Since Colonial times, Americans have taken grammar as a touchstone of social and educational status. Linguist and former librarian Ostler (Slinging Mud: Rude Nicknames, Scurrilous Slogans, and Insulting Slang from Two Centuries of American Politics, 2011, etc.) provides a history of the struggles over our language.
The author begins with Noah Webster, who, before compiling the first American dictionary, wrote a three-volume grammar text, arguing that the way Americans actually speak was the best foundation for the study of grammar. Unfortunately for Webster, Robert Lowth, an Anglican bishop and author of A Short Introduction to English Grammar, already occupied the high ground in the field of grammar textbooks. Lowth was among the first to pontificate against double negatives and ending sentences with prepositions, rules that remain dear to grammatical purists. Even more influential was Lindley Murray, whose grammar book became the standard during much of the 19th century. In those books, the battle lines were drawn, pitting Latinate rules against the study of vernacular speech. Ostler follows the skirmishes over the years, examining the growing influence of frontier Americans like Davy Crockett and Andrew Jackson. However, the sophisticated classes of New York and Boston carried more weight with those interested in improving their grammar. Even Abraham Lincoln had to contend with snobs who found his homespun anecdotes proof of his boorish origins. While subsequent generations learned to see the charms of Mark Twain and other vernacular writers, those with a claim to education still avoided split infinitives and shunned “ain’t” as the stain of ignorance. Practitioners of scientific linguistics, who strove to describe usage rather than prescribe rules, made few inroads with the way grammar was taught, and Webster’s Third International outraged purists by including “ain’t” and other substandard usages. The controversies that followed get full play, as Ostler (who clearly sympathizes with the descriptive camp) brings the “war of grammar” up to the present.
Lively and revealing discussion of a battle that seems likely to continue as long as English is spoken.