Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Comic Grammars

Frontispiece: The Comic English Grammar

I mentioned a few months back - see Henry Sweet - the phenomenon of 19th century grammar books, a huge market - Ian Michael, referenced below, counted 856 - driven by the continuing growth and social anxieties of the middle class that gave rise to English prescriptivism in the first place.

Most grammars of English published in Britain during the 19th century are dull ... There were a great many grammars, issued in very large numbers. They were repetitive; many were merely commercial ventures, scholastically naive ... The vast number of grammars contrasts with the uniformity of their contents. Of all the subjects in the school curriculum English grammar was the most rigid and unchanging ... Teachers had insisted, for two centuries, on writing grammars which added little or nothing to what had gone before.
- Michael, I. (1991), "More than enough English grammars", in G. Leitner, English Traditional Grammars. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 11-26.

One of the most influential - and most reprinted well into the 19th century - was the 1795 English Grammar by the American ex-patriot Lindley Murray.  As described in this review - Two Hundred Years of Lindley Murray - it was classically prescriptive, based on the practice of the best writers (in Murray's view), and appeals to logic, clarity of communication, and aesthetics (again in Murray's view). Much of it comes across as highly pompous and deeply subjective.

It's pleasing to find that even in the 19th century, some readers found Murray's approach ridiculous, and I just spotted David A Reibel's 1996 compilation, Lindley Murray's grammar in caricature: four parodies, which introduces a set of more or less barbed ripostes to Murray. They are: The Comic English Grammar: a new and facetious introduction to the English tongue (1840, Percival Leigh, illus. John Leech); The Illustrated English Grammar, or, Lindley Murray simplified (c. 1843, Anon.); The Comic Lindley Murray; or, The Grammar of Grammars (1871, Anon.); and The Pictorial Grammar (1842, "Alfred Crowquill").

I couldn't find The Illustrated English Grammar online, but the other three are. The Pictorial Grammar (Internet Archive pictorialgramma00crowgoog) is a nice little book, not exactly a parody. It's a perfectly straight grammar, written and illustrated by the Punch contributor Alfred Henry Forrester, but one given a pleasantly droll spin by the drawings - dignitaries, matrons, degenerates and eccentrics - accompanying each example. For instance, "Each of his brothers is in a pleasant situation" has a picture of two criminals in the stocks. The Comic Lindley Murray (Internet Archive comiclindleymurr00dubliala) I found a little laboured; Dublin-published, it's a self-mocking Irish take on English grammar.

The Pluperfect Tense represents a thing as doubly past; that is,
as past previously to some other point of time also past; as,
"I fell in love before I had arrived at years of discretion."
The Comic English Grammar.

But as Reibel's Introduction says, the highlight of the bunch, also written and drawn by veteran Punch contributors, has to be The Comic English Grammar (Internet Archive comicenglishgram00inleig). Part of the joke is that it closely emulates Murray's book, but with a Sellar & Yateman style mixing facts with pseudo-facts and jokes, and partly extends the analysis to a variety of social classes: Cockney, genteel, servants, rustics, and so on.  While it could be accused of classism in mostly holding up the language of the lower classes to ridicule, it's generally an affectionate ridicule, and doesn't omit the affectations and social mannerisms of middle and upper-class speakers. And the cartoons are great fun!

See the following post for More on Lindley Murray.

- Ray


  1. I used to live close to the house in which Lindley Murray lived and wrote his Grammar. It has been, I think, turned into flats but close by there is a Lindley Street and a Murray Street, named in his honour. I believe a school nearby, a Quaker foundation, took custody of some of his furniture and personal effects after his death. In Bishophill the burial ground where he and other prominent Quakers were interred now has flats built upon it but there is a small adjacent garden where some grave markers sit with a prominent plaque outside.

  2. Thanks! I checked out these locations; see the following post.