Ours is an age of sentences such as “C u 2nite, k?” and “I tweet that’s the way I roll,” from a potential prez. Some even in the literary ranks applaud using the latest vernacular (e.g., here). It seems avant-garde, like treating graffiti as art. Yet, there was a time when Americans of all ranks – from the learned gentry to the self-taught slave – sought to write and speak only in the most proper, authorized form of English. To know the rules of conjugation, declension, proper use of infinitives and other minutiae of grammar was the mark of the educated person. That was what “grammar schools” were for.
A recent article by Beth Barton Schweiger in the Journal of the Early Republic (a fun journal to read, at least for me) describes how important it was for garnering the esteem of others and for self-respect in the 19th century not only to read and write, but more critically, to know by heart rules such as “Conjunctions that are of a positive and absolute nature, require the indicative mood.” And she describes how this veneration of grammatical rules was a vehicle for democracy.
In the early nineteenth century, American leaders strove to make the people literate and, indications are, the people embraced this mission. One level of literacy was simple reading and writing. The McGuffey Readers, begun in the mid-1830s, taught simple, phonetic reading, having students sound out sentences such as “the cat is on the mat” (here). But that was “primitive” learning. The refined person rose to another level, mastering the rules of grammar. Lincoln studied grammar books as a young man; so did Frederick Douglass; so did all up-and-coming people, even headstrong young women.
As Schweiger recounts, “common schools that had long taught students only to recite and copy . . . began to teach them how to compose their own speeches and essays. . . . [K]nowledge of grammar – defined as ‘speaking and writing with propriety’ – became necessary for ordinary people.” Grammar was a technical, abstract, and confusing discipline, advanced beyond simple writing perhaps in the way that algebra is advanced over arithmetic. Yet, “how one spoke and wrote revealed character and position as clearly as dress, manners, and family connections. Ambitious people aspired to eloquence in speech and writing,” so they plunged into grammar manuals. Command of grammar prepared them for the next stages, learning composition and rhetoric.
Learning grammar was also “prized because it exercised the memory” and thereby strengthened the brain, even if readers could not understand what they learned. Recent research suggests that this fancy has some truth. The brain is surprisingly “plastic”; reading and similar mental exercises alter brain structure (see here and here).
Lindley Murray’s English Grammar was the premier mental exercise “machine”; the text was studied in city mansions and rural shacks alike. “Nineteenth-century readers picked up a grammar with a single goal: to memorize it. . . . Understood as a ‘higher subject,’ in the early decades of the century, grammar was taught in ‘grammar schools’ or in private academies that were beyond the means of most people,” leaving them to learn on their own. Traveling instructors of grammar offered crash courses, promising that customers would learn to “parse difficult blank verse, and to correct false language.’’
And what a task it was to memorize grammar! Schweiger provides a sample from Murray’s crammed and detailed book with this atypically short exercise, parsing the sentence “virtue ennobles us”:
Virtue is a common substantive, of the neuter gender, the third person, the singular number, and in the nominative case. (Decline the noun.) Ennobles is a regular verb, active, indicative mood, present tense, and the third person singular. (Repeat the present tense, the imperfect tense, and the perfect participle.) Us is a personal pronoun, of the first person plural, and in the objective case. (Decline it.)
And don’t forget: “The second rule for promoting the strength of a sentence, is, to attend particularly to the use copulatives, relatives, and all the particles employed for transition and connexion.”
The view that command of grammar was a sign of an elevated mind, good manners, and moral character made learning it all the more attractive to people who felt shut out of the privileged circles — women, blacks, and ambitious rural whites like Lincoln. Fredrick Douglass, Schweiger tells us, was quick to demean his (white) opponents by pointing out their grammatical errors.
Americans in the 19th century came to view being learned as more than mastering simple writing and ciphering. Study of grammar, once restricted to advanced schools for advantaged students, entered lower and lower grades. Its spread shows up in the very way we name schools. In 1846, Schweiger writes, “grammar school” referred to an elite institution that taught the classics. “By 1860, it was ‘a school in rank above a primary school and below a high school.’ By 1900, ‘grammar school’ had become synonymous with ‘elementary school’ in the United States . . . .”
What most of us today experience as oppressive, authoritarian control from above – thou shall not split infinitives – was, several generations ago, a vehicle for mental improvement, popular uplift, and democratization.