Opinion

Brown's lessons of language were copious in 1883

Thanks to Ms. Margaret Schilling of Greenville, S.C., I now own an 1883 edition of “The Institutes of English Grammar” by Goold Brown. The worn and tattered volume came a month ago.

Published by William Wood & Co., New York, the 345- page textbook informs us that its “institutes” are “methodically arranged, with Copious Language Lessons, also a Key to the Examples of False Syntax.” A student will find exercises in analysis, parsing and construction by co-author Henry Kiddle, late superintendent of common schools in New York City.

Right on!

The title page includes a quotation from Quintilian: “Ne quis igitur tanquam parva fastidiat Grammatices elementa.” The preface begins forthrightly: “Language is the principal vehicle of thought; and so numerous and important are the ends to which it is subservient, that it is difficult to conceive in what manner the affairs of human society could be conducted without it.” Right on!

Brown divided his masterwork into four sections: orthography, etymology, syntax and prosody. In an appendix, he offered some eminently sage advice about “style,” e.g.: “Avoid the unnecessary use of foreign words or idioms.” He frowned upon attempts at dialectal speech. He urged his students to avoid technical terms “except when they are necessary.” He demanded precision in every line. Thus, “A diligent scholar may ACQUIRE knowledge, GAIN celebrity, OBTAIN rewards, WIN prizes, and GET high honor, though he EARN no money. These six verbs have nearly the same meaning, and yet they cannot well be changed.”

In common with every editor I ever met, Brown had his pet peeves. He was agreeable to such terms of contempt as “fudge!” and “pshaw!” and even “pish, tut!” But he spurned many others. In a section on “false syntax,” he insisted that “jury” must be treated as a plural noun; thus, “the jury will be confined till THEY agree on a verdict.”

A fading rule

Permit me a closing quotation: “A good style naturally commends itself to every reader — even to him who cannot tell why it is worthy of preference. Hence there is reason to believe that the true principles of practical grammar, deduced from custom and sanctioned by time, will never be generally superseded by anything which individual caprice may substitute.”

Moving on: Ann Mansur of Washington, Ga., asks about a fading rule of usage. She reads that someone, perhaps a pending bride, “graduated college.” Someone else “graduated from” college. What's the preferred construction? Alas, tsk-tsk and also lackaday! In an ideal syntactic world, the answer would be, “She was graduated FROM college.” The reasoning behind the classic passive construction is straightforward: It is the college, not the student, that does the graduating. The old rule is worth preserving, but this is probably a lost cause.

Charles J. Lingo of Henderson, Nev., quotes from a movie review in which an actor's performance was described as “especially inapt.” He asks, shouldn't it have been “inept”? Right on! Something that is “apt” can be exactly suitable, as in “an apt response.” The adjective can indicate a tendency, as in “that mutt is apt to bark.” On the flip side, an “inapt” remark is merely inappropriate, like quoting Rabelais to the ladies' sodality.

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