Saturday, September 15, 2018

Blame Grammar Myths on John Dryden

Yes, according to Geoffrey Pullum and other scholars, the 17 century poet is responsible for making us and our students crazy with silly rules:

Dryden famously invented the myth that sentence-ending prepositions are an error. Casting aspersions on a line from Ben Jonson’s Catiline, Dryden grumbles: “The preposition in the end of the sentence; a common fault with him” (see Mark Liberman’s “Hot Dryden-on-Jonson Action,” Language Log, 5/1/07). Though he admits immediately thereafter that his own prose shows the same feature; he actually knew that his own writings contained stranded prepositions, but he deprecated the construction anyway.

Nearly three and a half centuries later there are still American writers and academics who think stranding a preposition is something to feel guilty about.

But it seems Dryden was not done with his grammatical trouble-making. Two decades later William Walsh (1662–1708) sent Dryden the manuscript of his Dialogue Concerning Women, asking for comments. Dryden was complimentary but gave a few pieces of advice. Walsh should “avoid the words, don’t, can’t, shan’t, and the like abbreviations of syllables; which seem to me to savour of a little rusticity”; and of course (his views being unchanged from 1672) ending a sentence with a preposition “is not elegant.” But he also cited a new rule:

I find likewise, that you make not a due distinction betwixt that, and who; a man that is not proper; the relative who is proper. That, ought alwayes to signify a thing; who, a person.

This appears to be the earliest source for the entirely false belief that a relative clause modifying a human-denoting noun must never begin with that.

You can read more here at the Chronicle of Higher Education.


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