Text: Edgar Allan Poe (ed. J. A. Harrison), “Review of A Grammar of English Language,” The Complete Works of Edgar Allan PoeVol. X: Literary Criticism - part 03 (1902), pp. 167-171


[page 167, continued:]


[Graham’s Magazine, July, 1841.]

THIS is the title of a queer little book, which its author regards as “not only necessary, but urgently called for,” because not only “the mass of the people are ignorant of English Grammar, but because those who profess great knowledge of it, and even those who make the teaching of it their business, will be found, upon examination, to be very far from understanding its principles.”

Whether Mr. P. proceeds upon the safe old plan of Probo meliora, deteriora sequor, whether he is one of “the mass,” and means to include himself among the ignoramuses, or whether he is only a desperate [page 168:] quiz, we shall not take it upon ourselves to say; but the fact is clear that, in a Preface of less than two small duodecimo pages (the leading object of which seems to be an eulogy upon one William Cobbett), he has given us some half dozen distinct instances of bad Grammar.

“For these purposes,” says he — that is to say — the purposes of instructing mankind and enlightening “every American youth” without exception — “for these purposes, I have written my lessons in a series of letters. A mode that affords more opportunity for plainness, familiarity, instruction, and entertainment, than any other. A mode that was adopted by Chesterfield, in his celebrated instructions on politeness. A mode that was adopted by Smollett, in many of his novels, which, even at this day, hold a distinguished place in the world of fiction. A mode that was adopted by William Cobbett, not only in his admirable treatise on English Grammar, but in nearly every work that he wrote.” “To Mr. Cobbett,” adds the instructer of every American youth — “to Mr. Cobbett I acknowledge myself indebted for the greater part of the grammatical knowledge which I possess.” Of the fact stated there can be no question. Nobody but Cobbett could have been the grammatical Mentor of Mr. Pue, whose book (which is all Cobbett) speaks plainly upon the point; nothing but the ghost of William Cobbett, looking over the shoulder of Hugh A. Pue, could have inspired the latter gentleman with the bright idea of stringing together four consecutive sentences, in each of which the leading nominative noun is destitute of a verb.

Mr. Pue may attempt to justify his phraseology here, by saying that the several sentences, quoted above, commencing [page 169:] with the words, “A mode,” are merely continuations of the one beginning “For these purposes”; but this is no justification at all. By the use of the period, he has rendered each sentence distinct, and each must be examined as such, in respect to its grammar. We are only taking the liberty of condemning Mr. P. by the words of his own mouth. Turning to page 72, where he treats of punctuation, we read as follows: “The full point is used at the end of every complete sentence; and a complete sentence is a collection of words making a complete sense, without being dependent upon another collection of words to convey the full meaning intended.” Now, what kind of a meaning can we give to such a sentence as “A mode that was adopted by Chesterfield in his celebrated instructions on politeness” if we are to have “no dependence upon” the sentences that precede it? But, even in the supposition that these five sentences had been run into one, as they should have been, they would still be ungrammatical. For example, “For these purposes I have written my lessons in a series of letters — a mode that affords more opportunity for plainness, familiarity, instruction, and entertainment than any other — a mode, etc.” This would have been the proper method of punctuation. “A mode” is placed in apposition with “a series of letters.” But it is evident that it is not the “series of letters” which is the “mode.” It is the writing the lessons in a series which is so. Yet, in order that the noun “mode” can be properly placed in apposition with what precedes it, this latter must be either a noun, or a sentence, which, taken collectively, can serve as one. Thus, in any shape, all that we have quoted is bad grammar.

We say “bad grammar” and say it through sheer [page 162:] obstinacy, because Mr. Pue says we should not. “Why, what is grammar?” asks he indignantly. “Nearly all grammarians tell us that grammar is the writing and speaking of the English language correctly. What then is bad grammar? Why, bad grammar must be the bad writing and speaking of the English language correctly!!” We give the two admiration notes and all.

In the first place, if grammar be only the writing and speaking the English language correctly, then the French, or the Dutch, or the Kickapoos are miserable, ungrammatical races of people, and have no hopes of being anything else, unless Mr. Pue proceeds to their assistance; but let us say nothing of this for the present. What we wish to assert is, that the usual definition of grammar, as “the writing and speaking correctly,” is an error which should have been long ago exploded. Grammar is the analysis of language, and this analysis will be good or bad, just as the capacity employed upon it be weak or strong — just as the grammarian be a Horne Tooke or a Hugh A. Pue.

But, perhaps, after all, we are treating this gentleman discourteously. His book may be merely intended as a good joke. By the bye, he says in his Preface, that “while he informs the student, he shall take particular care to entertain him.” Now, the truth is we have been exceedingly entertained. In such passages as the following, however, which we find upon the second page of the Introduction, we are really at a loss to determine whether it is the utile or the dulce which prevails. We give the italics of Mr. Pue; without which, indeed, the singular force and beauty of the paragraph cannot be duly appreciated.

“The proper study of English grammar, so far from [page 171:] being dry, is one of the most rational enjoyments known to us; one that is highly calculated to rouse the dormant energies of the student, it requiring continual mental effort, unceasing exercise of mind. It is, in fact, the spreading of a thought-producing plaster of parts upon the extensive grounds of intellect! It is the parent of idea, and great causation of reflection; the mighty instigator of insurrection in the interior; and, above all, the unflinching champion of internal improvement!

We know nothing about plaster of Paris; but the analogy which subsists between ipecac and grammar — at least between ipecac and the grammar of Mr. Pue — never, certainly, struck us in so clear a point of view as it does now.

But, after all, whether Mr. P.’s queer little book shall or shall not meet the views of “Every American Youth,” will depend pretty much upon another question of high moment, — whether “Every American Youth” be or be not as great a nincompoop as Mr. Pue.





[S:1 - JAHCW, 1902] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - Editions - The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe (J. A. Harrison) (Review of A Grammar of English Language)