AUGUST 16, 2021
WITH GRAMMAR APPROACHING the status of anachronism, Bryan A. Garner’s Taming the Tongue is not a screed for the return of grammar, but rather a joyous review of 100 items in Garner’s personal collection of almost 2,000 grammars published during what he sees as the heyday of English grammar. It is not intuitively obvious that a book about 18th- and 19th-century grammarians and their work could be seen as a romp, but a romp it is!
Garner is a noted legal scholar, as well as a leading authority on grammar and usage, having authored multiple tomes, including Garner’s Modern English Usage and Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts (co-authored with the late Antonin Scalia). As Garner notes, “grammar has been greatly diminished in basic education.” When my oldest child (born 1981) was in school, his introduction to the terminology and rules of grammar came when he was taught Spanish; he had no grounding in English grammar. The proliferation of email, texting, and social media platforms has further devalued the importance of grammar.
Most of the items Garner includes are published grammar guides, and he presents background information on their publishing history and authors. At the end of each entry, Garner summarizes the number of parts of speech identified by that grammarian. Just with this subset of 100, there are 25 different configurations that range from two to 33, including Joseph Priestley’s “canonical 8.” I kept score as I read. For those who don’t want to keep score, Garner summarizes the various configurations for parts of speech in after-matter.
One danger that Garner expertly avoids is sliding into formulaic repetition. Three reasons explain his success.
First is his clever and incisive writing, coupled with his sense of humor and his ability to find the perfect adjective or adverb for the moment. His tangents are controlled moments of pleasure. He knows substantially more than he writes, yet avoids leaving the reader feeling as if they are drinking from a fire hose. His delight, enthusiasm, and pride inform every entry, every page.
Second, Garner includes beautiful color photographs illustrating bindings, title pages, sample pages, illustrations, and inscriptions. I have not been as amazed and amused by graphics since The Whole Earth Catalog. Sometimes we find the great light in the strangest of places, and here it is.
And third, Garner happily quotes the grammarians, whose command of the English language is staggering, especially when criticizing a rival. Elizabeth Elstob is repelled by the thought of leaving “pedagogues to huff and swagger in the height of all their arrogance.” Benjamin Rhodes suggests “sterling English” because “to hear a person harangue in public, or deliver his sentiments in conversation in bad English, has a tendency to create disgust, as well as to lessen the weight of his arguments.” And William Cardell argues that “the false principles by which the writers on language have misled the rest of the world, are not dissimilar to those of Ptolemian astronomy.”
Garner’s superior knowledge and his infectious exhilaration have turned a book about an archaic, obsolescent subject into a page-turner. I don’t know how a younger reader without the nine years of Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition that I experienced would react to Taming the Tongue, but Melville taught us that a very long book with very long descriptions of whale hunting could be as compelling and absorbing as Moby-Dick.
The dayenu of the Passover seder comes to mind when we get to Taming the Tongue’s after-matter. The body of the work would have been enough, but there is more, including teases about other works in Garner’s personal collection and comments by an A-team of experts such as John Simpson, the former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.
My single source of unhappiness with Taming the Tongue is Garner’s decision to use the historical present tense, also known as the dramatic present or narrative present tense. He writes that the historical present tense “makes their lives and their work more immediate and alive.” I found that it got in the way of the otherwise effortless, frictionless narrative. The historical present tense is more conducive to fiction than a history of grammar guides, but this is a small point.
Taming the Tongue is a joy-giving frolic. It left me feeling that the world is better because Bryan A. Garner is in it, because he has spent a lifetime immersed in grammar, because he wrote this book, and because he secured publication with such beautiful production values. Well done, sir.
A resident of Berkeley, California, Tom Dalzell has written extensively on language, most notably as the general editor of The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Routledge, 2005).