Gwynne’s Grammar: The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar and the Writing of Good English?
by n. m. gwynne
?knopf, 288 pages, $19.95

One of the first axioms of the field of linguistics is that the rules of usage in any language at any time are wholly conventional. Proper grammar and style have no natural or logical basis. They are a matter of custom, a community’s agreement formed over time to speak like this and not like that. The accepted form isn’t inherently better. We prefer it merely out of habit, and because human relations work more smoothly when everybody talks the same way.

The premise sounds broad-minded and tolerant, especially as it shifts the grounds of judgment. Instead of chiding a user of ain’t for violating a natural law of speech or failing to improve himself, we simply advise, “In this context, it’s best to use is not.” The approach suits well a multicultural society that aims to help disadvantaged groups whose idiom strays from the preferred.

People who think the rules have a firmer basis than human agreement ignore this social goal and base the rules on extra-human appeals. These “prescriptivists,” as they are called, consider hopefully (as in, “Hopefully, we’ll win the game this week”) a crime against the order of things. They believe that the politically correct they, when attached to a singular antecedent (so that we don’t use he to cover males and females), betrays reason and logic.

Linguists denounce them with relish. In his essay titled “Usage in The American Heritage Dictionary,” Steven Pinker calls the rule against split infinitives a “superstition,” a “thick-witted analogy to Latin,” a “bugaboo,” and a “ludicrous fetish.” In a 2009 essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the fiftieth anniversary of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, Edinburgh professor Geoffrey Pullum isn’t content to point out errors in that celebrated book. He terms their instructions “limp platitudes” and “inconsistent nonsense,” the authors “grammatical incompetents,” and the book as a whole “a toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity.”

This sprightly handbook by N. M. Gwynne is a vigorous rejoinder to such charges. The book came out in England in 2013 and was a surprise hit in spite of the fact that more than half of its pages contain curt expositions and examples of good and bad grammar, hardly the stuff of bestsellers. We read about superlatives and comparatives, morphology, the right handling of however, and the placement of a comma before and or but when an independent clause follows.

The rules are neat and clean. Adjectives generally follow an order: opinion, size, age, shape, color, origin, material, purpose. (You say “little red book,” not “red little book,” and “charming California wood bungalow”—try mixing those up.) The statement “X is different than Y” turns the conjunction than into a preposition; that should never happen. You agree to a proposal and with a person. A clause is a group of words with a verb, a phrase a group without one.

Rules and clarifications such as these pile up in successive chapters on “Parts of Speech,” “The Most Important Syntax Basics,” and “Punctuation,” along with four appendices on grammar terms, irregular verbs, prepositions, and plurals. The examples are lively, the advice direct and confident. Some of it, once heard, won’t be forgotten, such as the embarrassing confusion of “regrettably” and “regretfully.” Gwynne demands that youths memorize them, and he has a four-word reply to educators who maintain that memorization and grammar itself harm the budding egos of children: “Do not believe it.” Indeed, Gwynne quotes a fellow grammarian who turns the charge on its head: “It’s cruel not to teach children grammar.”

Advice like that is amplified in other parts of the book. They address general assumptions about language and human beings, and they are the source of Gwynne’s success and the reason for this American edition. First, Gwynne declares that the professional understanding of usage as pure convention is flat wrong:

English grammar is not a haphazard collection of rules that (a) happen to have been put together over the centuries and (b) happen to exist in their present form at this point of time in our history. The rules always have a logic underpinning them.

Examine the rules closely and you will discover a rationality that runs deeper than cultural context and historical circumstance, Gwynne promises. Proper usage is tied to excellence and the truth, not habit alone. For those of us who rank grammar first among the liberal arts, it’s an empowering contention. If we wince when students begin sentences with “Basically” and end them with modifiers far from the thing they modify, we know that it’s because a natural structure has been deformed, not because our hidebound mores have been challenged.

If grammar is not just a set of arbitrary conventions, but has a logic to it, then we certainly have the authority to correct improper usage and divide right from wrong practices. When we hear a double negative (“I can’t get no-oh . . . satisfaction”), we may rate it worse than a departure from Standard English. It is nonsense. To do so isn’t to impose one culture upon another. Rather, as Gwynne says of himself, it is to assume “the authority of being a conscientious conveyor of what can be shown to be true.” Proper usage possesses a logical order and traditional acceptance that improper ones don’t.

Truth and logic imply fixed values, of course, and linguists predictably assert that language changes constantly whenever they hear a grammar scold deploring a popular solecism such as the use of due to to mean “because of.” But changes in English over the last four hundred years “have been remarkably small.” When we consider the vast transformations of politics, culture, science, technology, and daily life since 1600, it is astonishing that we can read Shakespeare’s sonnets and the King James Bible so easily. Relatively little vocabulary has changed, and grammar and syntax not much at all—a sign that language bears elements that resist historical and cultural variations.

The wise grammarian, then, accepts verbal novelties that are useful, such as a coinage for a new phenomenon (Gwynne wouldn’t object to selfie). But he rejects any fresh usages that “are not consistent with the best features of our language, the features that have been tried and tested over a long period and not found wanting.” Tradition is a guidepost, and it presses us to assume a gradualist attitude toward innovation. While the linguist takes the parlance of average literate adults as the yardstick of usage, Gwynne’s grammarian balances it with the best that has been said and written, John Bull and Samuel Johnson. The coercions of political correctness sway him not at all, and the sentimentality that urges us to respect the will and creativity of individuals, especially children, is altogether ousted. Rules must be mastered, methodically, and “Before then, ‘creativity’ should be discouraged.”

Therein lies the pleasure of the text. Not only does it reject the liberalization of usage, it counterattacks. Grammar lessons aren’t necessary evils. They enable higher and richer creativity. To allow a twelve-year-old to misplace modifiers and omit commas because correcting him might suppress his personal style is to instill both bad habits and the expectation that the world’s standards rank second to his own. When the time comes for him to wield Standard English with ingenuity and prowess, he will falter.

This isn’t to say that education should exclude innovative verbal artistry. Gwynne includes a chapter on “The Grammar of Verse-Writing,” recalling that for centuries grammar instruction incorporated verse composition, which forces writers to fit words into tight spaces and complex structures. Only when creativity was narrowly conceived of as self-expression did grammar and verse separate.

Gwynne’s certainty is infectious. When it comes to matters of language, people want order, clarity, and wit, not mushiness. That quality of conviction is found precisely in one of Gwynne’s inspirations, the 1918 edition of The Elements of Style, the original version William Strunk wrote for his Cornell University students. (E. B. White, a former student of Strunk’s, joined the project in 1957 when Macmillan asked him to revise it for a popular audience.) Gwynne reproduces it here in full and calls it “a minor work of genius.”

Slipshod habits don’t mean that people don’t want to be corrected. Steven Pinker argues that “When enough people misuse a word, it becomes perverse to insist that they’re misusing it at all.” Gwynne counters: “Truth is not decided by majority vote.” Strunk and White’s long-standing success and Gwynne’s recent fame suggest the opposite of what is claimed by the linguists. While people may profess an open relativism in areas of speech, deep down, they still crave a reliable, firm authority to show them the right and better way.

Mark Bauerlein is senior editor of First Things.