3. Wallis and ‘will/shall’

The next (chronologically) grammar on my bookshelf is Wallis, John (1653) Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae. While this went through many editions over the next century or so, and was apparently quite influential, it does not reach my top ten of grammars for two main reasons:

1. It is written in Latin. Apart from the fact that writing a book on English grammar in Latin  strikes me as perverse, my 50-year old schoolboy latin was hardly up to the task of decyphering this.

2. It is John Wallis who first publicly announced to the world (in Latin):  “The rule is… to express a future event without emotional overtones, one should say I shall, we shall, but you/he/she/they will; conversely, for emphasis, willfulness, or insistence, one should say I/we will, but you/he/she/they shall”.

To be fair to Johannis, many leading writers of the time still wrote their masterpieces in Latin, in order to reach an international audience of scholars. Also, One of Wallis’s aims was to prepare a work for foreigners wishing to learn English; to use an internationally understood language  to present his subject matter is understandable. And, finally, Wallis did move away from a Latin-influenced approach in his treatment of English grammar as  something to be studied in its own right. Unlike Bullokar, who claimed that English nouns had five cases, Wallis recognised that “substantives in English do not have different genders or cases”.

So far, so good. But for the shall/will distinction he shall be damned for all eternity (should that be will be damned?) This distinction, if it ever truly existed, was natural to only a minority of speakers of British English, but had become, by the end of the nineteenth century, one of the shibboleths of educated gentlemen. I remember being ridiculed at my would-be public school fifty years ago for using an I will instead of the prescribed I shall. Finally the system was beaten so thoroughly into me, that I used it ‘correctly’ – and still do today, unfortunately. I say ‘unfortunately’ because I work in the field of Teaching English as a Foreign Language. Students of mine who have been taught  from fossilised texts about the shall/will distinction are unimpressed when  I try to tell them that it is unimportant in the English of today – dammit, I use the distinction myself, so it must be correct.

So, back to the bookshelf, Johannis, and stay there till you rot.

ps: Don’t forget to visit my new website at www.gramorak.com. It already has a few articles on the English Verb, with more in the pipeline.

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2. Blogging and Bullokar

Before I have even started properly on the blog, I have changed my mind about what it is; consistency was never my greatest attribute. I have now decided that on this blog I shall simply present my random musings. My earth-shattering papers on various aspects of English grammar will be published on a website which I am preparing with the help of EJ of WebbDesign. STOP PRESS. We are up and running: http://www.gramorak.com

OK: Blogging and Bullokar.

My interest in the grammar of modern English led me to an interest in what grammarians of earlier generations had written about their language. Thanks to www.abebooks.co.uk (no, I don’t get a fee for that link, unfortunately), I now possess copies of  most of the significant grammars of English published since the sixteenth century. Some of them are in facsimile editions, but I did splurge out on a few originals. I also managed to download a few from other sites for nothing; that was a bonus.

I expected most of the early ones to be of historical interest, but not really relevant to a consideration of today’s English, and was therefore pleasantly surprised to find that even the earlier writers had useful points to make.

In 1586 William Bullokar, soldier, teacher, and student of law and agriculture, published his Bref Grammar for English, the “first grammar for English that ever was printed, except my Grammar at large”, as he described it in a hand-written note on the last page of his own copy. Unfortunately the Grammar at large has not survived; indeed, it may never have been printed.

Like many grammars published in the years that followed, Bullokar’s work is heavily influenced by Latin grammar but, unlike some of his successors, he recognises that different languages use different parts of speech for similar information. He is also less prescriptive than many who followed. Students until comparatively recent times, for example, have had to learn the suspect rule that the future in English is formed with shall for the first person singular and plural, and will for other persons. Bullokar more liberally presents this table (spellings modernised):

Fut   }  I shall or will        {     }  we        {shall }                                                                      tense} thou shalt or wilt { Pl } you, or  {  or   }  love                                                                sing   } he shall or will     {      } they      {will   }

He is also ahead of some later writers by defining parts of speech by meaning, collocation with other words and form:  a noun is the name of anything that may be seen, heard, felt or understanded ….. it may the easilier be known from every other part of speech by some one of these articles , A, An or The, set before such word. ….. The singular number speaketh but of one: as, a house. … The plural number speaketh of more than one: as, houses.

He also recognised that people then (as now)  used what some still consider to be ‘incorrect’ language: The comparative [of the adjective] being more properly used in comparing of two together: the superlative used in comparing of more, though we English use the superlative also when we compare but two things together.

If later writers had been as non-prescriptive as Bullokar, generations of students might have been spared much pointless labour.

It was also interesting to discover that Bullokar in his Booke at large (1580) anticipated in his attempts at spelling reform Webster, Shaw, Pitman and others. (It is true that he was not alone in this area; his near-contemporaries Cheke and Hart also proposed more logical spelling systems. All, except Webster with some of his suggestions accepted in the United States, unfortunately failed).

To suggest that students of modern English should study Bullokar would be silly; he was writing about a language spoken  four and a quarter centuries ago. His work is, however, a salutary reminder that perceptive ideas about English grammar were around before the 20th century.

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1. Welcome to Gramorak’s Blog.

Hello and wecome

If you are interested in the grammar of English, need to learn something about it, or have a question to ask or comment to make, this blog will be the place.

With EJ’s help I hope to create a place where teachers (and students) of EFL/ESOL/ELT who are interested in the grammar of English, need to learn or share something about it, or have a question to ask or comment to make, will feel at home.

We have only just started – if there is nothing here for you yet, make a suggestion and/or come back in about a month. If you find it useful – tell others; if you don’t, tell us.

Happy TEFLing


ps: Don’t forget to visit my new website at www.gramorak.com. It already has a few articles on the English Verb, with more in the pipeline.

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