Monday, March 4, 2013

National Grammar Day

There are those who would argue that the only thing drier than an actual grammar book would be a history of the grammar book, but since it’s National Grammar Day today, we down here in Special Collections thought we’d try it anyway.

The earliest English grammar books were often not written in English, but in Latin. It wasn’t until the 18th century that English grammars (as they are known) started being written in English. These early grammars were devoted to explain English constructions to a world where Latin was still being commonly used. In fact, it was believed by many that English didn’t have any unique rules of grammar, but that the Latin rules were perfectly sufficient for understanding the rules of English. Modern Latin scholars would not agree.

Needless to say, as the England’s empire spread around the globe, there was a new need to teach English to non-Native speakers who didn’t know Latin either. The new grammars were styled as informative education textbooks, intended to help the poor, non-English speakers, children and, of course, women understand the complicated beast that is the English language.

This all brings us rather neatly to Lindley Murray. Murray was a lawyer who, in his spare time, wrote English grammar books. It is for his grammar works that he has gone down in history, as the books were used long after his death in educating students in the English speaking world. 

The Special Collection is lucky enough to hold several different editions of Murray’s books, including his English Exercises which was first published in 1797. The Special Collection has an 1814 and an 1866 edition, which are very nearly identical. The book contains exercises “Designed for the Benefit of Private Learners, As Well As for the Use of Schools” and promises to provide instruction on the “Defects in Punctuation, and Violations of the Rules Respecting Perspicuity and Accuracy.”

Sentences such as “A great proportion of human evils are created by ourselves” and “Flattery, whose nature is to destroy and deceive, should be avoided as the poisonous adder” were used in the exercises to instruct morally as well as grammatically. I suspect I’d have paid more attention in English class if those had been the sorts of sentences I was instructed to work with.

Murray was one of several educational reformers of his day. His books were used into the 20th century, along with those of the famous William Holmes McGuffey whose readers and spellers were the backbone of education in the United States for almost a century. We have a bunch of those as well, but they’ll have to wait for another blog post.

Until then, we in the Special Collection remain willing to be more flexible about defects in punctuation than Murray would approve of.

Rachel Cohen
Archivist and User Services Librarian
Special Collection Department

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