Episode 165: Glamorous Grammar

William Bullokar composed the first formal grammar of the English language in 1586. Prior to that point, the concept of grammar had been largely restricted to Latin. Bullokar’s work extended the concept to English, but it did so by employing the Latin grammatical framework. This approach was followed by subsequent grammarians, and it has shaped the way scholars think about English grammar to this day.


17 thoughts on “Episode 165: Glamorous Grammar

  1. Growing up in New Jersey in the 60s & 70s we were taught about split infinitives and not to end a sentence with a preposition (and dangling participles – I don’t even remember what those are!). It was taught more as “proper English” than totally forbidden speech. To this day I find it hard to undo that learning so as not to sound too snooty!

    • I often hear that old teaching about never to end a sentence with a preposition and I wonder if those teachers made then some kind of exception to that old-fashioned rule. When they asked someone about their country of origin, did they really asked From where are you? I doubt it.

      • I can’t speak for Ellen, but I learned these rules as well— in Texas in the 90s. My teachers always pointed out that they were teaching ‘proper’ English— the kind you use when you’re in a job interview or writing a paper or giving a speech. I’ve since learned that as ‘register’. It’s a more formal register.

        And related in a backdoor kind of way, growing up I would never have asked any version of ‘where are you from?’ I was taught it was rude to ask a question like that so directly. I would find a graceful way to create an opening in the conversation for someone to volunteer that information.

        So the combination of that question being one I would never dream of asking in a formal setting (even now) and the rule about prepositions being applicable to formal English is the answer. It’s just not a sentence someone would say in a formal context.

        Of course there has been a general shift away from formality in the past few decades, in terms of both speech and general social norms so the appropriateness of the question has increased simultaneously with the relaxing of those old grammar rules. If the social rules had relaxed before the language rules, there would probably be a version of the question that merely sounds stuffy rather than absurd, along the lines of saying ‘this is she’ rather than ‘I’m her’ when someone asks for me on the phone.

        Incidentally, I’ve found it much easier to adopt an informal register than to shed my inhibitions about the types of things that are appropriate to say in certain settings. I think it helped when I realized how pedantic some of those rules were. Even so, there are a few that grate on my nerves, usually coming down to the over application of rules. A pet peeve of mine is when someone says ‘come with Jose and I’. It’s Jose and me. The rule about not using ‘and me’ is when I’m the subject. I find it less irritating (not by much) to hear ‘Ellen and me went to the movies’.

  2. Hi,
    Reading posts like the one from Ellen makes me think that we all should be proud of and press for a more Anglosaxon/Germanic English. Ending with a preposition/adverb and using more Anglosaxon words sounds proper to me.

  3. When a teacher in school told us that prepositions are words that sentences should never end with, I always did wonder whether there was an strong element of sarcasm in the deliberate wording chosen.
    Having learnt German in the meanwhilst [1], I realise now that such words are not prepositions at all but rather a part of the verb. It is clearer in German: ‘aufklaren’ means ‘to clear up’. ‘The weather cleared up.’ is ‘Das Wetter klarte auf.’ ‘Up’ in this sentence is not a preposition but rather a part of the verb. In German it is a separable verb.

    [1] Thanks Monty Python!

    • Thanks for the feedback, and I agree with your general assessment about sentence-final ‘prepositions’ in many cases. I think you’re describing the challenge of trying to classify the parts of speech in English. As I noted in the episode, it isn’t as settled as many people think it is.

  4. Thanks for explaining what was meant by grammar 400+ years ago and for distinguishing syntax from grammar. That helped! Also, I appreciated the description of the imposition of Latin grammar into (or onto) English during the 16th and 17th centuries and the problems that has created. As a content editor (not a copyeditor—I am not qualified to do that), I do commonly “fix” split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions when I notice them, but for most items I review those are hardly the biggest problems. (And Kevin, I am a stickler for serial commas…beware :)).

    Re Star Trek: I have the feeling that if Gene Roddenberry (or whichever writer) had penned the “To Boldly Go…” phrase instead as “To Go Boldly…” it may have been just as popular and remembered.

  5. The shifting processes from a declined and inflicted language system to a word ordered one used in Modern English are huge. N (subject)-V+predicate is foundational for the indicative mood. To signal a question, the word order of the first two elements are reversed. This happens also in German. Were the Tutors trying to distinguish English from French and Spanish by pushing for the use of “do”?

  6. The Double Articulation of Prepositions and Intonation

    Yes, I agree with you all — and with Winston Churchill — that in English we should be free to use prepositions at the end of sentences.

    However, the wordsmith would choose to do so for a play on the double articulation of intonation and grammar.

    You see, because prepositions are usually followed by a noun or noun substitute, intonation does not drop as strongly after a preposition — but stays level or even rises, in anticipation of the companion noun. Yet, other clauses, and particularly declarative sentences, usually end with falling intonation.
    This contouring of intonation and prepositions does not apply to questions — whose intonation often rises at end. Thus, questions feature the most common usage of prepositions at end.

    To repeat, though, here I am just explaining an existing pattern in our language and how it can to be used to rhetorical advantage, — and one I know as a teacher of EFL and a writer. I am not prescribing or proscribing the use of preposition at end.

    Jon Lee Junior, Author of ‘Modern Poetry and Free Verse, for Today’

    • Whoops, while squinting at this tiny comments box, yesterday, I made a couple of typos there.
      * can to be = can be
      * contouring [ explained again ] . . . = both prepositions and interrogatives are marked by no falling intonation; and so the contouring parallel allows both prepositions question-ends to rise together, naturally

  7. Another excellent episode Kevin. The development of English grammar is a subject very close to my heart, which is why I majored on it as part of my linguistics degree back in the early 90s. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to this episode and love that you provide a written transcript.

    Just to point out that modern linguists no longer use the term ‘part of speech’. There are several reasons for this, one being that the term suggests it has something to do with the spoken form of the language.

    The preferred modern term is ‘lexical category’ or ‘word category’.

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