The Perfervid 1830s & '40s
55. The Dialogue Grammar.
Ells, Benjamin Franklin. South Hanover, Ind.: Hanover College Press, 1834.
Ells (1805–1874) was a fervent author of educational books. The English language, he wrote, was the youngest of all languages and would “be the last, till time shall have been lost in the vortex of Eternity.” He championed English as a world language: “Behold [English] spreading its ample arms, embracing every continent, and grasping in the isles of the Sea! Hark!” Yet with its vast population, the U.S. suffered half the people to live “in ignorance of their mother tongue.” For helping spread literacy, he hoped to be “hailed with grateful emotion.” Perhaps he was.
56. Philosophical Grammar of the English Language.
Smith, Edward. 2d ed. Pittsburgh: Luke Loomis, 1835.
Smith (1796–1874) was a nasty, litigious, chauvinistic, delusional, and reckless hypocrite. An itinerant Methodist preacher, he first published this grammar under the nonspecific name “E. Smith”—perhaps to evade charges of plagiarism. He stole major portions of his work from the late William S. Cardell (no. 52). Upon discovery, he was tried in ecclesiastical proceedings to oust him from the church. Officially expelled until he could give evidence of “repentance and reformation,” he somehow regarded himself as acquitted and printed in book form the entirety of the damning trial. Then he ran for governor of Ohio, finishing third.
57. Mistakes and Corrections [including “Errors in English Grammars”].
Webster, Noah. New Haven: B.L. Hamlen, 1837.
Webster the vitriolic pedant, often in error, is on full display here, mostly attacking Lindley Murray. He was exercised about articles and conjunctions:
- “It is not true that a becomes an before a vowel.. . . It is not true that an or a is an indefinite article.”
- “How preposterous it is [for Murray] to single out the as a part of speech different from this and that.”
- “It is one of the most unaccountable things in the history of literature that the two uses of the pronoun that should not have been explained long before.”
58. Lectures on Language, as Particularly Connected with English Grammar.
Balch, William Stevens. Providence, R.I.: B. Cranston & Co., 1838.
Balch (1806–1887), a Universalist minister, thought grammar to be a subject deserving “the first attention of every philanthropist.” In these transcribed lectures, Balch shows himself to be dogmatically reductionist on many points: “Most of the words long considered difficult,” he assured listeners, “may be easily explained.” What about interjections? They “deserve no attention” because they “form no part of the language.” Any questions? “I cannot believe there is a person present who does not fully comprehend my meaning and discover the correctness of the ground I have assumed.”
59. The Philosophy of Language, Containing Practical Rules for Acquiring Knowledge of English Grammar.
Cramp, William. London: Belfe & Fletcher, 1838.
An inveterate classicist, Cramp (1782–1851) spent much of his life erroneously advancing the idea that Philip Stanhope, the fourth Lord Chesterfield, was the 18th-century letter-writing author who, under the pseudonym “Junius,” attacked George III. His friends could scarcely get him to talk about anything else for more than two minutes. As for grammar, Cramp thought that “it would be difficult to name a science more extensive in its application, or more generally useful.” Not popular at dinner parties.
60. Observations on Language, and on the Errors of Class-Books.
Webster, Noah. New Haven: P. Babcock, 1839.
This rambling speech before the New York Lyceum teems with cranklike assertions of error in “all the leading books.” Webster asserted that “most of our grammars tell us there are in the English six tenses,” but he announced that “if there are any tenses at all, there are twelve.” He didn’t even say what they were. Our educational system, he said, created “smatterers, knowing a little of every branch of study, but acquainted with none. These mistakes demand correction.”
61. The Comic English Grammar.
Leigh, Percival. London: Richard Bentley, 1840. Illustrated by John Leech.
Leigh (1813–1889), a Scottish surgeon, relinquished his medical practice to become a comic writer. One of the original staffers at Punch, he also wrote The Comic Latin Grammar (1840). He liked similes: “We would have every preface as short as an orator’s cough, to which, in purpose, it is so nearly like.” Some of the humor still works: he says that although a pronoun is “a word used instead of a noun, we did not mean to call such words as thingumibob, whatsiname, what-d’ye-call-it, and the like, pronouns.”
62. Mary’s Grammar: Interspersed with Stories Intended for the Use of Children.
Marcet, Jane Haldimand. 4th ed. London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green & Longmans, 1840.
Marcet (1769–1858) was a popular writer of introductory books on science. She and her husband—the physicist Alexander John Gaspard Marcet, a political exile from Switzerland—maintained a busy literary salon at their house until his premature death in 1822. She then lived with her daughter in Piccadilly and probably wrote this book for her grandchildren: “I have so often pitied children who have been studying grammar which they did not understand.” Yet if she herself had understood the “metaphysical difficulties” involved, she would not “have undertaken the task.”
63. An Improved Grammar of the English Language.
Webster, Noah. New ed. New Haven: Sidney Babcock, 1842.
In 1842—58 years after his first English grammar (no. 23) and just a year before his death—the elderly Noah Webster issued this newly “improved” grammar. Although Lindley Murray had been dead for 16 years, Webster was still plagued by Murray’s popularity. All the British grammars were “very imperfect and . . . very erroneous.” He contradicted Murray whenever he could: “the contrary rule in Murray is egregiously wrong.” And he persisted in oddball views: “Grammars tell us, that is sometimes a conjunction. This is not true; it is always a pronoun.”
64. The Pictorial Grammar.
Crowquill, Alfred. London: Joseph Rickerby, 1842.
Alfred Henry Forrester (1804–1872) wrote under the pseudonym Alfred Crowquill. In the year of this book’s publication, his cartoons began appearing in Punch. According to one memoir, Crowquill was “a universal favorite” who set many a table “in a roar with his medley of songs.” He could write, he could draw, and he was an admirable vocalist. This grammar is most notable for its many clever illustrations, including his anthropomorphic conception of verb conjugations—as illustrated in the three photos above and to the right (in Crowquill’s words, “regular, irregular, and defective”).
65. A Practical Grammar of the English Language.
Butler, Noble. 2d ed. Louisville, Ky.: Morton & Griswold, 1846.
Butler (1810–1882), a professor in Louisville, wrote the most famous Confederate grammar. His life was transformed in 1853 when his brother William, a Louisville teacher, was murdered in the classroom by the brothers of a student whom William had disciplined the day before. After an “infamous verdict” acquitting the boys, Butler quelled riots by urging citizens to “stay the hand of violence and act calmly.” Butler’s will instructed that his body should be “encased in wood so that it might soon become a part of the soil and quickly serve to nurture the beautiful flowers he loved so well.”
66. General Principles of Grammar.
Cornwallis, Caroline Frances, London: William Pickering, 1847.
Cornwallis (1786–1858), daughter of an Oxford don, wrote her first book, on philosophy, at the age of 56. Having declined to marry a French economist, she instead taught herself Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, Old English, and even ancient Egyptian. She studied philosophy, science, history, law, theology, politics, and mineralogy. Her depth of learning and common sense are evident throughout the grammar. She recommended: “Never let an unweighed expression pass, but rewrite even a letter of compliment, if it might have been put in better phrase.”