Goodnight Moon

Ihe time-honored practice of illustrating the rules of grammar with the improprieties of respected authors dates back to Bishop Robert Lowth, whose seminal work, A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762), cites countless errors in the works of the most revered figures of English literature, from Shakespeare to Pope. William Cobbett dissected the writings of Samuel Johnson, George III, and others in A Grammar of the English Language (1818) and later boasted, "How many false pretenders to erudition have I exposed to shame merely by my knowledge of grammar! How many of the insolent and ignorant great and powerful have I pulled down and made little and despicable!" Across the Atlantic, Goold Brown, in The Grammar of English Grammars (1851), similarly drew attention to the errors of virtually every grammarian who preceded him, including Lowth himself.

There followed a long line of commentators who focused on published errors in grammar and usage for their intrinsic interest, rather than in support of a comprehensive treatment of the subject. Perhaps the first of these was Henry Alford, the Dean of Canterbury, who offered A Plea for the Queen's English (1864) in protest against the linguistic offenses of the popular press. Thomas Embly Osmun, an American drama critic who wrote under the pen name Alfred Ayres, published an alphabetized list of commonly observed errors entitled The Verbalist (1881), which might be considered the first dictionary of English usage—a precursor to Fowler's Modern English Usage (1926) and its many imitations of the last century.

George Washington Moon, an Englishman of American descent, holds a unique place in this history as the author of a series of books spanning four decades, each devoted to the linguistic transgressions of one or several notable writers. The first of these was the infamous The Dean's English: A Criticism on the Dean of Canterbury's Essays on the Queen's English (1864), which led to a lively and delightful public exchange between Moon and Alford, from which Moon emerged as the clear victor.

Riding the popular success of his initial effort, Moon turned his attention to several prominent American grammarians in The Bad English of Lindley Murray and other Writers on the English Language: A Series of Criticisms (1868). Although Murray, author of the widely used textbook English Grammar Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners (1795), was unavailable for comment, sharp responses were provided by the book's secondary targets and a spirited discussion again ensued.

The next volume in the series was directed at a newly released version of the New Testament and was entitled (lest it be presumed aimed at a higher target) The Revisors' English: A Series of Criticisms, Showing the Revisors' Violations of the Laws of the Language (1882). Once again, a number of counterattacks followed, led by one Bishop Samuel Thornton. The result was predictable: Moon's followers were treated to The Bishop's English (1904), the diffuse subtitle of which told the full story: A Series of Criticisms on the Right Rev. Bishop Thornton's Laudation of the Revised Version of the Scriptures and also on the English of the Revisors, showing that the version put forth by them, and likewise the authorised version, contain errors against religion and morals so unpardonable as totally to unfit them for circulation, and that it is slandering God to call either of them His word.

Although Moon's victims were by no means undeserving of his attention, he may be justly accused of taking unfair advantage of his superior talents. Henry Alford, though an accomplished theologian and hymnodist, is generally thought to have ventured beyond his competence in his zeal to defend the mother tongue. Nor was Lindley Murray a shining light in the field; his real contribution was the transcription of the works of Lowth and others into a form suitable for young students. As for Samuel Thornton and his colleagues, their expertise was in Christian doctrine and Koine Greek rather than modern English.

The task that I undertake here is, in one sense, more ambitious than Moon's mission, as I attempt to demonstrate that the estimable Moon himself, who, according to a typical and just review of his works, "writes with greater elegance, with greater ease, with greater perspicuity, with greater vigour, and with incomparably greater accuracy" than any of his opponents, was in fact less than perfect.

On the other hand, this effort is far less extensive in scope than Mr. Moon's forty-year program of linguistic terror. I shall confine my attention to his chapters on the ill-starred Lindley Murray, the one victim of Moon's attacks who was unable to defend himself, and shall be content in exposing a small number of errors in his writings. One reason for this, of course, is the sheer scarcity of such errors in the work of a man of whom one reputable critic wrote, "The elegance and accuracy of his style are so extraordinary as to be almost unique." Another limiting factor is the present-day level of demand for criticism of this sort. In Moon's day, his reviewers held that his work "ought by all means to find its way into the hands of our best schoolmasters and their pupils, and all scholars and students of our language", and that "no one who is called on to write or speak twenty consecutive words of English should be without it." In contrast, the present exposé is, alas, intended mainly for its author's amusement.

In the opening chapter of The Bad English, Moon reveals the root cause of his unabated antagonism toward the book's title character: it was Murray's textbook from which Moon, as a schoolboy (during the second decade following its author's death), was forced to learn the rules of English grammar.
Well, it is the pupil's turn now; and, notwithstanding that the old grammarian was a personal friend of my family's, I cannot resist the temptation to take up the pen against him, and to repay him for the terror of his name in my school days, by showing that, in the very volume in which he laid down his rules, he frequently expressed himself ungrammatically. (Bad English, p. 2)
He emphasizes, however, that he has no quarrel with these rules themselves, only with their author's failure to adhere to them.
He knew what was correct in the use of words, and effected much good in his day, but his practice was strangely at variance with his precepts. (Bad English, p. 47)
Indeed, in the chapters that follow, Moon wholeheartedly embraces these precepts and appeals to them repeatedly as he points to the flaws in Murray's writing. It may be instructive, then, to see how they pertain to Moon's curious description (quoted above) of his victim as "a personal friend of my family's". This is an example of the construction commonly known as the double genitive, classified by Fowler as a sturdy indefensible and generally regarded today as an ungrammatical freak of idiom that should be tolerated in certain contexts where it serves to distinguish shades of meaning. For example, it has been observed that many a modern philosopher is a student of Kant, but that any student of Kant's has been dead for a hundred years. Murray's treatment is consistent with this view:
In some cases, we use both the genitive termination and the preposition of: as, " It is a discovery of Sir Isaac Newton's." Sometimes indeed, unless we throw the sentence into another form, this method is absolutely necessary, in order to distinguish the sense, and to give the idea of property, strictly so called, which is the most important of the relations expressed by the genitive case: for the expressions, "this picture of my friend," and this picture of my friend's," suggest very different ideas. The latter only is that of property in the strictest sense. The idea would, doubtless, be conveyed in a better manner, by saying, "This picture belonging to my friend."

When this double genitive, as some grammarians term it, is not necessary to distinguish the sense, and especially in a grave style, it is generally omitted. (English Grammar Adapted, p. 104)

It is clear that the phrase friend of my family's neither conveys a meaning that is unshared by, nor is in any way preferable to, the more standard friend of my family.

Iccording to Murray, "The first rule for promoting the strength of a sentence, is to prune it of all redundant words and members." Moon questions Murray's commitment to this principle, citing the following as a violation (Bad English, p. 45):
"I came, I saw, I conquered", expresses, with more force, the rapidity and quick succession of conquest, than if connecting particles had been used.
The accusation of redundancy here is worse than nitpicking: rapidity refers to the shortness of duration of an event, whereas quick succession refers to the immediacy with which it follows a preceding one.

On the other hand, there is no defense for the locution etc. etc. etc., used by Moon in The Bishop's English (p. 26) to mean simply etc. Such frivolity is less appropriate in a context that demands exquisite precision of expression than, say, in a Rogers and Hammerstein musical.

Ihoice of preposition, perhaps more than any other aspect of English usage, is often governed by idiom rather than logic. Consequently, the usual descriptivist argument, that prevalence constitutes correctness, holds up better here than elsewhere. Thus, when Moon records his objections to the choices made by Murray, such as "the necessity of some attention" and "conversant in the propriety of language", insisting on the alternatives "necessity for" and "conversant with" (Bad English, p. 41), he assumes the burden of providing empirical support for his preferences. But of course there is none, since in each case, both variations are commonly used and accepted, and the choice is simply a matter of taste.

Elsewhere, Moon rejects Murray's phrase "in respect of time", in favor of "with respect to time" (Bad English, p. 41). Here there would appear to be some basis for the objection: the former, though generally accepted as correct, is certainly less common than the latter. However, this was less clearly true in Moon's time than today, and even less so in Murray's. In any case, when Moon dwells on such a minor point as this, as he often does, he detracts from the weight of his more earnest arguments.

Now consider the following sentence, again extracted from Murray's text:

The Greeks were the greatest reasoners that ever appeared in the world; and their language, accordingly, abounds more than any other in connectives.
As Moon would have it (Bad English, p. 27), the only preposition properly to follow abounds is with. Here, at last, a definitive ruling may be made, but it favors the victim at the expense of the aggressor. While in and with are both in long-standing use with abound, there is a clear distinction in meaning. When the abundant attendance of x by y contributes to the essence or resources of x, we say that x abounds in y. Thus, ancient Greek abounds in connectives. When such attendance is viewed as merely incidental, we say instead that x abounds with y. Numerous citations spanning the history of Modern English are provided in support of these observations by the OED, which also offers the following illustration:
The ship abounds in conveniences, but it abounds with rats.

Ironouns," Murray reminds us, "must always agree with their antecedents, and the nouns for which they stand, in gender and number." Unfortunately, he fails to heed his own advice:
The facts, premises, and conclusions, of a subject, sometimes naturally point out the separations into paragraphs: and each of these, when of great length, will again require subdivision at their most distinctive parts.
As Moon is quick to observe, "This is one of the most frequent of vulgar errors." There is no defending Murray on this point; the error is indeed vulgar, and more frequent today than ever, as I discuss elsewhere. (See THEIR, etc.) But Moon has his own problems with pronouns and antecedents. He goes on to refine the principle:
... as every schoolboy is taught, "a pronoun is understood to refer to the last preceding noun of the same number and person" (Bishop's English, p. 29)
This is the basis for his objection to a commandment found in the revised New Testament:
... what Englishman who is a master of his own language would ever think of writing such a sentence as the following, unless he wished to convey the idea that God has a brother whom it is our duty to love! "This commandment have we from him, that he who loveth God love his brother also." -- 1 John iv. 21.
It appears that Moon would allow no exception to his rule, even on the basis of clarity of intent, since it may be assumed that any reader who has made it this far into the scriptures is aware that Christianity is monotheistic to the extent that it does not ascribe any divine uncles to Jesus. Consequently, we are puzzled by the following:
In Luke viii. 23, we read, "As they sailed, he fell asleep: and there came down a storm of wind on the lake; and they were filling with water, and were in jeopardy." The words "with water," are not in the Greek; and possibly the Revisors conceived that it might be thought that the sailors were "filling" with something stronger than water, and therefore it was desirable to guard against such a misconception; so they inserted the words, "with water." (Bishop's English, p. 43)
While it may be clear from context that the words were inserted by the Revisors, the only possible antecent of the last occurrence of they, according to Moon's formula, is the sailors.

On the following page, we find an instance of a nominative pronoun with a possessive antecedent:

... with the Revisors' usual consistency, they have altered the word in 2 Thess. ii. 7. (Bishop's English, p. 44)
I note this only in passing and without exercising judgment, since the the proscription against this usage, which dates back at least to Cobbett (1818), was never explicitly addressed by either Murray or Moon and remains controversial today. On the other hand, I am appalled by the following, which violates the most basic requirements of agreement:
Again we have that awful falsehood, " Ye shall seek me, and shall not find me"; words which it is certain Jesus never uttered ; ... Doubtless, the fault of the language is the Revisers'; and the words of Jesus were, "Ye will seek me, and will not find me." And why ? Because they would seek him from unworthy motives. See John vi. 26. (Bishop's English, p. 87)
Unless the antecedent of they is the genitive form Revisors', which is apparently inconsistent with the intended meaning, or the second person pronoun ye, there is none to be found at all.

In several instances, Murray is admonished for using an adverb where Moon would prefer to see an adjective:
"This construction sounds rather harshly." Is this sentence correct? I think not. The verb "sounds", as used there, is a neuter verb; one not expressing an action, but a state of being; and neuter verbs should not be qualified by adverbs, but by adjectives.(Bad English, p. 16)
Our education continues:
The reader will observe that when the verb is intransitive, i.e., when the action does not pass on to some object, the adjective is used: e.g.:--"She looks cold." But when the same verb is transitive, the adverb is used: e.g.:--"She looks coldly on him." (Bad English, p. 17)
In further support of his position, Moon provides us with Murray's own discussion of the issue (in which the erratic use of italics and bracketed insertions are artifacts of Moon's quotation):
The verb to be, in all its moods and tenses, generally requires the word immediately connected with it to be an adjective, not an adverb; and, consequently, when this verb can be substituted for any other, without varying the sense or the construction, that other verb must also be connected with an adjective. The following sentences elucidate these observations:--"The rose smells [or is] sweet". How delightful the country appears [or is]". "The clouds look [or are] dark". In all these sentences, we can, with perfect propriety, substitute some tenses of the verb to be for the other verbs. But in the following sentences, we cannot do this: "The dog smells disagreeably"; "George feels exquisitely". (Bad English, p. 17)
We note that in the original text, this discussion is concluded with a qualification that Moon chooses to ignore:
The directions contained in this note are offered as useful, not as complete or unexceptionable. Anomalies in language every where encounter us: but we must not reject rules, because they are attended with exceptions. (English Grammar Adapted, p. 164)
Once again, it seems that the hapless Murray has fallen into his own trap:
This is an excellent rule of Lindley Murray's: but nothing could be more unfortunate than one of his illustrations of it. He very properly tells us that we ought to say;--"The rose smells sweet" [is sweet]; but he adds, or, at least, implies, that we cannot say'--"The dog smells disagreeable" [is disagreeable]. In other words, we must say that, the scent of the rose is sweet; but, the scent of the dog is disagreeably! (Bad English, p. 17)
Where to begin? Perhaps with Moon's curious use of the word transitive. A verb in the active voice is transitive only if it takes a direct object. (This usage has not changed since the time of Moon, as may be verified by consulting, for example, Brown or Bullions.) If Moon understands this, as he seems to suggest, then in his example, he is erroneously parsing him, which is clearly the object of the preposition on, as the object of the verb looks, which is invariably intransitive.

Moon had it right the first time: the relevant distinction is between active (whether transitive or intransitive) and neuter verbs (also known today as linking verbs, or copulas). However, as Murray suggests, there are exceptions to the rule that "neuter verbs should not be qualified by adverbs, but by adjectives." Even the verb to be may be modified by an adverb, as in I am here. (See FEEL BADLY for further discussion of this point.) Certainly this is true as well of the verb to smell in its neuter sense: He smells today; he will forever smell. * If the dog were to have a lingering or persistent scent, would Moon then have us say that the dog smells lingering, or smells persistent? It is no less absurd to insist, as he does here, on the dog smells disagreeable. In these cases, we may choose to avoid the verb altogether, but if not, then as Murray correctly asserts, the abverbs are clearly to be preferred over the corresponding adjectives.

I have endeavored, in the foregoing analysis, to treat its subject with the same respect and good humor that characterize his criticism of others. Moreover, in order to spare him any sense of embarrassment, I have shown him the same courtesy, in reserving my comments until well after his departure, that he afforded Lindley Murray. (Would that any dissatisfied readers of this page exercise similar restraint.)

Inspired by G. Washington Moon's own works, my efforts have been motivated, not by malice, but by a profound interest in preserving the purity of the English language as "a sacred shrine for our noblest aspirations", and a sense of duty to expose the misguidance of its most influential writers. I echo Mr. Moon's often repeated subjoinder:

These are, certainly, remarkable errors for an author to commit while actually writing on the improprieties of the English langauge [sic]. (Bad English, 3rd ed., p. 27)