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(Still) Groping for Words: Usage and Slang Guides, Revisited: Grammar in America

by Edwin L. Battistella

Grammar in America

The natural starting point for any discussion of style and usage in the United States is the Colonial/Revolutionary era, when eloquence was a matter of civic concern. Benjamin Franklin hoped that Americans would adopt the best British models of speaking and writing, and John Adams even promoted the idea of a national academy for the study of English, believing that a common public standard would allow linguistic merit to be a means of advancement. Thomas Jefferson, a great collector of dictionaries, saw language as important in a different way: he stressed an American language and new words as a means of progress. The attitudes of Franklin and Adams, on the one hand, and Jefferson, on the other, reflect a debate that seems to never end—a debate between those who are cautious about language change and those who embrace innovation. Both historians and linguists have looked at this subject in detail, and noteworthy among their treatments are Kenneth Cmiel’s Democratic Eloquence: The Fight over Popular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America, David Simpson’s The Politics of American English, 1776–1850, Dennis Baron’s Grammar and Good Taste: Reforming the American Language, Edward Finegan’s Attitudes toward English Usage: The History of a War of Words, and Rosemarie Ostler’s Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War over Words Shaped Today’s Language. These books introduce the many sources for advice about correct language: grammars, conduct and etiquette manuals, newspaper commentary on the state of the language, books of verbal criticism, and eventually alphabetical and topical guides. Whereas early commentary often cited the language of journalists, businesspersons, teachers, and immigrants as examples of bad English, over time good English came to be defined not so much as eloquence as the absence of errors, as decided by principles of usage and clarity and by grammatical superstitions.

In the nineteenth century, controlling errors in English became especially important to writers, who saw themselves as upholding cultural standards and accordingly wrote about usage. George Perkins Marsh’s Lectures on the English Language stressed language as a reflection of thought and character, Richard Grant White’s Words and Their Uses, Past and Present targeted supposedly misused words (among them, according to White, “donate” and “photographer”). The spread of business communication, publishing, journalism, and freshman composition in the nineteenth century necessitated comprehensive guides that went beyond the verbal criticism of Marsh, White, et al. Accordingly, in 1882 Thomas Embly Osmun, using the pseudonym Alfred Ayres, published The Verbalist: A Manual Devoted to Brief Discussions of the Right and Wrong Use of Words and to Some Other Matters of Interest to Those Who Would Speak and Write with Propriety, which may have been the first alphabetical dictionary of usage. Two decades later Frank Vizetelly offered A Desk-Book of Errors in English, which included (as Vizetelly wrote in the introduction) notes on “colloquialisms and vulgarisms to be avoided in conversation.”