National Grammar Day Preparatory Academy, Vol. 1

Did you know we have a National Grammar Day? It is true. It seems we have all manner of National Days lately, though I haven't yet tracked down which government office is ultimately responsible for the proliferation of Days. When I do, I fully intend to send them a card. The point is this: National Grammar Day is on March 4, and March 4 is fast approaching. Steps must be taken. Can we really expect to wallow happily in the mud of English usage for a mere twenty-four hours with no preparation? Of course not! Rash to even consider it!

With that in mind, every other day from now until National Grammar Day, I will be sharing my commentary upon tidbits from Noble Butler's A Practical and Critical Grammar of the English Language (1874). This book is dense, and coolly angry. Many footnotes take up more than half a page. It is obsessively taxonomical, and approaches English as though it were a rare and precious species of butterfly that must be thoroughly anaesthetized before being put on display in a quiet room somewhere out of direct sunlight with a shiny pin through its once-beating heart.

What fun!

Let us start with gender. Many of you are under the impression that we have no grammatical gender in English. According to the Practical, you are wrong:

I apparently have no gender, nor does my parent. Or, it seems, that sheep -- and maybe I'm the only one who finds the sequence parent-cousin-sheep-I-who a little bit hilarious. I am left wondering what the next word might be.

The Practical goes on to state that some classes of nouns "have no common gender, but only those which denote males and females." The example? Horse. Horse, it seems, is masculine, in contrast with mare. Apparently Noble Butler has never heard of either a stallion or a gelding. The Practical's advice for such nouns is either use both (brothers and sisters), circumlocute (children of the same parents), or:

Men get horses, and women get geese. Does that strike anyone else as a little unfair?

Lest you think I am reading unnecessary bias into this starchy Victorian tome, the following passage helpfully clarifies:

The upshot: speaking proper English requires having a full set of gender stereotypes in place before you even open your mouth.