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Founding grammars by Rosemarie Ostler

Founding grammars

by Rosemarie Ostler

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This at times is a very entertaining and then it goes into very dry. There is no middle ground, sadly. But that said it was interesting to see where our language, as Americans, comes from and how it has grown. The notes were just for adding citation and did not really much more to the overall narrative. This is not just about how Americans write but also about how we educate ourselves and our children. Ostler takes something that could have been extremely dry and boring and makes a good effort to make it interesting and mostly readable. At times she gets into very detailed items about the how and it takes some time to get through those moments but in the end I think that it is a worthy read.

I give this book a Four out of Five stars.
  lrainey | May 4, 2016 |
Founding grammars provides a lively account of the grammar "flame wars" that have raged since the founding of the United States. The controversy centers around the information that is relevant in determining what constitutes proper, educated writing and speech. Rosemarie Ostler places the publication of influential grammar texts in the context of United States history and chronicles the rancorous arguments that have characterized the disagreements among combating authorities.

In the late 18th century Noah Webster advanced the position that the rules of grammar should reflect the natural language of citizens. Lindley Murray, an American citizen who resided in the United Kingdom for most of his adult life, represented the prevailing view that the rules that govern proper grammar are descended from Latin and ancient Greek. This position recognizes "sophisticated" individuals who have an "ear" for cultured language as the authorities on language and word usage. This basic disagreement, debated in acrimonious exchanges since the early history of the United States, has continued up to the present.

Contemporary readers may be inclined to dismiss the importance of this issue, but in colonial America through the mid 19th century most public schools owned only a single book: a grammar text. Most families owned a single book: the bible. Those families that were fortunate (and affluent) enough to own a second book typically possessed a book on grammar. Consequently, a book on grammar was often the only source of education for individuals who desired to "improve" themselves.

While the views of Murray and writers favoring an approach to grammar based on classical languages, Ostler explains that these differing views accounted, in part, for the popularity and election of American icons such as Andrew Jackson and David (Davy) Crockett. Both were accomplished speakers who express themselves using the vernacular of the "common man" rather than the "refined" language of the trained orator. In so doing they appealed to the masses and exerted an important influence in expanding and legitimizing informal language.

Nevertheless, Mid 19th century citizens placed great value on the sophistication and refinement of those who used proper grammar. Many leading newspapers and magazines published regular columns and articles on grammar. Grammarians argued that being able to read or "scribble tolerably well " (i.e., write) was not the same as being educated. In their view, a person who doesn't know "the width and depth of English grammar has hardly any learning at all."

Ostler introduces the reader to significant but little known contributors of the time including Theodosia Burr, a respected female authority on grammar and David Walker an African American advocate of teaching African American children "standard" grammar. Those northern schools of the time that admitted African American students did not allow them to study grammar. Ignorance of standard grammar was a code for saying a person was from the lower classes. It implied a whole range of social deficits. White school committees (and Walker) recognized that command of standard English grammar conveyed a powerful social advantage.

Ostler describes Abraham Lincoln's early reliance on books, and particularly his serious study of grammar, as a critical source of his ability to craft memorable speeches. Lincoln's command of grammar is apparent in little recognized but important word choices such as his use of "shall" instead of "will" in his Gettysburg Address (i.e., "… that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.").

Following the civil war the focus of the grammar wars shifted from good speaking and writing habits to word use. Bad word choice was equated with bad grammar. Euphemisms (e.g., using limb instead of leg), pretentious words (e.g., using initiate instead of start or repudiate in place of reject), slang (e.g., using pants instead of trousers) and improper words (e.g., using less rather than fewer or will instead of shall) were signs of an uneducated person. Defenders of "standard" grammar argued against slang, coarseness, new word usages, pretentious bombast, and excessive gentility. The sign of a truly educated "gentleman" is speech that is clear, precise, plain, forceful, and unembellished. It is respectful of linguistic tradition and uses mainly Anglo-Saxon words.

Although these issues are debated less intensely now, Ostler's fascinating account of the criticism directed at the third edition of Webster's international Dictionary in 1961 and the subsequent publication of the American Heritage Dictionary in 1969 illustrate that these debates were ongoing during my lifetime. I had no clue! (Okay, I couldn't resist "violating" the "rules" of classical grammar.) I found it interesting to read the Wikipedia entry on the American Heritage Dictionary after reading Ostler's account. It reads like it was written by the publishers of the American Heritage Dictionary.

Current language usage is much more varied and flexible than in any time before the last two decades. The use of active voice, colorful slang, and the common vernacular are not only acceptable in many contexts but actually valued. Readers will find Ostler's accounting of how this came about to be quite interesting. And as a bonus, you will find out why you (may have) had to diagram all those sentences in middle school. ( )
  Tatoosh | Dec 3, 2015 |
Once the Revolutionary War ended, the grammar wars began. What sort of English should the citizens of the brand new, still experimental, democracy of the United States speak? Some wanted to make a break with the fusty old English of their former British overlords, while others thought it more seemly and reputable to stick with traditional standards as their young country took its place on the world stage. Both sides agreed on the compelling importance of grammar--many early American homes had only two volumes in their “libraries”--a Bible and a grammar book.

Founding Grammars is a history of the United States and its people as seen through the very interesting angle of language and education. Filled with fascinating facts and lots of interesting characters, the book begins with Noah Webster and his personal quest to update American English, and ends with the heated controversy of 1961 (and beyond) over changes made in third edition of the dictionary that bears Webster’s name--a controversy that still continues today in internet arguments over prescriptive versus descriptive grammar. Other historical figures in the book include Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Davy Crockett, Mark Twain, and publisher Horace Greeley. ( )
  Jaylia3 | Sep 20, 2015 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Rosemarie Ostlerprimary authorall editionscalculated
Fink, JeremyCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rotstein, David BaldeosinghCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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What is your pet usage peeve? (Preface)
On the evening of October 19, 1785, thirty people braved the rainy Baltimore weather to attend the first of five lectures on the English language.
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Who decided not to split infinitives?
With whom should we take issue if in fact, we wish to boldly write what no grammarian hath writ before?

In Founding Grammars, Rosemarie Ostler delves into the roots of our grammar obsession to answer these questions and many more. Standard grammar and accurate spelling are widely considered hallmarks of a good education, but their exact definitions are much more contentious -- capable of?inciting a full-blown grammar war at the splice of a comma, battles readily visible in the media and online in the comments of blogs and chat rooms.

With an accessible and enthusiastic journalistic approach, Ostler considers these grammatical shibboleths, tracing current debates back to America's earliest days, an era when most families owned only two books -- the Bible and a grammar primer. Along the way, she investigates colorful historical characters on both sides of the grammar debate in her efforts to unmask the origins of contemporary speech. Linguistic founding fathers like Noah Webster, Tory expatriate Lindley Murray, and post-Civil War literary critic Richard Grant White, all play a featured role in creating the rules we've come to use, and occasionally discard, throughout the years.

Founding Grammars is for curious readers who want to know where grammar rules have come from, where they've been, and where they might go next. "-- Provided by publisher.


Grammar for a New Country -- Grammar for Different Classes of Learners -- The Value of Grammar -- Rational Grammar -- Grammar and Gentility -- The Science of Grammar -- Grammar for a New Century -- The Persistence of Grammar.
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