of chamber pots, seven or eight days worth. That was his study, his conversation; all other talk stank in his nostrils.
Here you have, a little more decently, the excrements of an aged mind, now hard, now loose, and always undigested. And when shall I make an end of describing the continual agitation and changes of my thoughts, whatever subject they may light on, when Diomedes filled six thousand books with the sole subject of grammar. What must prattle produce, when the stammering and loosening of the tongue smother the world with such a horrible load of volumes? So many words for the sake of words alone! O Pythagoras, why did you not conjure away this tempest?
Montaigne, "Of vanity"

Going to Orleans one day, I met, in that plain this side of Clery, two teachers coming to Bordeaux, about fifty yards apart. Further off, behind them, I perceived a company with a lord at the head, who was the late Monsieur le Comte de la Rochefoucauld. One of my men inquired of the first of these teachers who was the gentleman who came behind him. He, not having seen the retinue that was following him, and thinking that my man was talking about his companion, replied: "He is not a gentleman; he is a grammarian, and I am a logician."
Montaigne, "On the education of children."

Anyone who has passed through the regular gradations of a classical education, and is not made a fool by it, may consider himself as having had a very narrow escape. It is an old remark, that boys who shine at school do not make the greatest figure when they grow up and come out into the world. The things, in fact, which a boy is set to learn at school, and on which his success depends, are things which do not require the exercise either of the highest or the most useful faculties of the mind. Memory (and that of the lowest kind) is the chief faculty called into play in conning over and repeating lessons by rote in grammar, in languages, in geography, arithmetic, etc., so that he who has the most of this technical memory, with the least turn for other things, which have a stronger and more natural claim upon his childish attention, will make the most forward schoolboy. The jargon containing the definitions of the parts of speech, the rules for casting up an account, or the inflexions of a Greek verb, can have no attraction to the tyro of ten years oldÖ William Hazlitt, "On the ignorance of the learned"

Reason in language -- Oh! what an old deceptive female she is; I am afraid that we shall not be rid of our belief in God because we still have faith in grammar.
Nietzsche, Götzendämmerung, Reason in philosophy, 5, II 960

Grammar and Power:

Grammar is the outcome of a prolonged work of abstraction of human thought; it is a gauge of the tremendous achievement of thought.... In this respect grammar resembles geometry, which creates its laws by a process of abstraction from concrete objects, regarding objects as bodies without any concretemess, and defining the relations between them, not as the concrete relations of concrete objects, but as the relations of bodies in general, without any concreteness. Stalin, Marxism and Linguistics, pp 9-10.

"I am the King of Rome, and above grammar." Emperor Sigismund at the Council of constance 1414, to a prelate who criticized his grammar

I don't want to talk grammar, I want to talk like a lady. Eliza Dolittle in Pygmalion, Act I

Anodyne of the vernacular:

She told Lord Brouncker that...she would not receive Lady Brounker: who was a druggist's daughter, or some such thing, and as Tom Wagg remarked of her, never wanted medicine, certainly, for she never had an h in her life. Thackeray, The History of Pendennis, Ch 7

Spoken and Written Style:

Writing, like talking, is the art of expressing thoughts in words....But there is, necessarily, a vast difference between the oral and the scriptural use of words. When we talk, we have for our ministers not words only, but also gesture, play of feature, modulation of the voice's tone, and regulation of its pace, whereby we may subtly temper or accentuate the words themselves, and fit them, be they never so carelessly chosen, exactly to our meaning. When we write, we have nothing but words, words, with those little summary and meagre things whose hard office is to ape the variable pauses of the human voice.... Thus is style in the modern sense a far more complex thing than style in the eighteenth century's sense. To express through printed words all the little side-lights of thought and fine shades of meaning that are in him is the task of the modern stylist; and the tricks and formalities which must be gone through in accomplishing that task carry him further and further away from his ordinary manner in colloquy. It is that very manner which he is trying to reproduce; but the only medium for its reproduction lies leagues away from it. Modern prose style is further removed from colloquialism than was the prose style of the eighteenth century, for this paradoxical reason: that colloquialism is its model.
Max Beerbohm, letter, quoted in David Cecil's biography, p.146

On Word-lovers:

The writer who cares chiefly or exclusively about language is poorly equipped for novel-writing in the usual sense because his character and personality are wrong for writing novels....Those who inordinately love words as words are of a character type distinct enough, at least in broad outline, to be recognizable almost at a glance. Words seem inevitably to distance us from the brute existents (real trees, stones, yawling babies) that words symbolize, and, in our thought processes, tend to replace.
John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, p. 6

On argument from unacceptable examples:
So gravest precepts may successless prove,
But sad examples never fail to move.
Pope: Dunciad I, 174:

On novelty in language:
In Words, as Fashions, the same Rule will hold;
Alike Fantastick, if too New, or Old;
Be not the first by whom the New are try'd,
Nor yet the last to lay the Old aside.
Pope, An Essay on Criticism, 333-33

On the source of euphony:
One day [Max Beerbohm] said to [Robert] Hichens, "Do you think, Crotchet, that a word can be beautiful, just one word?"
"Yes," Hichens said, "I can think of several words that seem to me beautiful."
A pause.
"Then tell me, do you think the word 'ermine' is a beautiful word?"
"Yes," Hichens said, I like the sound of it very much."
Another pause.
"And do you think 'vermin' is a beautiful word?"
David Cecil, Max (1965) p. 108

Loyalty and pronunication:
I love the United States of America. I love my country's flag. I love my country's language. I promise:
1. That I will not dishonor my country's speech by leaving off the last syllable of words.
2. That I will say a good American "yes" and "no" in place of an Indian grunt "um-hum" and "nup-um" or a foreign "ya" or "yeh" and "nope."
3. That I will do my best to imporve American speech by avoiding loud, rough tones, by enunciating distinctly, and by speaking pleasantly, clearly and sincerely.
4. That I will learn to articulate correctly as many words as possible during the year.
Pledge encouraged by American Speech Committee 1918; cited in John Algeo in "Issues in the History of Humansitic Linguistics; The response of English teachers to language variety," in Linguistics and the University Education, Michigan State University 1980.

Language and generalization:
Mathematics is the art of giving the same name to different things. When language has been well chosen one is astonished to find that all demonstrations made for a known object apply immediately to other objects. Poincaré

Language is only attending to its proper business when it comprehends a multitude of like things under the same appellation : it is just this which makes the communication of thought possible. Otto Jespersen, Mankind, Nation, and Individual from a Linguistic Point of View p. 79

On Pedantry:
Pedantry is the unseasonable ostentation of learning. He is undoubtedly guilty of pedantry, who, when he has made himself master of some abstruse and uncultivated part of knowledge, obtrudes his remarks and discoveries upon those he believes unable to judge his proficiency, and from whom, as he cannot fear contradiction, he cannot properly expect applause. Johnson, Rambler no 173

On plainess:
Sir, 'tis my occupation to be plain.
I have seen better faces in my time
Than stands on any shoulder that I see
Before me at this instant.
CORN: This is some fellow
Who, having been praisíd for blunteness, doth affect
A saucy roughness and constrains the garb
Quite from his nature. He cannot flatter, he!
An honest mind and plain -- he must speak truth!
An they will take it, so; if not, heís plain.
These kind of knaves I know in which this plainess
Harbour more craft and more corrupter ends
Than twenty silly-ducking observants
That stretch their duties nicely. (Lear, II,2)

Two Negatives that Make a Positive:
O grammar-rules, O now your virtues show;
So children still read you with awful eyes,
As my young dove may, in your precepts wise,
Her grant to me by her own virtue know;
For late, with heart most high, with eyes most low,
I craved the thing which ever she denies;
She, lightning Love displaying Venus' skies,
Lest once should not be heard, twice said No, No!
Sing then, my muse, now Io Paean sing;
Heav'ns envy not at my high triumphing,
But grammar's force with sweet success confirm;
For grammar says,-- oh this, dear Stella, weigh,--
For grammar says,-- to grammar who says nay?--
That in one speech two negatives affirm!
Sir Philip Sidney, Apostrophel and Stella, The countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, 1598

On Arguments from Tradition:
At best, an argument from what has been, to what should of right be, has no great force. Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government para 103

Anyone who compares usage books will recognize that they propogate by inbreeding. John Algeo, "Grammatical Usage: Modern Shibboleths"

Nostalgia runs deep in the human psyche; it is almost irresistible, all the more so because it generally masquerades as rational criticism of the present (where there is always much to criticize) and rational praise of the past (where there is always much to praise). ÖNostaliga is the most sophistic, most deceptive form regression can take. Peter Gay, The Enlightenment, p 92.

"Horace and Aristotle have already spoken to us about the virtues of their own times, and through the centuries, authors have talked in the same way. If all of this were true, we would be bears today." Montesquieu, Pensées, in Oeuvres, II.

On Style and Stylists:
Pour bien écrire, il faut une facilité naturelle et une difficulté acquise. Joubert

To be ashamed of artifice is generally a sign of the type of literary puritanism I have already mentioned, which regards the cultivation of an artifical style as a form of sinful aristocratic pride, quite out of keeping with the temper of our present righteous democratic society.
Peter Quennell, "Stylists," in The Sign of the Fish, p 95.

People think I can teach them style. What stuff it all is. Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret of style. Matthew Arnold

Copyright © 2002 Geoffrey Nunberg All rights reserved.