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Grolier Club shows how fury, plagiarism, hypocrisy, and madness once plagued grammarians
John Leech’s caricature as the frontispiece to The Comic Latin Grammar. Collection of Bryan A. Garner.



NEW YORK, NY.- The exhibition Taming the Tongue in the Heyday of English Grammar (1711–1851), is on display March 4 through May 15, 2021, at the Grolier Club. It offers a revelatory glimpse into a time when English grammar was taught and studied with a grim fervor unthinkable to us now. Sales of books on grammar were second only to those of the Bible. The subject was so serious that grammar books, when illustrated, often showed pictures of children being caned or whipped, perhaps for sins such as dangling their participles.

Some grammarians offered beautiful tributes to the language; others came for battle, armed with claims of invincibility against allegedly incompetent rivals. This exhibition tells the colorful story of these books and the extraordinary characters who wrote them.

Highlights from the English-grammar collection of Bryan A. Garner, a grammarian, lexicographer, law professor, and Grolier member, are on view in the second-floor gallery.

The exhibition also explores issues central to our literary history. For instance, it sheds new light on the rivalry between Noah Webster, the “father of the American dictionary,” and Lindley Murray, the “father of English grammar.” One previously unknown document connects the two men in a failed business transaction in New York—a real-estate contract that Webster breached. It helps explain how the two men came to detest each other.

There’s more:

● Elizabeth Elstob, who in 1715 wrote the first Old English grammar despite being raised by an uncle who disapproved of female education. The book is an amazing feat.

● William Cobbett, a populist politician who became a grave-robber, digging up Thomas Paine’s bones in hopes of rallying the English around political reform. Passionate about linguistic correctness, he would have gone to prison (where he often found himself), had the need arisen, in defense of his grammatical views.

● Samuel Kirkham, the best-selling grammarian who inspired Abraham Lincoln. Kirkham was also a phrenologist who bequeathed his own skull to his widow, and then to his son. His obituary began with its precise measurements.

One of the grammars, by John Comly (1808), contains the first-known (now widely repudiated) prohibition of the split infinitive. Another, by Ann Fisher (1762), first laid down the still-controversial “rule” that the masculine pronoun includes the feminine.

The catalogue tells some extraordinary stories, such as the member of Congress—a Pennsylvania Whig—who in 1847 wrote a grammar filled with racial animus; the Ohio gubernatorial contender who in 1835 wrote a grammar rife with plagiarism, which helped get him booted from his church; and a cult leader who, once excommunicated, decided in 1826 to write a grammar “to liberate this important branch of science from long-received errours [sic].” Then there’s the best-selling grammar with the big-print typo on the title page: “ENGISH GRAMMAR.”

This is not your father’s grammar—nor your mother’s. It’s your great-great-great-great grandparents’ grammar. And it’s all on display at the Grolier Club, accompanied by a 328-page catalogue richly illustrated with 525 photographs.

An online version is available at https://grolierclub.omeka.net/exhibits/show/english-grammars










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