The (melo)drama of English grammar



I’ve been browsing through 19th-century grammar books. Yes, on purpose.

On my desk is an 1846 copy of The Principles of English Grammar; Comprising the Substance of the Most Approved English Grammars Extant, With Copious Exercises in Parsing and Syntax; and an Appendix of Various and Useful Matter, a popular text by the Rev. Peter Bullions, D.D., professor of language in the Albany (New York) Academy.

I hope the reverend’s royalties had an escalator clause. The copy I’m holding is a 19th edition. It’s well worn, with idle marks here and there, and on the rear flyleaf there’s the name “Emily Hughes” in youthful, penciled script.

Why bother with such outdated teaching tools? Unlike our clean, well-lighted, modern style manuals, old textbooks are wondrous things. They imagine with an enviable earnestness a world in which grammar is the set of rules that governs adult society (just imagine if that were true).

The instructional examples, however, can seem to us post-Freudian moderns utterly innocent of their own contents. For example, Reverend Bullions stops 21st-century readers dead in their tracks with chapter heads like PROMISCUOUS EXERCISES IN PARSING. The word promiscuous here means “casual” or “randomly organized,” though there is also an earlier sense of “promiscuous” meaning not gender-specific. (I wouldn’t call the randomly organized volumes on my bookshelves promiscuous, but then I have no idea what they get up to when I’m not around.)

Though they may indeed be only random (or “promiscuous”), Bullions’s simplest grammatical examples seem to harbor dark secrets. Consider these:

Still waters are commonly deepest. Damp air is unwholesome. Guilt often casts a damp over our sprightliest hours. Soft bodies damp the sound much more than hard ones. Though she is rich and fair, yet she is not amiable.

Why these sentences? And why in this order? Now picture, if you will, a young Theodore Dreiser, years before writing An American Tragedy, conning his lessons over the Reverend Bullions’s text and the elements of a tale about waters, guilt, soft bodies, and the not-amiable female.

Longer passages from Bullions give even more opportunities for narrative reconstruction. Here’s one I particularly like. First, I’ll give the excerpt in its totality. It’s entitled:

Exercises on Adverbs, Irregular Verbs, &c.

Peter wept bitterly. He is here now. She went away yesterday. They came to-day. They will perhaps buy some to-morrow. Ye shall know hereafter. She sang sweetly. Cats soon learn to catch mice. Mary rose up hastily. They that have enough may soundly sleep. Cain wickedly slew his brother. I saw him long ago. He is a very good man. Sooner or later all must die. You read too little. You talk too much. James acted wisely. How many lines can you repeat? You run hastily. He speaks fluently. Then were they glad. He fell fast asleep. She should not hold her head awry. The ship was driven ashore. No, indeed. They are all alike. Let him that is athirst drink freely. The more often you read with attention, the more you will improve.

So what’s going on? What’s Peter upset about? James? What’s that mention of Cain doing there? Who’s she and why is she singing?

Reverend Bullions gave me sentences. I wanted a narrative. So I decided to give it a go. After all, I’ve read my Ionesco, and my Edward Gorey, too. Here’s the same text, with a few minor directions and a punctuation mark or two.


a grammatical melodrama

[Lights up slowly. REVEREND BULLIONS, 70s, a wise family friend. EMILY HUGHES, a quiet griever, somewhere in the middle of the journey of her life. They are seated on a Chesterfield in an old-fashioned drawing room. Above the sofa a portrait of MARY, a diva. A wind-up Victrola stage left, a drinks cabinet stage right. French doors lead out into a leafy Edwardian garden.]

EMILY [After a long pause.] Peter wept bitterly. [A sound. She brightens for a moment and looks around hurriedly. She is expecting JAMES.] He is here now!

[Silence. It’s a false alarm. She continues, gesturing at the portrait.] She went away yesterday. [EMILY stands and passes to the REVEREND BULLIONS a neatly tied pile of letters.] They came to-day.

[While he unties and examines the post, EMILY rings for the cucumber sandwiches, which do not arrive. She speaks to no one in particular, vaguely:] They will perhaps buy some to-morrow.

[REVEREND BULLIONS nods sympathetically, crosses to the Victrola, and switches it on. Music, and the voice of MARY. They listen for a moment. MARY\’s voice sings:] “Ye shall know hereafter … ”

REVEREND BULLIONS: She sang sweetly.

EMILY [Laughs derisively.] Cats soon learn to catch mice. [She glowers at the portrait.] Mary rose up … hastily …

REVEREND BULLIONS [Consolingly:] They that have enough may soundly sleep. [He sips his sherry. Then, darkly:] Cain wickedly slew his brother. [Emily ignores him and stares out, lost in a reverie of JAMES, a subject to which REVEREND BULLIONS now turns:] I saw him long ago. He is a very good man.

EMILY: Sooner or later all must die. [She laughs, weeps, laughs again. In a tone of self-recrimination:] You read too little! You talk too much! [She collapses in tears.] James acted … wisely!

REVEREND BULLIONS [Gently opens his Bible and extends it to EMILY. With a comforting voice:] How many lines can you repeat?

[EMILY will not be consoled. She dashes out through the French doors into the garden.]

REVEREND BULLIONS [Rises, crosses to the French doors. Alarmed, he calls out after EMILY:] You run … hastily! … [Looking into the garden, he holds the Bible over his head and points to it. Weakly now, as Emily is out of sight:] He speaks fluently. [But EMILY is gone.]

[REVEREND BULLIONS [Crosses to sofa, sits and reads from the Bible:] “Then were they glad.” [He dozes for a moment, then wakes with a start. Speaking perhaps of himself in the third person:] He fell fast asleep! [Looks around for EMILY, notices the portrait of MARY, squints at it from a couple of angles, and clucks disapprovingly:] She should not hold her head awry.

REVEREND BULLIONS [Opens Bible again and reads:] “The ship was driven ashore.” [He pauses again, and goes toward the French windows, hoping that Emily will return. She does not.] No, indeed. They are all alike.

[Light is fading, and the evening birds are heard in the garden. REVEREND BULLIONS crosses to the drinks cabinet and refills his glass.] “Let him that is athirst drink freely.” [He finishes and refills the glass yet one more time.]

[Crosses to Victrola, prepares to play music again, then decides not to. He shuts the French doors and sits, alone now, on the sofa. Placing his bible carefully aside he picks up one of the letters. He reads it, looking back and forth from the portrait of MARY to the letter:] “The more often you read with attention, the more you will improve.” [He puts the letter down and stares out at the audience. It is all terribly clear now, adverbially speaking.]

[Bird song and the recorded voice of MARY are heard as the curtain falls.]

I can hardly wait to find out what happens with Dependent Clauses. Perfect reading for my July break. See you in August.

Author Bio:William Germano is dean of humanities and social sciences and a professor of English literature at Cooper Union.