The Language Wars: A History of Proper English

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Loading comments… Trouble loading? Most popular. This is an overstatement, but it is easy enough to see how it has come about. He might easily have chosen to write in French, and may indeed have done so in the early part of his career. His friend and fellow poet John Gower wrote in both French and Latin, before turning to English for his masterpiece, Confessio Amantis. After all, he was writing works to be performed before a coterie of courtly associates, rather than targeting a large public.

After his death, as his poetry circulated widely in manuscript, he was anointed as the inventor of English as a literary language. Chaucer expressed concern about the diversity of English — regionally and socially — and worried that scribes would mar his texts. But he also revelled in the potential for variety, which was fertile ground for a poet. In Middle English the range of regional variations is obvious. It existed because the language the Germanic settlers brought to Britain had itself exhibited some variation. The parties of settlers, who migrated in several waves, took different forms of the language to the different places where they established new bases.

Subsequent influences on English, by Vikings and Normans, varied from place to place rather than having uniform effects. By the Middle English period the picture had not changed greatly, and the standard division — which does not of course allow for subtleties of shading — marks five dialects: South-Eastern, South-Western, East Midland, West Midland and Northern. These large divisions make sense to us still.

But in the Middle English period they were evident in writing as well as in speech. There is a clear gap between the Northern dialect of the Cursor Mundi, a religious text produced at Durham, and the East Midland dialect of the Lincolnshire monk Orm. Writers used their dialects without self-consciousness. Because of the large-scale fourteenth-century immigration into London of literate men from the East Midlands, London English had a distinctly East Midland character.

The Language Wars: A History of Proper English

By contrast, the unknown author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, writing at about the same time as Chaucer, used the West Midland dialect, which Londoners found difficult. To a modern audience, the language of Gawain poses greater challenges than that of The Canterbury Tales. It also consolidated national identity. Another factor in raising consciousness of English was the spread of the scriptures in English, beginning with the translation inspired by John Wyclif in the s.

Meanwhile the political status of English was changing. Henry IV, who seized the throne in , was the first English king since the eleventh century to have English as his mother tongue, and he used it when claiming the Crown. At this time, official writing was done in either Latin or French. Under his son, that changed. When in Henry V inspired a significantly outnumbered English army to victory at Agincourt, the success legitimized his kingship in the eyes of his subjects. Agincourt provided an opportunity for favourable publicity, and two years later Henry found another way to achieve this: having previously conducted his correspondence in French, he chose for the first time to write his letters home in English.

This was a premeditated move. Did one write of a knight, a knyght, a knyht, a knict, a knith or a cniht? There had in fact been a pretty rigid system of spelling in the early eleventh century, thanks to the successful efforts of West Saxon scribes, but, although demand for books was high, the number produced at that time was not great.

The West Saxon standard held on for nearly a century after the upheaval of the Norman Conquest, but eventually collapsed. The monk Orm, writing in the twelfth century, was an exceptional and particularly dogged exponent of spelling systematically. When a syllable ended with a consonant and contained a short vowel, he doubled the consonant that followed the vowel: he wrote and as annd and under as unnderr. It looks odd, but he was scrupulously consistent. Others were not. The stabilization of spelling was actively pursued again only in the fourteenth century, at a time when writing materials suddenly became much cheaper.

It is orthodox to say that, beginning around , government cultivated an artificial standard form of written English. Supposedly it had attained maturity by , and was used, for reasons of functional efficiency rather than prestige, in the records kept by scribes in the offices of the Court of Chancery. Some accounts enlarge on this, noting that this standard emerged from four sources: not just Chancery, but also the offices of Parliament, the Signet and the Privy Seal. The problem here is that, having become a familiar part of the story of English, this version of events is rarely examined.

Its reception is symptomatic of the way myths about language get recycled. An article published in by M. Samuels is commonly treated as the definitive account of Chancery Standard. Its arguments have repeatedly been amplified. While the orthodox story is not a grotesque misrepresentation, it is not true that the Court of Chancery was the centre of a rigorously planned attempt at standardizing written English. It comprised about clerks responsible for producing legal documents, and there is some evidence of what one might call a house style.

Among other things the clerks mostly spelled should without a c previously it had been schould , any with a rather than o as its first letter, and adverbs with - ly at the end rather than a variety of endings such as -li and -lich. They also favoured the spellings such, not and but, where earlier writers had used swich, nat and bot. But their style was a matter of fashion rather than policy.

It seems likely that the Chancery clerks, rather than being trailblazers, were copying and approving forms that were already in use. Caxton was a transmitter rather than an innovator, an entrepreneur rather than a scholar. His most astute move was to publish only in English. After all, printed books in other languages could already be imported from the Continent.

Books in English were also being printed abroad, but as an Englishman Caxton had an advantage over the printers of Bruges, Cologne and Paris when it came to selling English-language books in the English marketplace. Having spent, so he said, thirty years abroad, Caxton was struck on his return to England by what he saw as a north—south divide. While he was not the first to perceive the differences, he used them to justify making an effort towards standardization. Noting that London English was the most popular written form, he made the decision to print his texts accordingly; the books he published perpetuated the forms of English used by government administrators.

In The Description of Britayne and in his prologue to Enyedos he discussed the difficulties of this practice. His own habits as a writer were erratic, and he seems not to have had a precise policy in mind. He was lax in his supervision of the compositors who worked for him; mostly they were foreigners, and they were unlikely, as they set up texts in type, to be confident about regularizing the spelling of English words. The first two were generally replaced with th, and yogh with g or gh, though as late as the s the musician Thomas Whythorne used the old letters in his autobiography, hoping to revive them.

Whereas consonants have been articulated in the same way since the Old English period — the one exception being r which used to have a trilled sound — this is not true of vowels. The Great Vowel Shift, as it is usually known, occurred in England over the course of about three hundred years. As David Crystal points out, Caxton was working at a time when, as well as there being several spellings in London for a single word, some words were being pronounced by Londoners in several different ways. Nor was it a conducive climate for people to develop an intuition about norms of usage.

If we go back to Middle English, an a was usually sounded the way it is today in father, an e like the first vowel sound in bacon, an i like the ee in deem, o as in go rather than as in hot, and u as in blue rather than as in bun. Printing created a keener sense of a national literary culture. True, it enabled the spread of junk, but it also made it possible to imagine a virtual library of great English books, and led to a new emphasis on individual authors and their literary property.

By enabling the preservation of precious documents, printing changed ideas about the perishability of texts and the language with which they were fashioned. A language with a printed literature can be transported and preserved. The more standardized the type, indeed, the more compelling the sense of an idiosyncratic personal self.

As consumers of printed reading matter grew more numerous, memory must have played a smaller role in the transmission of texts, and the process of comprehending ideas, which had previously had a strong auditory element, presumably became more visual. The notion of privacy — specifically, of a secular readership engaged in private study — became potent.

They believed that the printed copy of a text they were reading was the same as the copy another person was reading — which was certainly not the case when people read manuscript copies of a text. The reproductive power of print could be dangerous. Certain types of material, printed in the vernacular, seemed to threaten the status and security of the elite. For two hundred years or so after the arrival of printing, some writers shunned print because they wished to be read only among their own coterie.

The clergy were especially worried; their vital social role could be undermined if religious texts were widely available. In the fifteenth century Europe was Catholic; by the end of the sixteenth it was divided, broadly speaking, into a Protestant North and a Catholic South. Beginning in the s, the English people responded to the new Protestant message that the Roman Catholic Church was neglectful of their needs. Catholic theology was condemned as obscure. She pushed for an English vernacular Bible that would enable ordinary citizens to hear the gospels.

She offered protection to those who imported the scriptures in English from foreign presses. Tyndale was a heroic figure, repeatedly condemned as a heretic. He exiled himself in Germany in order to produce his translation of the New Testament, and then smuggled copies to England, concealed in bales of cloth. Later he moved to the Netherlands.

For the last decade of his life he was constantly in danger. His work was wildly popular. In the end, Tyndale was for his pains strangled to death and then burnt. Yet the reception of his accurate, clear and sometimes beautiful rendering of the sacred Christian texts offered handsome proof of the power of the vernacular. By the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the right to read the Bible in English was entrenched, and the monumental King James Version of drew repeatedly on the phrasing of Tyndale.

The language of prayer was changing, too. Dissenters spoke of the Latin Mass as an obstacle to communication between churchgoers and their God. Thomas Cranmer, who took office as Archbishop of Canterbury in , promoted the idea of an English liturgy. This resulted in The Book of Common Prayer, published in and succeeded by a significant revision three years later. In England its use would be outlawed in , and when it was reintroduced following the Restoration of Charles II in some of its terminology was altered in the interests of clarity. It survived, with few changes, for four centuries.


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When Mary Tudor, a Catholic, came to the throne, the power of Cranmer to bring about reform abruptly ended, and in he was burnt at the stake for treason. But he had created a vehicle for worship that barely changed in the next four centuries. English was now a medium for all kinds of religious expression. A language that two centuries before had seemed insecure was now an instrument of astonishing social and spiritual reform. In the reign of Elizabeth I, the feeling would intensify that English had special powers of alchemy.

For a generation of writers born in the s and s, England and its people, together with its history and institutions, seemed the most important subjects to address. The monarch was glorified, and so was the language used for the purpose. Images of Elizabeth pictured her as richly attired, an object of worship and a symbol of sovereignty in all its glory. The ornaments with which she was bedecked were also a kind of armour. Commentators on the culture of Elizabethan England, both then and now, recognize the same quality in its language: a copiousness that clothes ideas and arguments richly, its sartorial display a sign of military intent.

Elizabeth and her successor, James I, were not the first monarchs to play a palpable role as patrons of English. I have mentioned Henry V already, and long before him, in the ninth century, King Alfred championed translation and education in English. The language was a symbol of unity, and a vehicle for it too. Today when English-speakers declare that their language is the best, they are renewing this Elizabethan spirit.

Often such claims are supported by the statement that English is the language of Shakespeare. In our unconscious or semi-conscious myths of English identity — tinged with eroticism, and somewhat confused both historically and biologically — Elizabeth the virgin mother of the nation is also the begetter of Shakespeare, and we imagine a relationship between them, a golden meeting of politics and poetry, a perfect image of the majesty of the English language and its speakers.

Shakespeare the national poet is used to embody ideas about the greatness of English.

Where did English come from? - Claire Bowern

It was in the eighteenth century that it became usual to refer to Shakespeare as divine — a habit that frequently struck foreign visitors to Britain. Sir Philip Sidney, after his death at the Battle of Zutphen in , was celebrated as a model of piety, valour, courtesy and creative brilliance. In The Defence of Poesy, which he wrote in the late s, Sidney had suggested that poetry could stimulate men to perform virtuous and even heroic deeds.

Posthumously he was acclaimed as a hero, a scholar who was also a soldier. Samuel Daniel was one of many who used the heroic image of Sidney to justify their own activities as poets. The language was a prized asset and, potentially, an instrument of conquest. This was a significant change, for throughout the sixteenth century anxieties about English beset writers and commentators. Now, though, it was its inferiority to Latin and Greek, rather than to French, that occupied the disputants. The writers of the period were often brilliantly loquacious, but their notions of what one could and could not do with English were made up as they went along.

The most contentious issue in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was the expansion of the English word-stock. Its substance was changing. Around , writers started to worry that their works might not last because of the impermanence of vocabulary. Important and original works were beginning to be written in the language, by writers such as Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney. Devices of Classical rhetoric were being zealously cultivated by English authors. English vocabulary had lately been augmented by significant adoptions from Latin and Greek. Additionally, there was a growing sense that the language was not just in need of regulation, but worthy of it.

Here, and in the Jacobean period that followed, there were outstanding talents writing for the theatre Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe , along with poets such as John Donne, ambitious experimenters in prose Francis Bacon, for instance , and theorists of both literature and language. Gone was the sense of English being fit for few purposes. Even in classrooms where the speaking of English was forbidden, many teachers were at pains to ensure that their pupils, translating Latin into English, crafted English prose of high quality.

Hitherto there had not been a great deal of learned writing in English, but that, he saw, could be changed. It is worth pausing to remember that at this time English was spoken only in England and parts of southern Scotland, as well as by small numbers in Ireland and Wales. It was little valued elsewhere. Its present diffusion was not even the stuff of fantasy. To many of its users, Renaissance English seemed alarmingly plastic. Thou, incidentally, had in Old English been used when addressing only one person, and you when addressing more.

By the sixteenth century, this had changed; the difference was social, with thou expressing intimacy or possibly condescension, while you was chillier or more respectful. By contrast, other languages in Western Europe continue to draw such a distinction: in some, notably French, it is important, while in others, such as Spanish and Swedish, the formal address is now not much used.

Shakespeare was a particularly influential usurper. I deal with this in detail in my book The Secret Life of Words.


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  • Not just Latin and Greek, but also French, furnished many new words at this time, and there were other, less numerous imports, from Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Dutch and Hebrew. For many, big words were needed to do justice to big ambitions. A various and copious vocabulary was evidence of literary sophistication. The following year Nashe presented a new edition; the main body of the text was unchanged, but, after Harvey had rejected the offer of a truce, he took another swing at him.

    Nashe was offended by the reception his book had received, and specifically by comments about its style. In characteristically noisy but nimble fashion he dashed off his complaints. Bookes written in them, and no other, seeme like Shop-keepers boxes, that containe nothing else save halfe-pence, three-farthings and two-pences. A man may murder any thing if hee list in the mouthing, and grinde it to powder … betwixt a huge paire of iawes: but let a quest of calme censors goe upon it twixt the houres of sixe and seaven in the morning, and they will in their grave wisdomes subscribe to it as tollerable and significant.

    His prose is spangled with oddities. His style was vital to his invective: sparkling, quarrelsome, brattish. He personifies the fashions of an age in which the possibilities of the printed word were dizzying. They wanted not this flashiness and florid devilry, but instead the gravity of Anglo-Saxon. Among those who promoted a return to that ancient gravity were William Camden and Richard Rowlands Verstegan.

    The English-born grandson of Dutch immigrants, Verstegan was peculiarly attuned to the importance of Englishness. In A Restitution he set out to remind his countrymen of their true origins — in Germany — and the dignity of these. In making this case, he was extending a political argument that he had previously pursued more directly. During the reign of Elizabeth, he had written pamphlets attacking the government and celebrating Catholic martyrs. Now, two years after the accession of James I, he was hopeful that Catholics would be better treated, especially given the possibility that the new monarch would create at Westminster a monument to the memory of his own martyred Catholic mother, Mary.

    In order to buoy his hopes, Verstegan chose to think of James as an Englishman, not a Scot, and dedicated A Restitution to him. The solution, he believed, was to cement the Catholic identity of England by restoring the German character of its language. Camden and Verstegan present English as a language of impressive antiquity. We know that this is not really the case, but imagining the deep past of English was a seductive enterprise for them, faced as they were with so much evidence of its strangeness and malleability.

    It was within their camp that the enduring basic principles of linguistic rightness were established: clarity, decorum, an avoidance of the vulgar and the awkward, a rejection of all things voguish, a nebulous admiration for the past. But nothing like a modern style guide came out of their work; contemporary authors had to rely on their own judgement. The study of language was in its infancy — in the lexicographer John Florio called it toong-work — and tended to go hand in hand with an interest in old artefacts and family pedigrees. Yet the word grammarian was current.

    A petty or inept grammarian was a grammaticaster — the word is used by Ben Jonson — while discussions of grammar were known as grammatication. Jonson is a pivotal figure. Poet, playwright, translator, critic, historian and political shapeshifter, he produced a body of work full of contradiction and experiment. His varied career connects the vertiginous excitement of Elizabethan literature to the religious conflicts of the s. His writings seem to delight in the range of language, mixing the learned and the colloquial, but they also suggest unease about ambiguities, rustic speech and the rise of the letter q.

    Jonson was the author of the first treatment of English grammar that called itself precisely that. When first used in English, in the fourteenth century, the word grammar was synonymous with Latin, for Latin was the only language taught grammatically. As we shall keep seeing, the association between grammar and Latin has proved hard to escape. Ostensibly this was by William Lily, a distinguished London schoolmaster. The examples he included were larded with proverbial wisdom and moral guidance. This was renewed by Edward VI, who decreed that no other grammar book be used in schools, and then by Elizabeth I.

    Its authority endured for two hundred years, and it was reprinted around times. Although Jonson followed convention in insisting on Latin grammatical categories, he broke with it in calling his book The English Grammar, declaring the existence of something that had previously been not much more than a mirage. Throughout the history of English, statements about grammar by popular writers have been taken seriously, regardless of their depth of expertise, and it is striking how many of those who have launched themselves successfully into the language wars — Jonathan Swift, Samuel Johnson, William Cobbett, George Bernard Shaw and Kingsley Amis, to name a few — have been non-specialists, admired because of this rather than in spite of it.

    But as scholarly interest in English increased, the need for standalone grammars of English felt more urgent. Wallis suggested that there were links between sounds and meanings: words that began st suggested strength, and those that began sp often conveyed the idea of expansion.

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    This sense that sounds and meaning existed in parallel prompted plans to simplify the way sounds were represented on the page. Samuel Botley boasted of the excellence of a system of tiny symbols which he marketed under the name Maximo in Minimo. The best-known work in this field was by John Wilkins, who hoped to create a universal language that would eliminate the ambiguous and the inexact from all written communication.

    Wilkins, a churchman and administrator, in delivered An Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language, in which he proposed repairing the ruin of Babel by means of a newly created language. This would be able to catalogue everything in the universe; it would consist not of words, but of basic generic symbols — which could be elaborated to account for all the departments of existence. In all these efforts, the emphasis was on words and how best to symbolize them. But in the final quarter of the seventeenth century, largely in response to the pioneering work of the philosophers at the Port-Royal monastery near Paris, the focus widened.

    The Port-Royal philosophy had two main prongs: a concern with the principles of logic, and a determination to explain the grammatical features shared by all languages.

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    Its exponents set out a grammar that was also a theory of mind: more important than the presentation of individual words were sentences, the ways in which these represented the workings of the mind, and the relationship between language and knowledge. In other words, the grammarian was depicting an activity rather than creating a system of rules.

    The Port-Royal philosophers suggested a distinction between the surface structures of languages and deeper mental structures — an inspiration, much later, for Noam Chomsky. They argued, moreover, that it was hard to communicate the truth because the apparently close relationship between words and things meant that one often reflected on words more than on what they were intended to denote. In seventeenth-century England, such problems of meaning occupied the most original thinkers.

    Francis Bacon distrusted language, arguing that it led reason astray or ensnared it. The inconstant words are awkward; they are significant, but they tell us as much about the person who uses them as they do about the things of which they are being used. Hobbes argued that meanings are to be established almost as if by contract; the true senses of words derive from custom and common usage, and we must by political means manage the inconstancy of significant words.

    In Leviathan , arguably the most important work of political thought ever written in English, Hobbes proposes that the role of the sovereign — the absolute and indivisible ruler who compels people to work for the common good — is to stop arguments about the meanings of words becoming interminably pedantic. The sovereign should lead his subjects to agree definitions of good and bad.

    Reforming language was a moral necessity. His thoughts owed much to his experience of the English Civil Wars of to ; he had witnessed the disintegration of language and the social bonds it embodied. Like the Port-Royal philosophers, Locke wanted to enquire into the origins and extent of knowledge, and he saw the study of language as crucial to a rigorous understanding of how people think. The Port-Royal logicians had argued that a sign, i. Although we use words publicly, their significance is private in the sense that the ideas we associate with them are to some degree idiosyncratic.

    It follows that the number of nouns should be the same as the number of things. Locke challenged this, and identified other deep problems to do with language and communication. He recognized that many arguments, perhaps even most, have their origins in differences over the significance of words, rather than in a real difference in the understanding of things. He also recognized that readers may well extract from books meanings different from those intended by their authors.

    Locke suggests our insularity. Our simple ideas — of whether something is round or hot, for instance — have a good chance of being in step, but our complex ideas — which we arrive at voluntarily, and which may include for instance our view of whether something is just or beautiful — are less likely to be. Locke sees language as inherently imperfect, and he is therefore not hopeful about our ability to communicate successfully. The new focus on the connection between language and thought gradually encouraged writers to move away from radical schemes and look instead into the rational grounds of grammar.

    The layout of the page became a priority; grammarians had to work closely with printers to ensure that the systematic representation of the different parts of language was lucid and as elegant as constraints of space would allow. One rather ironic effect of this was that the philosophy of language — the inspiration for this more rigorous approach to classification, but inherently discursive — was relegated to footnotes.

    Eventually the footnotes would disappear, and the idea of linguistic discipline would push aside knottier questions of theory. But really the love of liberty is a characteristic of English-speakers. They have resisted and always will resist any attempt to reorganize their language and regulate it from the top down. Yet they will complain endlessly about problems that could finally be resolved only through such regulation. The idea that the English language should be sent to school flourishes today. There was a determination to achieve greater clarity of syntax. This involved, among other things, doing away with double comparatives more wiser and double superlatives most wisest , paying attention to concord mainly the agreement between verbs and their subjects , using tenses more rigorously, and differentiating between which and who.

    To many of those who pressed for change, it seemed that an institution was needed to hand down rulings on such matters. However, the committee met only a handful of times. The real influence of the Royal Society was on the style of scientific writing. Sprat excoriated fineness and abundance of phrasing, which were vain and deceptive — possibly even demonic. The sometimes bewilderingly long sentences of sixteenth-century writers, who followed the stylistic example of Cicero, were to give way to a new curtness of expression. It is easy to say that this was inevitable, since the advance of science called for a more clinical style of writing.

    Its first version, published in , is flowery. In Glanvill was elected Fellow of the Royal Society; a second, retouched version of the book appeared the following year. By the time he brought out a third version in , he had absorbed the ideas of Sprat, and he radically stripped back the style. One of the loudest came in from Daniel Defoe, known then not as a writer but as a risk-taking businessman involved in importing tobacco, making bricks, and farming civet cats in Stoke Newington.

    He proposed that a society be set up by the king, William III, to achieve this. Fifteen years later Jonathan Swift launched a fresh campaign for such an institution. Swift was at that time an enthusiastic participant in the coffee-house culture of London, and worked as a propagandist for Sir Robert Harley, a Tory who became Lord Treasurer in This pamphlet, which took the form of a letter to Harley, has been seen as beginning the tradition of complaint about English.

    There were complainers before Swift, but his proposal initiated a new heightened rhetoric of linguistic disgust. Swift argued that there should be an Academy to enlarge, polish and fix English. It would ensure that future generations were able to understand the texts that recorded history. A fixed language could guarantee the continuity of tradition and a national memory; the alternative, a mutable English, threatened to compromise the future of the social values he and his political paymasters held dear. Swift savoured his dislikes.

    He abhorred vagueness; in Dublin he had proposed that beggars be given badges so that people could know their individual circumstances. He worried about cultural amnesia — manifest in a casualness about language, in which the histories of words were ignored. He was anxious about the poverty of conversation; good talk was one of the binding energies of society, and bad talk was a recipe for social meltdown. All these concerns fuelled his satire.

    One of his more unusual notions was that uneducated rustic folk naturally speak well, having avoided corruption by the spurious sophistication of the urban elite. He was strikingly hostile to contracted and abbreviated forms of expression. Swift and Addison were responding to the seventeenth-century flourishing of contractions. Poets were to blame; they had introduced silly abbreviations that helped them fit their thinking to their verse schemes.

    Only Northerners, Swift claimed, could bear the harsh sounds of these condensed, unnatural words. Affectation nauseated Swift. As the rise of a prosperous and socially selfconscious middle class caused the urban gentry to seek ways of marking their own superiority, correct usage and moral excellence were packaged together as tokens of just this.

    The Language Wars: A History of Proper English by Henry Hitchings

    Everyday usage — the language of the social upstarts — was depraved, and for those who wished to keep them at bay it was essential to maintain a standard of elegance. Precise definition was difficult, but one was expected to know polite conduct when one found it. There existed a model of correct social behaviour in which conversation and letter-writing were the keys to good relationships and were practised with a chaste delicacy. Among those who established the relevant principles of polite and proper sociability was the writer and printer Samuel Richardson.

    These had grown out of his correspondence, in which he had attempted to combine moral prescription with a style that was at once rigorous, innocent and agreeably conversational. A critic of the theatre, which seemed to him to be too often a force for social disorder, he nonetheless expounded a highly theatrical view of society.

    To be polite was a posture. Yet, as Swift had earlier recognized, a product of the cult of politeness was a remarkable and, one would probably have to say, distinctively English talent for being impolite. It is easy to understand why Swift wanted to regulate English. The society in which he lived was expanding. This made the successful traffic of ideas more important and more difficult. In an age when print culture was growing, institutionalized norms seemed desirable.

    Nor have similar proposals since been embraced. The British generally do not trust centralized regulation, so the idea of a government-sponsored system of linguistic regulation is anathema. Moreover, the performance of academies abroad does not encourage a positive view of their effectiveness. Nor have other mechanisms for defending French from English. But despite the large bureaucratic efforts and enthusiastic individual ones to maintain linguistic patriotism, French continues to assimilate words from English.

    Dryden was intent on leading an English cultural renaissance, and recognized the importance both of courting political support for this and of collaborating with like-minded men. I have kept Dryden in reserve till now, partly because his main intervention in matters of English usage requires — or at any rate permits — a digression.

    There is a well-established American campus joke which goes something like this. It is also argued that a preposition at the end of a sentence gives the appearance of being stranded, and that in terms of both logic and aesthetics it is therefore undesirable. The hostility to the stranded preposition begins, however, with a single opponent: Dryden. This was not just a piece of whimsy; he was concerned to establish that English was suited to heroic subject matter, and in promoting its potential he emphasized where he could its connections with Latin.

    Becoming Poet Laureate in , he returned to this theme. Influenced by the way prepositions were treated in Latin, where they always preceded their objects, and mindful of etymology, he became hypersensitive to their use in English. The most striking was the removal of prepositions from the ends of sentences. In pruning his own prose, Dryden had invented a rule.

    The circumstances of its invention had eluded everyone up till Malone, but the fact of its existence had not. It impressed eighteenth-century grammarians, and by the end of that century the stranded preposition was conventionally viewed as a grave solecism. Yet there are times when its strenuous avoidance proves ugly. A phrasal verb is one in which a particle usually a preposition alters and narrows the meaning of the verb. These verbs tend to be informal. They are also very common, and they can cause confusion. In some cases the distinction between related phrasal verbs may be both large and unobvious.

    Undoubtedly these get used interchangeably. Yet by convention, if I compare myself to Christ, I am suggesting a similarity, whereas in comparing myself with Christ I am mainly concerned with the differences between us. Today, courses aimed at foreign learners pay special attention to the phrasal verb; its combination of prevalence and potential for confusion makes it an important subject.

    Phrasal verbs create opportunities for dangling prepositions, and this has been used as an argument for avoiding them. But here, as so often, the fear of a solecism can lead to stilted expression.

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