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Cobbett's Advice on Studying Grammar

"Without a knowledge of grammar, it is impossible for you to write correctly"


Cobbett's Advice on Studying Grammar

William Cobbett (1763-1835)

The son of a Surrey farmer, William Cobbett was a controversial political journalist who wrote a number of popular books, including English Grammar for the Use of Schools (1818), History of the Protestant "Reformation" in England and Ireland (1824), and, most famously, Rural Rides (1830). Essayist William Hazlitt described Cobbett as "one of the best writers in the language. He speaks and thinks plain, broad, downright English." A century later, G.K. Chesterton called Cobbett "a master of English" and "a justified Jeremiah, . . . [whose] prophecies were forgotten until they were fulfilled."

In the following excerpt from his Advice to Young Men and (Incidentally) to Young Women (1829), Cobbett argues that a few months spent studying English grammar (in particular, his English grammar) will "make you a correct speaker and writer for the rest of your life."

Cobbett's Advice on Studying Grammar

from Advice to Young Men and (Incidentally) to Young Women, in the Middle and Higher Ranks of Life, by William Cobbett

The next thing is the Grammar of your own language. Without understanding this, you can never hope to become fit for any thing beyond mere trade or agriculture. It is true, that we do (God knows!) but too often see men have great wealth, high titles, and boundless power, heaped upon them, who can hardly write ten lines together correctly; but, remember, it is not merit that has been the cause of their advancement; the cause has been, in almost every such case, the subserviency of the party to the will of some government, and the baseness of some nation who have quietly submitted to be governed by brazen fools. Do not you imagine, that you will have luck of this sort: do not you hope to be rewarded and honoured for that ignorance which shall prove a scourge to your country, and which will earn you the curses of the children yet unborn. Rely you upon your merit, and upon nothing else. Without a knowledge of grammar, it is impossible for you to write correctly, and, it is by mere accident if you speak correctly; and, pray bear in mind, that all well-informed persons judge of a man's mind (until they have other means of judging) by his writing or speaking. The labour necessary to acquire this knowledge is, indeed, not trifling: grammar is not, like arithmetic, a science consisting of several distinct departments, some of which may be dispensed with: it is a whole, and the whole must be learned, or, no part is learned. The subject is abstruse: it demands much reflection and much patience: but, when once the task is performed,, it is performed for life, and in every day of that life it will be found to be, in a greater or less degree, a source of pleasure or of profit or of both together. And, what is the labour? It consists of no bodily exertion; it exposes the student to no cold, no hunger, no suffering of any sort. The study need subtract from the hours of no business, nor, indeed, from the hours of necessary exercise: the hours usually spent on the tea and coffee shops and in the mere gossip which accompany them; those wasted hours of only one year, employed in the study of English grammar, would make you a correct speaker and writer for the rest of your life. You want no school, no room to study in, no expenses, and no troublesome circumstances of any sort. I learned grammar when I was a private soldier on the pay of sixpence a day. The edge of my berth, or that of the guard-bed, was my seat to study in; my knapsack was my bookcase; a bit of board, lying on my lap, was my writing-table; and the task did not demand any thing like a year of my life. I had no money to purchase candle or oil; in winter-time it was rarely that I could get any evening-light but that of the fire, and only my turn even of that. And, if I, under such circumstances, and without parent or friend to advise or encourage me, accomplished this undertaking, what excuse can there be for any youth, however poor, however pressed with business, or however circumstanced as to room or other conveniences? To buy a pen or a sheet of paper I was compelled to forego some portion of food, though in a state of half-starvation; I had no moment of time that I could call my own; and I had to read and to write amidst the talking, laughing, singing, whistling and brawling of at least half a score of the most thoughtless of men, and that, too, in the hours of their freedom from all control. Think not lightly of the farthing that I had to give, now and then, for ink, pen, or paper! That farthing was, alas! a great sum to me! I was as tall as I am now; I had great health and great exercise. The whole of the money, not expended for us at market, was two-pence a week for each man. I remember, and well I may! that, upon one occasion I, after all absolutely necessary expenses, had, on a Friday, made shift to have a half-penny in reserve, which I had destined for the purchase of a red-herring in the morning; but, when I pulled off my clothes at night, so hungry then as to be hardly able to endure life, I found that I had lost my half-penny! I buried my head under the miserable sheet and rug, and cried like a child! And, again I say, if I, under circumstances like these, could encounter and overcome this task, is there, can there be, in the whole world, a youth to find an excuse for the non-performance? What youth, who shall read this, will not be ashamed to say, that he is not able to find time and opportunity for this most essential of all the branches of book-learning?

I press this matter with such earnestness, because a knowledge of grammar is the foundation of all literature; and because without this knowledge opportunities for writing and speaking are only occasions for men to display their unfitness to write and speak. How many false pretenders to erudition have I exposed to shame merely by my knowledge of grammar! How many of the insolent and ignorant great and powerful have I pulled down and made little and despicable! And, with what ease have I conveyed upon numerous important subjects, information and instruction to millions now alive, and provided a store of both for millions yet unborn! As to the course to be pursued in this great undertaking, it is, first, to read the grammar from the first word to the last, very attentively, several times over; then, to copy the whole of it very correctly and neatly; and then to study the Chapters one by one. And what does this reading and writing require as to time? Both, together not more than the tea-shops and their gossips for three months! There are about three hundred pages in my English Grammar. Four of those little pages in a day, which is a mere trifle of work, do the thing in three months. Two hours a day are quite sufficient for the purpose; and these may, in any town that I have ever known, or in any village, be taken from that part of the morning during which the main part of the people are in bed. I do not like the evening-candlelight work: it wears the eyes much more than the same sort of light in the morning, because then the faculties are in vigour and wholly unexhausted. But for this purpose there is sufficient of that day-light which is usually wasted; usually gossipped or lounged away; or spent in some other manner productive of no pleasure, and generally producing pain in the end. It is very becoming in all persons, and particularly in the young, to be civil and even polite: but, it becomes neither young nor old to have an everlasting simper on their faces, and their bodies sawing in an everlasting bow: and, how many youths have I seen who, if they had spent, in the learning of grammar, a tenth part of the time that they have consumed in earning merited contempt for their affected gentility, would have laid the foundation of sincere respect towards them for the whole of their lives!

Reflections on Grammar From 1776 to the Present

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