Many years ago, I was given a paperback copy of a book called The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way as a gift. So crammed are my shelves with unread books I’ve only just got around to reading it. I stumbled across it by chance a week ago and was drawn to it because I had covered some of the same territory in an earlier article, Mispellers of the World, Untie! I wanted to see what the author, Bill Bryson, had to say and see whether I had left out anything major.
Most of the book is a discussion of research and histories done by others. Nowhere does Mr. Bryson mention any original research done by him, and his name does not appear in the bibliography, so I’m guessing he has not published in this field previously. None of the books in the bibliography was published before 1931, and there are no primary sources, such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. There is no information about the author at all; his academic background and current profession are unknown. According to the blurbs all over the cover, this book was a hardcover bestseller and well reviewed, even earned the accolade of “scholarly” from the Los Angeles Times. The writing style is breezy and fun, more magazine than academe, which of course adds immensely to readability. But the author betrays such a fundamental lack of understanding of the basic structures of English that I am astounded he got his book published.
In his chapter on English grammar and its oddities, Mr. Bryson states that in English, “A noun is a noun and a verb is a verb largely because the grammarians say they are.” He supports this by giving a list of nouns that are also verbs, such as charge and towel. But the statement is arrant nonsense. A noun is a word that functions as a noun; a verb is a word that functions as a verb. In the sentence “The charge appeared on my statement,” the word charge is being used as a noun, and grammarians are as powerless to turn it into a verb as they are to turn it into gold. Only native speakers can decide how to use a given word, setting its function through use, and if they want to change its use, they have to construct a new sentence for it. The fact that English has so many multifunctional terms is a tribute to its unique versatility. A word’s function (noun, verb, whatever) is not revealed until it is actually used; no one can look at the isolated word charge and declare it noun or verb, because it has the potential to be either. This is a very neat trick, not a shortcoming, and cannot be done in many other languages.
Claiming that “the parts of speech are almost entirely notional,” Mr. Bryson offers the examples “I am suffering terribly” and “My suffering is terrible.” He says the grammarians would call suffering a verb in the first but a noun in the second, but in his opinion both sentences use “precisely the same word to express precisely the same idea.” Well, no. Technically, the first suffering is a present participle, a verbal adjective, and the second is a gerund, a verbal noun, both of which are derived from the same verb, suffer. It is thus not at all odd that they should express the same idea, but the verb has been inflected in different ways, to form a participle (adjective) to use in the present progressive tense and to form a gerund (noun) to use as a subject. Every English verb has the ability to become a noun or an adjective by the addition of -ing; which it is is strictly a matter of how it’s used. As a native English speaker, the author has automatically used terrible to modify the gerund and terribly to modify the participle even as he claims they are modifying “precisely the same word,” proving that the language center in his brain is operating better than the reasoning center. It isn’t a noun or an adjective because grammarians say it is; it’s a noun or adjective because that’s how it’s functioning. There’s nothing “notional” about it.
Having said one puzzlingly harebrained thing, Mr. Bryson reveals even deeper ignorance of how his language works (the language, remember, he has dared to write a book about). In the same paragraph, he writes, “Breaking is a present tense participle, but as often as not it is used in a past tense sense (‘He was breaking the window when I saw him’). Broken, on the other hand, is a past tense participle but as often as not it is employed in a present tense sense (‘I think I’ve just broken my toe’) or even future tense sense (‘If he wins the next race, he’ll have broken the school record’).” These cavils reveal such a complete misunderstanding of basic grammar I am left breathless. Throughout the book he cites Fowler, Copperud, and other well-known grammarians, but he has clearly been too selective in actually reading them. No authorities are cited in this section, but the lack of support for his pet peeve didn’t stop him from ranting. No research went into these inanities. There is nothing here but gibberish.
First off, there is no such thing as a “present tense” or “past tense” participle; a participle is an adjective and has no tense. Participles, present and past, are used to form various tenses. The present participle is used to form the progressive tenses present, past, future, and perfect: I am walking, I was walking, I will be walking, I have been walking, I had been walking, I will have been walking. Likewise, the past participle is used to form the perfect tenses: I have walked, I had walked, I will have walked. Reexamine the statements that “present tense participles” are often used in a “past tense sense” and vice versa, and you realize that his statements make no sense at all, present, past, or future.
It gets worse. Mr. Bryson follows this arrogant demonstration of ignorance with one of boneheaded wrongness. I can only quote; paraphrase will not suffice. “A noun…is generally said [to denote] a person, place, thing, action, or quality. That would seem to cover almost everything, yet clearly most actions are verbs and many words that denote qualities—brave, foolish, good—are adjectives.” These arguments are meant to shore up the assertion that “the parts of speech must be so broadly defined as to be almost meaningless.”
Not in my universe, bub. He has ignored or overlooked the fact that a noun expresses an action or quality in a different way than a verb or an adjective, and it is not uncommon to have closely related words (cognates) in multiple functional categories (e.g., sleep as noun, sleep as verb, sleepy or sleeping as adjective, sleepily as adverb) so that statements about a topic can be made in multiple ways. How is this a failing?? The noun is bravery, the adjective is brave; they both describe a quality, and each can be used to express a thought about heroism. How does that render the categories of noun and adjective themselves meaningless? Wouldn’t it be a bitch if we always had to use sleep as a noun and cast every sentence to accommodate that inflexibility?
I repeat, in English a word is characterized by how it is used, and native speakers decide how any given word may be used by using it that way and being understood. Mr. Bryson would seem to prefer a language in which the nouns were always and forever nouns and referred very solidly and concretely to things, and so on. This is not only impossible, it is supremely undesirable. It takes away all possibility of wordplay and inventiveness, not to mention growth and change.
I cannot believe this book was ever subjected to an editorial eye. No editor worth her salt would have allowed this nonsense to stand. Although I enjoyed other sections of the book, once I had read this chapter, I could no longer trust any statement the author made that I didn’t already know to be true. “Scholarly,” my ass. I rather doubt the reviewer read the whole thing. Who knows what other idiocies lurk beneath the breezy exposition? I usually resell or donate my unwanted books, but this one is going in the recycling bin as too worthless and too dangerous to pass on. I am as puzzled and outraged as if I had come across arguments for a flat earth in a book on geography.
This is article 18 in a continuing series. © 2009 Christine C. Janson