The old-style Rule of Grammar institutionalizes more than language behaviour: it is a model for the inculcation of debased standards-of-belief, replacing the Thirty-nine Articles.

OED : "Until a not very distant date, Grammar was divided by Eng. writers (following the precedent of Latin grammarians) into Orthography, Etymology, Syntax, and Prosody, to which Orthoëpy was added by some authors. All these terms (except Syntax) were used more or less inaccurately."

A. W. Burrell: "Maybe grammar has persisted for the convenience of some of the teachers. It is easy for anyone, with the book before him, to teach from a tabular statement, and to examine by setting little traps among the categories."

Marguerite Yourcenar: "Grammar, with its mixture of logical rule and arbitrary usage, proposes to a young mind a foretaste of what will be offered to him later on by law and ethics, those sciences of human conduct, and by all the systems whereby man has codified his instinctive experience."

George Eliot: "In the schoolroom her quick mind had taken readily that strong starch of unexplained rules and disconnected facts which saves ignorance from any painful sense of limpness."

Montaigne: "Most of the occasions of this worlds troubles are Grammaticall. Our suits and processes proceed but from the canvasing and debating the interpretation of the Lawes, and most of our warres, from the want of knowledge in State-counsellors, that could not cleerely distinguish and fully expresse the Covenants, and Conditions of accord between Prince and Prince. How many weighty strifes, and important quarels, hath the doubt of this one sillable, hoc, brought forth in the world ?"

Erasmus: "I imagine there will be some persons, who as soon as they read the title of the work [his edition of Valla's Annotations on the New Testament], and before they know anything of its contents, will exclaim loudly against it; and that the most odious outcry will be raised by those who will chiefly benefit by the publication, I mean the theologians. They will call it an intolerable act of temerity, that this grammarian, after harassing all other branches of learning, cannot keep his captious pen even from sacred literature. But after all, when Lyranus discusses a form of expression, is he acting as a theologian or as a grammarian? Indeed, all this translating of Scripture belongs to the grammarian's part; and it is not absurd to suppose Jethro to be in some things wiser than Moses.

If they reply that Theology is too great to be confined by the laws of Grammar, and that all this work of interpretation depends upon the influence of the Holy Spirit, it is truly a new dignity for divines, if they are the only people who are privileged to speak incorrectly. But let them explain first what Jerome means when he writes to Desiderius: It is one thing to be a prophet and another to be an interpreter; in one case the Spirit foretells future events, in the other sentences are understood and translated by erudition and command of language. Again, what is the use of Jerome laying down rules for the translation of the sacred writings, if that faculty comes by inspiration? Again, shall we ascribe to the Holy Spirit the errors which we ourselves make? Suppose the interpreters translated rightly, still what has been rightly translated may be perverted. Jerome emended, but what he emended is now again corrupted; unless it can be asserted that there is now less presumption among the half-learned, or more skill in languages, and not rather corruption made easier than ever by printing, which propagates a single error in a thousand copies at once."

Coleridge: "To preserve the connection of intellectual accuracy with moral feeling, the Lecturer proposed to do away all the Grammars now in use; they were a jargon of unmeaning words; not one in twenty of the schoolmasters understood them, much less the scholars."

Ferdinand Brunot: "Il y a quelque trente ans, on a tout espéré de la grammaire historique, pour réveiller la curiosité. On l'a même rendue obligatoire dans les classes, avant qu'elle fût faite."

John Colet, c. 1500: "As for the diversity of grammars, it is well profitably taken away by the king majesties wisdom, who foreseeing the inconvenience, and favourably providing the remedie, caused one kind of grammar by sundry learned men to be diligently drawn, and so to be set out, only everywhere to be taught for the use of learners, and for the hurt in changing of schoolmaisters."

Lamb on John Colet: "The fine dream is fading away; and the least concern of a teacher in the present day is to inculcate grammar-rules."

Carl E. Schenke: "The appeal of a work of history has, in a certain sense, to do with its grammar -- the way in which it gives plausibility to the empirical materials and the tightness of its articulations. I do not think this is artistic, though it may have artistic ingredients. I should think it is more on the analogy of the structure of the language. To me, historians make meanings out of facts in the same way that we make sentences out of words: through establishing syntactical relationships among the elements. This is why it is possible still to feel the impact of a book's mental structure, to be convinced of Herodotus' Histories when all its elements have become anachronistic."

William Empson: "It might be the duty of the grammarian to do things which were not defined as his business; doctors have to."

Happy few

In conveying my carefully-worded conclusions-for-the-time-being, it is part of my duty to convey also that they are carefully-worded -- that they make the intended sense only when discriminated from a fair number of slightly different ones. Readers who are `familiar with the literature' will know the relevant contrasts; but there is something pointless in writing for them alone. A more welcome reader is one who is less advanced and knows it, and will take hints (about further reading or other matters) or at least not expect as much understanding before following up these hints as after. At the other end of the spectrum are the readers who cannot detect such hints, do not know how to follow them up, and remain unconscious of these crippling disqualifications. These we would wish to put off, if we could be sure the case was hopeless; but cannot do so without also putting off some of those for whom there is still hope.

So (appearances notwithstanding) I do not write as off-puttingly as possible. Indeed, compared with the extremes of rebarbativeness of which I know myself to be capable, some of my sentences are (I hope) almost simple -- which is to say, almost quotable; and there's the rub. It is bad enough to be quoted by one familiar with too few of the contrasts which give my conclusions such value as they have; to be quoted by one unconscious that there are such contrasts is scarcely bearable. For in such hands the shadow of the truth can do more harm than all the good its fleshed version could ever hope for.

I cannot deny anyone's right to quote, any more than to assert. But there are degrees of qualification, both among those liable to be quoted and among quoters. The asserter's task is to convey where he stands in the range of assertion-qualification, and at the same time to encourage potential quoters of his assertions to do the same for their own quotation-qualifications. One can only hope that the same devices serve both these purposes.


Alain: "Je me souviens d'avoir entendu un homme timide qui discutait publiquement de grammaire; son accent était celui de la haine la plus vive."

H. F. Jones: "Presently we spoke of his last book, Erewhon Revisited, which she said she had not read. I understood her to say that, like her father, she had read none of her brother's books; and, again, like her father, she saw nothing to be ashamed of in this. I said that I thought it a pity she should not have read, for instance, the passage in chapter v. of Erewhon Revisited when Mr. Higgs meets George and knows he is his son, but George does not know that Mr. Higgs is his father; or that other beautiful passage in chapter xxv. when they part. `No,' she said. 'no: I hate irony,' and she emphasised `hate' with so much vicious determination that I saw it would be useless to tell her that these passages are free from any trace of irony."

Kierkegaard: "To what extent must the receiver first be cleansed -- the negative in the maieutic. To communicate can mean tricking out of, a kind of communication which is very dangerous to the communicator, for Socrates does say that men could become so angry with him that they would gladly have bitten him -- when he tricked them out of a stupidity or two."

Lamb, `A character of the late Elia': "He too much affected that dangerous figure -- irony. He sowed doubtful speeches, and reaped plain, unequivocal hatred."

William James: "I find that my free and easy and personal way of writing, especially in Pragmatism, has made me an object of loathing in many respectable academic minds."


Mill: "I found by actual experience of Hegel that conversancy with him tends to deprave one's intellect. The attempt to unwind an apparently infinite series of self contradictions not disguised but openly faced & coined into [illegible word] science by being stamped with a set of big abstract terms, really if persisted in impairs the acquired delicacy of perception of false reasoning & false thinking which has been gained by careful mental discipline with terms of real meaning. For some time after I had finished the book all such words as reflexion, development, evolution, &c., gave me a sort of sickening feeling which I have not yet entirely got rid of."

Hidden dispersuaders

William Hazlitt: "There was a great deal in the manner of bringing truth forward to influence its reception with the reader; for not only did we resent unwelcome novelties advanced with an insolent and dogmatical air; but we were even ready to give up our favourite notions, when we saw them advocated in a harsh and intolerant manner by those of our own party, sooner than submit to the pretensions of blind-fold presumption. If anything could make me a bigot, it would be the arrogance of the free-thinker; if anything could make me a slave, it would be the sordid sneering fopperies and sweeping clauses of the liberal party."

History of ideas

Can we detect, from the style, the places where historians of previous generations failed to find the tone appropriate to those about to be outgunned, and whose only alternative was to sound orotund?

The difficulty in teaching History is that tradition doesn't treat under-simplification and over-simplification even-handedly. Traditionally, we present one X-ist's use of some argument as a characteristic part of the case for X-ism. The educational advantages of this approach are obvious, at least for exam purposes. Being a characteristic argument is enough; no need to keep an ear pricked for the rhetorical or self-protective bits.

The ingeniousness shown by historians-of-ideas in hypothesising causal sequences, and in tracing devious paths from those causes to the explicandum, rivals (if anything could) the ingeniousness shown by the idea-merchants themselves in shoring up their respective belief-structures. Moreover each generation of these historians raises the data-base stakes, and has no difficulty in showing that matters are an order of magnitude more complex, the `conclusions' more subtle, than what the previous generation had to be content with.

We've got to the point where the unenrolled observer cannot guess from an isolated piece of rationalisation which of two antithetical conclusions it was adduced in support of; nor, from a single conclusion, which ism it was most likely to claim as its warrant. Example: Wolff protesting against the flogging of Prussian soldiers, on the grounds (who would have guessed?) that they were automata. So Christian theologians found reassuring confirmation in the stability of the solar system, and equally in its instability; and Darwinism was seen by some as strengthening the argument from design.

All this must make life difficult for historians-of-ideas, who exhibit, in tracing paths from causes to explicandum, an ingeniousness to rival (if anything could) that shown by the idea-merchants themselves in shoring up their respective belief-`structures'. Moreover each generation of historians-of-ideas raises the data-base stakes, and has no difficulty in showing that matters are an order of magnitude more complex, and the `conclusions' unrecognizably more subtle, than anything which satisfied the previous generation.

P. J. Bowler: ³Darwinism, Lamarckism and orthogenesis were all exploited by both progressionists and degenerationists.²


W. Dannhauser: "[In Leo Strauss' seminars] we did not so much talk about the larger aspects of the Leviathan as about certain difficult sentences or obscure passages. Since that seminar I have heard a great deal about Hobbes's absolutism, Hobbes's doctrine of political obligation, and the like. Such topics received due attention, but what I recall much more vividly is the way we entered into Hobbes's universe of discourse by thinking about what it felt like to be afraid, what it felt like to give orders and to take them, and kindred matters.

Philosophers are difficult to understand because they bring back reports from regions most of us are not privileged to enter. We take our revenge on them for their agility and our clumsiness by freezing their knowledge into doctrines."

Holographic understanding

Plutarch: "In the reading of Latin books, singular as it may appear, I did not find that the words assisted me to discover the meaning, but rather that my knowledge of the history enabled me to find out the meaning of the words."

Bacon: "Out of all the words we have to extract the sense in whose light each single word is to be interpreted."

Montaigne: "Le sens esclaire et produict les parolles."

Maurice Merleau-Ponty: "Comme la charade, il [le langage] ne se comprend que par l'interaction des signes, dont chacun pris à part est équivoque ou banal, et dont la réunion seul fait sens."

Or: I can make a plausible guess at what the whole is likely to be getting at, and this entails accepting that some words in the text can have one more sense than I knew. Some meaning is carried holographically, disseminated throughout a text.

There is an obverse to all this, in which one `understands' all the words in a sentence but not the sentence itself, all the sentences but not the paragraph, all Descartes' paragraphs but not Cartesianism. So Owen Chadwick on T. S. Eliot's Idea of a Christian Society: `Every single sentence is perfectly plain to understand. The totality is opaque.'

One day there will be a language with different words for each of these understandings.


Could any methodical procedure have an unexpected outcome?

On one reading, the testing of a universal hypothesis (All As are B) is not such a procedure. For all it can discover is that the next A turns out either to be or not to be a B. The negative instance is not more unexpected, just more disappointing to the would-be patentee.

But on another reading the hypothesis has a different role. In this version, the ideal is not to end the game (i.e. to retire on the royalties) but on the contrary to try and prevent it ending. If the next A turns out not to be a B, we begin to look for some marginally less stringent wording -- say A* instead of A, or B* instead of B, or All* instead of All, or are* instead of are. Conversely, if we come to the end of the As without finding a non-B, we try some adjustment which will amount to a stronger hypothesis. Either way, we're in business.

No-one would be so foolish, therefore, as to have no contingency plans: the dimmest of us operate with whole spectra or families or rag-bags of more-or-less related hypotheses, playing on more than one board at a time, and being prepared for more than one of God's counter-moves on each of them.

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