1/22/2020

Joseph Priestly, School Lessons, and Liberty in Grammar

"Later at the university, I learned that the split infinitive rule was constructed by Latinists who used the rules of the dead language to standardize English so it would be resistant to regional, dialectical, and cultural adaptations. When it comes to the development of Modern English, the 1700s were a crucial time. What Samuel Johnson wanted to do for English vocabulary, grammarians wanted to do for English syntax. The goals of the English grammarians were threefold: first, codify the principles of the language and reduce it to rule; second, settle disputed points (such as “you was” or “you were” at that time) and then settle cases of divided usage; third, develop lists of what were thought to be common errors. Grammarians hoped that this would improve the language over time.

Compilers of English grammars turned to classical languages, but this presented some problems because Latin and Greek are not analytic languages but inflectional ones. Analytic languages depend on the order of words, whereas inflectional ones rely on the formation of the word itself to convey important information such as tense, number, case, voice, or person. Despite the challenges, the classical grammarians tried to fit as many traditional concepts as possible into our analytic language. Latin terms such as nouns (nōmen), adjectives (adjectīvum), and verbs (verbum) were used to help organize English grammar.

Some writers resisted this attempt to Latinize grammar. One example is the Kensington schoolmaster William Loughton whose book Practical Grammar of the English Tongue in 1734 argued against those who “have attempted to force our Language (contrary to its Nature) to the Method and Rules of the Latin Grammar.” Loughton discarded the use of nouns, adjectives, and verbs in favor of terms such as names, qualifications, and affirmations. Another interesting voice of dissent is Joseph Priestly, who was a theologian and a scientist: among other things, Priestly is credited with the discovery of oxygen."