An age when grammar meant something


As a former English teacher, I like to think that I have a respectable grasp of English grammar. Itís a mixed blessing, however: Iím forever wincing at grammatical gaffes.

Give it to you and I, say many, attempting to be eloquent. Constructions such as there’s many houses for sale are pandemic. The proper use of whom is dying. Mismodifying participles on the pattern of having eaten our lunch, the train departed are still committed with alarming frequency. Ditto the use of the preposition like instead of the conjunction as or as if (e.g., He looks like he’s been well fed.) Many commentators now say, for example, The soldiers will try and repel the enemy rather than Try to repel the enemy.  Etcetera.

So as I say, usage errors regularly jar my grammatical sensibilities. 

But as I recently began reading — then became engrossed in — a 1925 high school grammar text, my sense of grammatical competence underwent mild trauma. As I read through the fourth edition of A High School English Grammar (J.M. Dent & Sons, Toronto and London, 1925) I kept thinking, Canadian High School Students in the 1920s studied grammar at this level?

In each of the eight chapters on the respective parts of speech, the authors — George M. Jones, L.E. Horning, and John D. Morrow — presented advanced grammatical teaching which nowadays would/could comprise a senior English half-class at a university. I doubt that any high school English teacher in Canada would even think of touching on such arcane grammatical points as prepositional  particles, the past future subjunctive mood, nominative absolutes, indefinite relatives, or modal adverbs. And, yes, the authors at one point demonstrate the much-maligned (but still justifiable) diagramatic method of analyzing sentences.   

The book, which was among my late mother-in-law's belongings, runs to 272 pages and prescribes no fewer than 187 grammatical tenets, usually with five or six sub-points providing relevant examples. Most of the many exercises call for an analysis of grammatical aspects of brief quotations from (mostly British) literary greats — a quaint notion, perhaps, but not so bad a one, really. I was okay with most of the exercises but, in some instances, wished I had a teacher's manual to check my answers.

A High School English Grammar was "authorized for use in the high schools of Nova Scotia and Saskatchewan" and "prescribed by the Board of Education for use in the high schools of New Brunswick." But similar grammar texts were doubtless used in the other provinces, too. 

With its logic and structure, grammar helped facilitate the reestablishment of rational discourse, the expansion of ideas, and the very means through which the human mind processes and reflects reality.

As remarkable as the book's grammar content is the fact that the latter third of the book is given over to a 51-page Historical Outline of the English Language, followed by six Appendices (on English Declension and Conjugation, The Verb, Word Derivation, Summary of the Verb, Extracts for Analysis, and Parsing Scheme). The English language history ranges from a close discussion of Middle English dialects and the temporary submergence of English after the Norman victory of 1066 to the evolution of word order over time and of syllable stresses from Old English to modern day. This was nothing short of a crash course in philology, linguistics, orthography, and phonetics combined. 

The interest in the book resides mainly in the extraordinary difference of approach in the teaching of English, then and now. Critics of this 1925 text book would doubtless dwell on the book's nearly exclusive focus on analysis of sentence parts, grammatical terms and concepts, and sentence parsing, rather than on encouraging students to express their own thoughts. 

Most of us now would probably agree that the authors did murder to dissect so much. But one wonders if the writing of students who were subjected to such training was generally superior to that of students now leaving high school. Anyone who has read and graded university essays will agree that many of them are almost hopelessly awful. 

Would the 1925 regimen of grammatical analysis, with repeated reference to masterful English, have produced at least a general competence in writing? Who knows. But I suspect that those then graduating may have been clearer thinkers than the grammar-deficient matriculates of 2008.

I remember being told about a wise old philosophy professor at the University of Saskatchewan who, in his day, led his students, through the Socratic method, to identify the single discipline — grammar — that prevented all the lights of Classical learning from being extinguished during the Dark Ages. 

For it was logic-like grammar that helped facilitate the re-establishment of rational discourse, the expansion of ideas, and the very means through which the human mind processes and reflects reality. What a pity, then, that grammar is now given such a bad rap. Its worth really ought to be re-acknowledged.


Wayne Eyre. "An age when grammar meant something." National Post (February 16, 2008): A20.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post.


Wayne Eyre, MA, is a retired teacher and journalist who lives in Saskatoon. Email Mr. Eyre here.

Copyright © 2008 National Post

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