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The Rules of Grammar

from Words and Their Uses, Past and Present: A Study of the English Language, by Richard Grant White, 1899.

Grammar, in its usual sense, is the art of speaking and writing a language correctly; in which definition, the word correctly means, in accordance with laws founded upon the relations, not of thoughts, but of words, and determined by verbal forms. It is this formal, constructive grammar which seems to me almost if not entirely superfluous in regard to the English language. Long ago, before any attempt had been made to write its grammar, that language had worked itself nearly free from the verbal forms which control the construction of the sentence, and therefore free in the same degree from the needs and the control of formal, constructive grammar. And, notably, it was not until English had cast itself firmly and sharply into its present simple mould that scholars undertook to furnish it with a grammar, the nomeclature and the rules of which they took from a language—the Latin—with which it had no formal affinity, to which it had no formal likeness, and by the laws of which it could not be bound, except so far as they were the universal laws of human thought. From this heterogeneous union sprang that hybrid monster known as English grammar.

The principal Latin words, the noun, the adjective, the verb, the participle, and the adverb, vary their forms by a process called inflection, and the Latin sentence is constructed upon the basis of those significant verbal forms. English words do not vary their forms by inflection, and the English sentence is constructed without any dependence upon verbal forms. To this remark there are exceptions; but they are so few, and of such small importance, that they cannot be regarded as affecting its general truth. The structure of the Latin sentence depends upon the relation of the words of which it is composed; that of the English sentence, upon the relation of the thoughts it expresses. In other words, the construction of the Latin sentence is grammatical, that of the English sentence, logical.

Pueri amabant puellam.
The boys loved the girl.

In this Latin sentence, and in its English equivalent, the words not only represent each other perfectly in sense, but correspond exactly in place. If, however, we change the relative positions of the English nouns, without modifying them in the least, we not only change, but entirely reverse the meaning of the sentence.

The girl loved the boys.

But in the Latin sentence we may make what changes of position we please, and we shall not make a shade of difference in its meaning. The connections of the words being therefore absolutely determined by their forms, their position in the sentence is a matter at least of minor importance.

The Latin depends upon the inflectional forms of the words; and its sense is not affected, or is affected only in a secondary degree, by their relative positions. In the English, the meaning of the sentence is determined by the relative positions of the words, their order being determined by the connection and interdependence of the thoughts of which they are the signs. Syntax, guided by etymology, controls the Latin; reason, the English. In brief, the former is grammatical; the latter, logical.

English, being almost without formal inflection, and nearly independent of syntax—without distinction of mood in verbs, and with almost none of tense and person—with only one case of nouns, and with neither number nor case in adjectives—with no gender at all of nouns, of adjectives, or of participles—without laws of agreement or of government, the very verb in English being, in most cases, independent of its nominative as to form, rests solely upon the relations of thought. The Latin language has grammar—formal grammar—and the English language, to all intents and purposes, has none.

In speaking or writing English, we have only to choose the right words and put them into the right places, respecting no laws but those of reason, conforming to no order but that which we call “logical.”

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