The Culminating Tomes of 1850–1851
67. English Grammar: The English Language in Its Elements and Forms.
Fowler, William Chauncey, N.Y.: Harper & Bros., 1850.
Although Fowler (1793–1881) enjoyed a varied academic career at Middlebury and Amherst, he was most unforgettably Noah Webster’s son-in-law. In 1843, he edited the university edition of Webster’s Dictionary. Despite the long-running Webster–Murray grammar feud, Fowler explicitly praised Lindley Murray and credited his father-in-law only in a long list of authors whose works he had consulted. Seven years after the death of Webster—a patriarch who disapproved whenever a family member struck out on his own—Fowler struck out on his own.
This Fowler is no relation to the more famous H.W. Fowler, of England, whose Dictionary of Modern English Usage appeared in 1926.
68. The Grammar of English Grammars.
Brown, Goold, N.Y.: William Wood & Co., 1851.
This gargantuan book, labeled a “10th edition” even in its earliest printings, was Brown’s attempt at a "complete grammar of the English language." (Cf. no. 48.) He disclaimed vainglory but embraced invective, referring freely to the “scandalous errors and defects which abound in all our common grammars.” His competitors were “miserably defective, and worthy of censure.” Hence Brown produced this “condensed mass of special criticism, such as is not elsewhere to be found in any language.” One recent scholar called it “a beacon that led to no port, an anachronism that was obsolete before it was finished.”
Can you believe just how crazed people were about English grammar in the 18th and 19th centuries? We moderns might think it bewildering. “The most useful of all sciences.” “The primary concern of all philanthropists.” “The most pertinent knowledge anybody could have.”
It was another world—but a world that evolved into our own.
We’ve gained things in that evolution, no doubt.
But it’s worth pondering whether we’ve lost anything.
—Bryan A. Garner