English Grammar

by Charles Maurer

Until the 19th century, English day schools did not teach silent reading. Silent reading seemed pointless. Most people had time to read only at night, but candlelight in 1800 cost 1000 times more than electric light costs today. Few households could afford sufficient light in their sitting room or kitchen to let everyone in the family read. Usually one oil lamp would burn—oil cost less than candles—and one person would read aloud to everyone else. For this reason, before the end of the 19th century, written English resembled the speech of the day.

Today, virtually nobody reads anything aloud. Since silent reading employs different cognitive techniques, the grammar of written English has changed.

Conventional English grammar

Two thousand years ago in Rome, the literati spoke Greek and schoolboys studied grammar in Greek. They studied the new book by a fellow named Dionysius who who lived in Thrace, and hence came to be called Dionysius Thrax. Over the next few centuries, fewer Romans became fluent in Greek, so 1700 years ago a teacher named Aelius Donatus decided to translate and adapt Dionysius's grammar to Latin. By the Middle Ages, Latin had become the language of the literati and grammar had come to mean Latin grammar, but this also was changing. Seven hundred years ago a teacher named William Lily (or Lilye) translated Aelius's book to English, then in 1585, a printer named William Bullokar applied Lily's grammar to English. Bullokar has been reworked countless times since then, but it still forms the basis of conventional "English" grammar taught in schools.

Realistic English grammar

Some aspects of Greco-Latin grammar fit English, but the fit requires force. For example, we sensibly distinguish between nouns and verbs, yet in English the same word can serve as either:

Man your station at the crossing.
Station your man at the crossing.

Greek and Latin carry meaning primarily through inflected endings of words, yet English carries meaning primarily through the order of words. Normally, subjects precede predicates. Less natural word orders, like this one, we may be able to understand, but the brain requires more time and effort to parse them.

The clearest written English uses straightforward word orders that maintain natural or logical relationships among all the words that fill a page. For example, the second of these presents a clearer picture:

John is reading while sitting at his desk.
John is sitting at his desk and reading.

Concision enhances clarity, too. Needless words form cognitive noise. But again, this applies to written English, not spoken English. If a spoken word flies by an ear unheard, it disappears, but a word on the page remains on the page to be seen again. For this reason, a spoken language requires more redundancy than a written language.

You might speak these sentences, for example, while gesturing with your hands and voice to clarify the sequence of first one President and then the other:

After George Washington left office, John Adams became the second President of the United States. Washington had been acclaimed President, so Adams was the first President to be elected.

On the other hand, following the natural chronology forms clearer text:

George Washington was acclaimed the first President of the United States. John Adams succeeded him, so Adams was the first President to be elected.

Three grammatical ways to shoot yourself in the foot

A practical implication

If you write the way you talk, as most people do, your writing will likely be unclear and dull. To strengthen your writing, scrutinize it phrase by phrase and clause by clause, expecting to change almost every word. Remember Samuel Johnson: "Read over your compositions, and wherever you meet with a passage which you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

After I finish a manuscript and think it good, I force myself to go over it at least four more times, each time word by word. The first time I try to streamline the order of words—to change "I ate a dinner that was delicious" to "I ate a delicious dinner." The next three times I look for (1) the passive voice, (2) the verb "to be", and (3) vague adjectives and adverbs. Every time I see one of these, I try to root it out. I cannot remove them all but I remove as many as I can.

Note that in this essay I tried to leave no instance of these outside of examples. That likely contributed to your reading it, despite its dull subject, all the way to the end.