Tales from Grammar-Land

Oct 15, 2010 by

While many people are interested in language in general, fewer and fewer people (especially English speakers) today have an even most basic training in grammar. Concepts such as consonant and vowel, noun and verb, nominative and accusative are unfamiliar to many and need to be explained. Good — accurate yet accessible — books on this subjects are extremely rare. But one recently reprinted classic surely stands out!

I am talking about M. L. Nesbitt’s classic Grammar-Land: Grammar in Fun for the Children of Schoolroom-shire, which was first published in the eighteen-eighties and whose charming facsimile edition is has been recently published by the British Library.

Nesbitt’s take on English grammar, which is both whimsical and authoritarian, presents the nine parts of speech as fractious noblemen whose disputes can only be settled by the “great, stern, old Judge Grammar,” aided by his trusted counselors Serjeant Parsing and Dr. Syntax. Each part of speech has his own personality —- prepositions are “little creatures”, whereas Mr. Noun is a “stout big fellow, very well dressed”. The skirmishes between the characters illustrate dozens of basic grammatical principles. For example, in “Mr. Adjective Tried for Stealing”, we learn that a noun like “beauty” can be transformed into an adjective with the addition of “ful”.

The following passage, which both children and grown-ups can appreciate, explains the notion of case (admittedly, difficult for many English speakers to grasp, because English has so little case left) and helps understand why phrases such as “Look at Mary and I!” are not appropriate in English.

“However, it does not matter to me,” continued Mr. Noun, without taking any notice of Serjeant Parsing. “It will make no difference to me;” and he turned away, with his hands in his pockets, and began to whistle a tune.

“It does matter to me, though,” said Pronoun, “for I have to alter my words according to the case they are in. I is only in the nominative case, me in the objective; we is nominative, us objective; he nominative, him objective, and so on. You cannot say ‘look at I;’ you must say ‘look at me.'”

“Look at me,” echoed Serjeant Parsing, in the same quiet tone: “me, Objective Case, governed by the preposition at.”

“Quite so,” continued Pronoun, turning to Serjeant Parsing. “I am objective there, I cannot help it; I must be objective after a preposition.”

Don’t you just love it?!

Subscribe For Updates

We would love to have you back on Languages Of The World in the future. If you would like to receive updates of our newest posts, feel free to do so using any of your favorite methods below: