Essentials of English Grammar
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This classic text presents the chief facts of English grammar, giving the student a real insight into the structure of the language. Grammatical rules are laid out in a clear, concise way and are illustrated with carefully selected examples.
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The inherent problem with grammar studies qua grammar studies is that we began by superimposing Latin grammar rules on a language whose grammatical cases do not correspond *exactly*. But "close enough for folk music," one of my musician friends was fond of saying.
But English grammar changed during the past 1,000 years-plus.
Consider first its Old English origins (Beowulf, for example).
Then Middle English (Chaucer and a host of others writing in non-London dialects who assimilated Latin, French, and Old Norse words along the way),
Next, Early Modern English (most notably Shakespeare).
Then, "More Modern" English as we *almost* use it today English" (Jonathan Swift and Samuel Johnson).
And almost finally, English of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Frost, cummings [sic], the Black Mountain and San Francisco poets, Faulkner, and Hemingway)
To what we might term as "Post-Modern" English today (Jonathan Franzen, Markus Zusak, and Suzanne Collins.
Yes, we can diagram many of these works traditionally with the horizontal, vertical, and oblique lines or with T-G grammar trees, although as anyone who has translated Beowulf knows, references and syntax are not always clear.
Which brings me back to Otto Jespersen's Essentials of English Grammar. It is a philological study of English, which takes into account both the meanings and syntax of words within their historical and cultural contexts.
Jespersen writes in a way that encourages us to pause and ponder and apply what we just read to what we continue to read and write and speak.
By the way, I also recommend George O. Curme's English Grammar. He accounts for subtle semantic shifts from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries.
For example, my mother called my first daughter, "It," which bothered my wife and me. We called her "she" and by her first name. My mother's family were adults during the Victorian Age; she was born during the Edwardian Age--both were periods where large families were the norm because of high infant mortality.
Two things become apparent.
1. A baby born under the cloud of death by common diseases, and one that has little obvious "personality," is best called "it," lest Victorian and Edwardian adults become too attached. Witness Abraham Lincoln and Samuel Clemens depression when they were devastated by the loss of their children.
2. Baby Boomers seem to have become more psychologically sensitive to others, their surroundings, and themselves, a development that Owen Barfileld calls "internalization."
In short, readers who want to know what "goes on inside words" will enjoy Jespersen.
Just don't expect to pick up Essentials of English Grammar and read it in one sitting. His dense writing prevents such a practice, but more importantly Jespersen gives the serious reader a reason to read and re-read the book as the wonder of words and grammar unfold like a blossoming flower.
Jesperson invents several very helpful categories and a couple no one gets. The most illuminating of these former comprises the “so-called” definite article. I once had a Russian student who demanded to know why he could not translate word for word and say, “Cat on mat” (instead of “The cat is on the mat.”) I was stumped. Wearing his philologist hat, Jesperson comes to the rescue, explaining that the definite article in English is a phonologically and semantically weakened form of the demonstrative “that.” Whereas “that” may still literally point, English “the” points only in a diminished but still important way to the item uppermost in one’s mind. Jesperson proposes we call it “the pronoun of full determination.” On the negative side, Jesperson proposes the mysterious category of “nexus,” which seems at first to mean something like “clause” but leaves us puzzled.
I’m sticking to my split infinitive guns. According to Jesperson, particle-, pre-infinitival “to” was “at first the ordinary preposition indicating direction or purpose as it still does in ‘He goes to fetch his hat.’” By analogical extension of such sentences, one sense of “to” was bleached out from preposition to mere particle. “To” not having been essential to the infinitive since ancient times, Jesperson concludes that “to diligently study” is no more a split infinitive than “the beautiful woman” is a split substantive. But that’s a non sequitur: it is always tidy to keep the most closely related parts of a sentence closest together. I was also disappointed in Jesperson’s non-censorship of “two-faced verbs,” verbs used as the “to ship” in “Your order has shipped.” Two-faced verbs, rampant since Jesperson’s day, are a symptom of corporate buck-passing and deserve criticism.