1. Education

Purism and Prescriptive Grammar: DON'T!

A 19th-Century Manual of Mistakes & Improprieties


Purism and Prescriptive Grammar: DON'T!

The full title of Oliver Bell Bunce's book is Don't: A Manual of Mistakes & Improprieties More or Less Prevalent in Conduct and Speech. Published in 1883 under the pseudonym "Censor," Don't is short (96 pages), dogmatic (every entry begins with "Don't . . ."), and often downright amusing (in an exasperated Basil Fawlty sort of way).

Don't is likely to appeal most to SNOOTS, purists, and language mavens--those who pine for the days when "people of the best taste" could openly denounce their pants-wearing countrymen as "ignoramuses."

Others may be startled ("Oh, crackey!") to find out that a word's meaning is not determined by usage. According to Bunce, common usage is a near-certain indicator of abominable error (or carelessness, vulgarity, and perversity).

Regardless of where you stand in the grammar wars, ladies and gents, I hope you enjoy these excerpts from chapter five of Don't: "In Speech."

  • Don't talk in a high, shrill voice, and avoid nasal tones. Cultivate a chest-voice; learn to moderate your tones. Talk always in a low register, but not so low as to make the voice resemble a growl.

  • Don't use meaningless exclamations, such as "Oh, my!" "Oh, crackey!" etc.

  • Don't say ketch for catch, or ken for can. Don't say feller for fellow, or winder for window, or meller for mellow, or to-morrer for to-morrow. Don't imagine that ignoramuses only make these mistakes. They are often through carelessness made by people of some education. Don't, therefore, be careless in these little points.

  • Don't say gents for gentlemen, nor pants for pantaloons. These are inexcusable vulgarisms. Don't say vest for waistcoat.

  • Don't say "right away," if you wish to avoid Americanisms. Say immediately or directly.

  • Don't use wrong adjectives. There is perhaps no adjective so misused as elegant. Don't say "an elegant morning," or an "elegant piece of beef," or "an elegant scene," or "an elegant picture." This word has been so vulgarized by misuse that it is better not to use it at all.

  • Don't say yeh for yes; and don't imitate the English ya-as. Don't respond to a remark with a prolonged exclamatory and interrogative ye-es. This is a rank Yankeeism.

  • Don't say "It is him," say "It is he." So, also, "It is I," not "It is me"; "It is they" not "It is them."

  • Don't say "Between you and I." By an ingenious perversity, the same people who insist, in the instances we have cited, upon using the objective case where the nominative is called for, in this phrase reverse the proceeding. They should say, "Between you and me."

  • Don't, in referring to a person, say he or she or him, but always mention the name. "Mrs. Smith thinks it will rain," not "she thinks it will rain." There are men who continually refer to their wives as she, and wives who have commonly no other name than he for their husbands. This is abominable.

  • Don't say, "I am through" when you are announcing that you have finished dinner or breakfast. "Are you through?" asked an American of an Englishman when seated at table. "Through!" exclaimed the Englishman, looking in an alarmed way down to the floor and up to the ceiling--"through what?"

  • Don't misuse the words lady and gentleman. Don't say "A nice lady." If you must use the word nice, say "A nice woman." Don't say "A pleasant gentleman," say "An agreeable person." Say "What kind of man is he?" not " What kind of gentleman is he?" Say "She is a good woman," not "a good lady." The indiscriminate use of lady and gentleman indicates want of culture. These terms should never be used when sex pure and simple is meant.

  • Don't use the word please too much. Say, "Will you kindly oblige me," or something equivalent.

  • Don't fall into the habit of repeating worn-out proverbs and over-used quotations. It becomes not a little irritating to have to listen to one who ceaselessly applies or misapplies a threadbare stock of "wise saws" and stupid sayings.

  • Don't use mad for angry. This has been denounced as peculiarly an Americanism, and it is an Americanism so far as current usage goes; but the word is employed in this sense in the New Testament, it is occasionally found in old English authors, and, according to articles recently published in the London "Athenaeum," it is not uncommon in certain out-of-the-way places in England.

  • Don't use smart to express cleverness, brightness, or capability. This use of the word is very common, but it is not sanctioned by people of the best taste.

  • Don't speak of this or that kind of food being healthy or unhealthy; say always wholesome or unwholesome.

  • Don't say donate when you mean give. The use of this pretentious word for every instance of giving has become so common as to be fairly nauseating. Good, plain, vigorous Saxon is never nauseating. If one can not give his church or town library a little money without calling it donating, let him, in the name of good English, keep his gift until he has learned better.

Reprints of Don't are available from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Grammar & Composition
  4. Readings and Resources
  5. Readings on Language
  6. Purism and Prescriptive Grammar: DON'T! - A 19th-Century Manual of Mistakes & Improprieties

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.