The Canon: A New English Grammar, Logical and Historical. By Henry Sweet

July 29, 2010

My nomination for inclusion in the Canon goes to a grammar book. How ridiculous, you may think - how can a grammar book be inspiring? In the words of the American linguist H.A. Gleason, "the English-speaking world has long held grammar in low esteem and grammarians in even lower!" Gleason wrote these words in 1965, the year I bought my copy of Henry Sweet's New English Grammar. So why did it make such an impression on me?

A New English Grammar was published by Oxford University Press in 1891 (followed by a smaller second volume in 1898). That makes it the first in a long line of major analyses of English grammar that try to cover everything; and in 1965 it had the distinction of being the only one written by a Briton - a very odd fact, I thought (and still think). Why were Brits so uninterested in the grammar of their language? For me, brought up on grammars of French, German, Latin, it was a revelation to see my own language on the dissecting table. Since I already knew all the facts, it was a case of pure analysis and debate.

And this is what Sweet was so good at. He presents grammar as a science, where evidence can be mustered and alternatives can be eliminated. Is cannon in cannon ball a noun or an adjective? What's odd about the phrase artificial florist (a dealer in artificial flowers)? How many tenses does English have? Out with dogma; in with understanding.

Better still, he presents the data - often using data from ordinary speech, unlike his predecessors - in the framework of a general theory of grammar as an independent structure that links meanings to forms, but which does so in complicated and sometimes imperfect ways. All very sensible, I thought, and I've spent the rest of my life trying to stand on his shoulders.

I can't imagine a better springboard for a novice, not only for measuring progress in the succeeding century (which is less impressive than it would have been if we had all started from scratch in 1957), but also for defining its aims.

Why study grammar? Just because it's there, and it's interesting? As a window for looking into the human mind? No. Sweet is very clear that the main object of what he calls "practical grammar" ("descriptive grammar" in current terminology) is to help students to learn foreign languages by providing clear and correct explanations. I wished that my teachers at school had read Sweet.

Sweet's grammar has had an interesting history in terms of impact, with messages for us today. It had some uptake abroad, but absolutely none at home. An education report in 1921 complained that schools could not teach English grammar because "no one knows exactly what it is" - Sweet could have told them, but they weren't listening.

Even Gleason's 1965 history of school grammars doesn't mention him. "Neglected masterpiece" seems a fair description - and it is likely to remain so unless OUP reprints it or (as it tells me it now hopes to do) makes it available as part of Oxford Scholarship Online.

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