Self-Help Back in the Day
June 16, 2016
Review of “Founding Grammars”
Taking sides in politics based on how a candidate speaks is nothing new, it turns out. Throughout American history, some citizens have embraced politicians who use the informal language of everyday people, considering this a sign of authenticity and understanding of the voters. Others have pointed to skill and refinement in speaking as indicators of intelligence and capability. I found the exploration of this dichotomy to be the most compelling aspect of “Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War over Words Shaped Today’s Language,” by Rosemarie Ostler.
The buyers of grammar books in the 1700s and 1800s aimed to improve themselves and sound educated. Ostler calls such books “the self-help manuals of their time,” and they allowed Americans to elevate the impression they made by refining their skills in speaking and writing.
Elected in 1828, Andrew Jackson was the first president from a working-class background. He was mocked throughout his campaign for the poor spelling and grammar that stemmed from his limited education in a “common school” of the time, where he learned only basic reading, spelling, and arithmetic. Although he went on to study law, Jackson made “no pretense of being scholarly…and tended toward folksy rather than elevated,” Ostler says. And people loved him for it. Many of his supporters—laborers, small farmers with minimal schooling, and new immigrants—were only recently allowed to vote thanks to a change in the law that removed the income level barrier to voting. These supporters were interested not in spelling or grammar, but in a man of action from an ordinary background, like themselves.
Ostler also discusses the election of Davy Crockett, another legendary plain speaker, in 1827 as a Representative from Tennessee. Crockett dismissed artificial correctness, saying, “As for grammar, it’s pretty much a thing of nothing at last, after all the fuss that’s made about it.”
Despite the rise of such politicians, Americans in the 1800s did not reject standardized grammar and spelling rules. “The art of speaking and writing with propriety remained a powerful ideal goal,” Ostler says. Using eloquent language had clear benefits and education was seen as a patriotic duty: a government representing all people required educated (male) citizens who could make informed, rational choices. What also reinforced grammar as a valued skill was that some were excluded from education on that subject, notably women and African Americans.
Ostler compares Lincoln, another president with minimal formal education, to Jackson in terms of their limited early education. Lincoln “realized that a knowledge of standard grammar would give him an advantage, no matter what direction he chose to take. Standard writing and speaking skills were always valuable,” she writes, so Lincoln walked miles to borrow a neighbor farmer’s copy of a popular grammar guide of the 1830s. Despite his extensive self-education and speeches that are so deeply admired today, Lincoln was lambasted by opponents during the 1860 election for “bad grammar.” This, Ostler explains, was not literal but a code phrase meaning that Lincoln was from the lower classes and therefore unworthy to be president.
Teddy Roosevelt is the third president that Ostler discusses as having an impact on American speaking styles. He was highly educated and a life-long writer, but used down-to-earth language and copious slang. Roosevelt also was critical of the formal language of his opponent, Woodrow Wilson. Ostler refers to the Roosevelt era as “a moment when slang and casual speech came into their own.”
We still care how we speak and the impression that our speech gives others. Just as Americans in the 1820s wanted to speak well even when their president used a folksy style, people today need language to do a job for them that is different from what political language must do. Most of us need to impress not an electorate, but a boss or a client. We are speaking not to convention crowds or TV cameras, but to individuals, or perhaps a group of peers or attendees at a conference. Speaking well—using correct grammar—helps us look smart and competent in 2016 just as it did in 1816.