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Make-Believe Grammar, by Gertrude Buck

The English language is not "a kind of inferior or degenerate Latin"


Make-Believe Grammar, by Gertrude Buck

Gertrude Buck (1871-1922)

Dr. Gertrude Buck taught grammar, composition, rhetoric, and literary theory at Vassar College from 1897 until her death in 1922. Though teaching was Buck's primary mission, her vigorous writings remain influential. According to the Vassar Encyclopedia, Buck's "work in rhetorical studies laid the foundation for the recent rise of New Rhetoricians, scholars who believe that writing is a social action, and communication is a community experience." Many scholars now regard Buck's writings as the beginnings of feminist rhetorical studies in the U.S.

Buck rejected "mechanical" methods of teaching "make-believe grammar"--meaningless drills and exercises that divorce language from life. Instead she encouraged the teaching of a "real grammar" based on English speech and informed by the scientific study of language. Only then, she believed, would grammar instruction deserve a place in the curriculum.

"Make-Believe Grammar" was originally presented before the Michigan Schoolmasters' Club in Ann Arbor (April 2, 1908) and later published in The School Review (University of Chicago, January 1909).

Make-Believe Grammar

by Gertrude Buck

Richard Grant White's statement that "nearly all of our so-called English grammar is mere make-believe grammar"1 has recently been quoted with approval by Professor [Albert H.] Tolman, of the University of Chicago, in his interesting account of "The Revival of English Grammar."2 By "make-believe grammar" both writers mean, as Professor Tolman states, the application of rules modeled upon those of the highly inflected Latin language to the facts of the English tongue, which is almost wholly uninflected. As conspicuous examples of such unwarranted borrowings from Latin grammar are cited the objective case of nouns and the agreement of finite verbs with their subjects. In both these instances we have in English no modification of form to correspond with the Latin nomenclature; yet the nomenclature persists, with the necessary result that insensibly the pupil comes to regard the English tongue as falling short at many points of the accepted standard. Any well regulated language will, it is assumed, modify the form of a noun when it serves as direct object of a verb and that of a finite verb to agree with its subject in person and number. Since English does neither of these things, so much the worse for English. And from such entirely reasonable inferences the pupil cannot but derive an essentially false conception of his mother-tongue, a conception undefined, unacknowledged, but no less real and permanent, that the English language is a kind of inferior or degenerate Latin.

This species of "make-believe grammar," however, is pretty generally recognized and need not detain us long. Professor [Florus Alonzo] Barbour in his admirable "History of English Grammar Teaching"3 has indicated its source in the Latinistic conceptions of English held by our earliest grammarians and has traced at least the beginnings of its decline under the influence of the wider linguistic knowledge of their successors. Professor Tolman cites [Otto] Jespersen's Progress in Language, with Especial Reference to English [1894], as competent authority for regarding the relatively uninflected English tongue as a stage, not in the deterioration or decay, but in the progressive evolution of language-structure. We are all theoretically at one upon this matter, it would seem, and though some details of reform demanded by the protestants may not be at once yielded by the practical teacher of grammar, the direction of our advance lies clear before us. English grammar must be presented as the formulated laws of English speech.

This essentially scientific attitude toward the facts of the English language is already exemplified to a marked degree in our modern treatment of questions of usage. Professors Brander Matthews and G. R. Carpenter, of Columbia University, Professor Scott, of the University of Michigan, and Professor [Thomas R.] Lounsbury, of Yale, have taught us that the old fashioned dogmatism of grammarians as to how people "ought" to speak is too commonly based on ignorance of the idiomatic peculiarities of our own language, of the past history of certain forms, or of present customs of speech outside a very limited circle. The more a man knows about any language the more clearly he sees it as a living, growing, changing thing; and the less willing is he to impose upon it an arbitrary legislation drawn from the usages of other tongues, from past usages of its own, or even from present usages not widely representative.

Both theoretically then, and in at least one notable point of practice, "make-believe grammar" of the type so far discussed in this paper has fallen into disrepute. There seems little room for doubt that it will eventually, and at no remote period, be superseded in every detail by a grammar which bases itself unequivocally upon the facts of the English tongue as English.

But the term "make-believe grammar" need not be confined to this fictitious structure of laws, terms, and definitions built up by analogy from another language and without firm foundation in the facts of English speech. There is another species, no less figmentary than this, and in my judgment far more fundamentally misleading to the pupil; that grammar, I mean, which is derived not only from speech that is not English, but from speech that is not, in any genuine sense, speech at all. Our early grammarians, we allege, turned away their eyes from the facts of English speech and gave us rules drawn by analogy from the usages of the Latin tongue. But have not grammarians of all languages and all times, too frequently turned away their eyes from the facts of speech itself, from the language process as we understand it today, and given us laws from the dead and detached product of that process? If this be true, we have a fictitious construction in English grammar considerably more important as it is both deeper-lying and farther-reaching than the mere Latinizing of English.

1 Words and Their Uses [1870], p. 304.
2 School Review, February, 1902.
3 Educational Review, December, 1896.

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