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Grammar Rules

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.
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