Friday, March 11, 2016

How can Prof John Sutherland be so wrong?

I've read some of John Sutherland's books on literature and I have nothing but admiration for him. When I saw his book, How Good is Your Grammar? (published last year), I thought it would be as good as the other books of his that I had read. But I was wrong. However renowned a literature prof may be in his area of expertise, and Sutherland is most certainly a universally acknowledged authority on Victorian literature, the reader cannot assume that he is also a grammarian; literature and language are as different from each other as Physics and Mathematics. No mathematician would presume to write a book on Physics and if I may be so bold as to add, no lit prof should attempt to write a grammar if he is ignorant of some of the rules of grammar and I will show in this article that Sutherland was sadly out of his depth. If only he had written Is Daniel Deronda Really a Jew? or Will Pip Ultimately Marry Estella? or some other book of this genre of which he is the undisputed master instead of delving into a subject which he obviously knows so little about.

I would not have said anything about his book - so great is my respect for John Sutherland - if he had not been unjust, totally wrong and even cruel to H.W. Fowler. I have nothing against people who disagree with Fowler. When I was a boy, I was made to read the tracts of the Society for Pure English. What started out as coercion (today's parenting guide calls it 'child abuse') soon became a joy and an addiction. I would read about the fight between H. W. Fowler and Otto Jespersen with relish. But in all their disputes, both men acted with gentlemanly civility throughout their exchanges and they were intellectually honest and did not accuse the other party of saying things that weren't said.

I cannot say the same of John Sutherland. I will repeat verbatim what Sutherland says in his book and you can judge for yourself how he treats the world's most famous grammarian who died almost a century ago. On the question whether one should insist on a singular concord after 'none', Sutherland says:
According to Fowler most certainly yes. Could you say 'No one of them are...'? But that noise you hear is Fowler, spinning in his grave, his 'rule' alongside him. It's gone by the board. And none of us is / are / ain't sorry to see the pesky quibble go.
I'm tempted to tell Sutherland to his face that what he's written is a blatant lie. But that won't be fair. Sutherland is probably just ignorant of what Fowler says and  he has no intention of deceiving his readers. But his words are false, untrue and deceptive. Anyone with the least acquaintance with Fowler's works must know that he has never made such a 'rule'. I was having dinner when I first read that passage in Sutherland's book and I almost choked on my food. I was taken aback by the obvious falsehood of the allegation which is couched in such unadulterated barbarity too.

Fowler has never made such a rule. On the contrary, in the first edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage, Fowler calls it a mistake to insist on a singular concord.  The same word, mistake, is preserved in all subsequent editions, including the 4th (edited by Jeremy Butterfield) which was published last June.

The best-loved (and, I would add, the greatest) linguist David Crystal whom I once met in the basement of a wooden book shop in Wales and with whom I had a most entertaining chat has this to say about 'none':
[Many] will be surprised of Fowler's tolerance of divided usage here, and (given his reference to the OED) his apparent support for plural concord.
How then did Sutherland get the idea that this erroneous 'rule' is being spun by Fowler in his grave when it was not spun by him in his lifetime? I looked up Fowler's The King's English for good measure and there is nothing in the book to suggest that Fowler endorses this erroneous rule. Fowler does apply such a rule to 'each' and to 'either' and 'neither' as pronouns but nothing is said of 'none'. What more evidence do I need when Fowler has unequivocally called the erroneous 'rule' a mistake in his Modern English Usage in 1926? What Sutherland writes is totally false. Sutherland may not have read Fowler - you don't have to read Fowler to teach Dickens - but I would have expected a literature professor of his stature to at least look up Fowler before attributing an error to him and in such a vicious way too.

This is the oldest book I have by Fowler. The pages have turned a dark brown colour.
I have all four editions of his Modern English Usage, spanning a period of almost a
whole century - from 1926 to 2015. But owning books (or in the case of academics, 
having easy access to books) means nothing if you don't read them. If Sutherland 
had read any book by Fowler instead of choosing to ridicule him unjustly, he would 
have realised he was wrong to accuse Fowler of having made up an erroneous rule.

There are many other instances of Sutherland's ignorance of standard grammar rules, some of which, I would have thought, are elementary. For example, Sutherland calls the problems associated with the use of 'due to' and 'owing to' a 'notoriously foggy area of grammar' and he demonstrates how foggy it is in his own mind by getting it wrong when he says that 'the Telegraph is probably in grammatical error' for the headline 'Rise in Child and Teen Fraud Arrests Mainly Due to Increase of Internet-based Crimes'. The Telegraph is perfectly correct grammatically. And it's not only Fowler (along with Sir Ernest Gowers, Burchfield and Butterfield) who would say it's correct. Eric Patridge and Janet Whitcut too, if I am to be guided by Partridge's Usage and Abusage as edited by Whitcut. At least I don't refer my readers to internet blogs which is what Sutherland does!

Sutherland says in his book that 'battle' when used as a transitive verb is wrong and he cites Simon Heffer as authority. Simon Heffer is a journalist, not a grammarian. In the past two months, I've read three books on grammar written by journalists. These books were of course reviewed in glorious terms in the newspapers of the journalists themselves. The only thing I've learnt from all three books is I should only go to a journalist if I need an update of world news. A grammar book written by a journalist is not much better than one written by a Literature professor.

My dictionary gives four different definitions of 'battle' as a transitive verb, one of which is obsolete but three of which are still current. In Sardanapalus, Byron writes, 'They battle it beyond the wall'. Simon Heffer is wrong if he says that the verb 'battle' must always be intransitive (which is what Sutherland claims). I have nothing against Simon Heffer. There are many things about him which I like but I won't be in a hurry to read his grammar book.

That Sutherland's foundation in grammar is shaky can be seen in his treatment of the question whether the sentence, 'Samantha is twenty years old, blue-eyed and has a large bust' is correct. This is a question posed by Kingsley Amis in his book, The King's English. I have to say something about this book by Kingsley Amis. When I was at school, Amis was one of my favourite novelists and it didn't take long for me to discover that he wrote a grammar book. It's a very old book and much of it is dated. Even when I read it as a schoolboy, it was way past its prime - I'm not that old!. I don't remember a thing about it today except that I recall Amis calling anyone who mispronounces or misuses a word a 'wanker' and I found it terribly amusing as a boy. I grew up in a strict Christian family and books with 'wankers' in them would not have received parental imprimatur but this was a grammar book!

Sutherland begins by saying that the sentence ('Samantha is twenty...' quoted above) is incorrect 'if you go along with Amis (I'm not sure I do...)'. However, the incorrectness of the sentence has nothing to do with Amis and Sutherland is wrong to imply that it's just a case of Amis laying down his own grammatical law. But that is the problem with Sutherland in his book. He tries so hard to convince his readers just how hip and modern he is and he probably thinks he can best achieve this by distancing himself from Amis whom he calls Fowler's 'grumpy disciple'. But Amis did not create his own grammatical rule. I've said that much of Amis' book is dated but this point of grammar has not evolved. That sentence is still grammatically incorrect today. But if you choose to be ungrammatical, it's not that you don't 'go along with Amis'; you're just ungrammatical.

Sutherland is also wrong to say that the sentence 'The Victorians aged faster than we' is ungrammatical. This contradicts just about every grammar book I can think of. There are so many examples to choose and here's one from Burchfield: 'On the whole the men...are more formal and authoritarian in tone than she.' And what is Sutherland's authority? You won't believe this - some internet blog! Now, isn't Sutherland cool, hip and (we mustn't forget this trendy word the young can't do without) awesome? That's the impression one gets when reading his book. He tries so hard to be fashionable. [I wanted to use a more 'hip' word than 'fashionable' and I thought of 'groovy' but I had this uncomfortable feeling that it might be dated and sure enough, my dictionary confirms that 'groovy' is dated!]

Sometimes, Sutherland forgets his hip image and pontificates about what 'real' grammar ought to be but because of his ignorance, he makes a fool of himself. For example, in his book, he asks the question:
What's the first grammatical error in the King James's Bible?
The thought that came to my mind was of course that 'wages of sin' bit which is what everyone knows but which in fact is quite defensible but I changed my mind. Sutherland is asking for the FIRST grammatical error, It has to be something from the Old Testament and not a Pauline epistle. The answer Sutherland gives nearly floored me - it's in Genesis and not just Genesis but the first chapter of Genesis, second verse. 'And the earth was without form...'. And I knew that was yet another clanger from the clueless Sutherland.

What is Sutherland's authority for saying you can't start a sentence with 'and'? Citing an authority is something Sutherland doesn't do in his book. All he does is to make references to internet blogs and occasionally, he repeats what his colleague Bas Aarts tells him. To show that he is correct in saying the second sentence of the King James's Bible is grammatically wrong, he relies on his memory of what he was told as a schoolboy. That's the extent of Sutherland's scholarship. This is what he says:
Schoolchildren, in my day (when grammar was grammar), used to be instructed not to start sentences with conjunctions, like 'and'.
Let's see what real grammarians have to say about this. Burchfield says:
There is a persistent belief that it is improper to begin a sentence with And, but this prohibition has been cheerfully ignored by standard authors from Anglo-Saxon times onwards. [He then quotes from the OED which gives examples from the 9th century onwards.]
Contrary to what Sutherland says, Fowler does not spin erroneous rules from his grave. Fowler was quite progressive and forward-looking even in his time. This is what he says:
That it is a solecism to begin a sentence with and is a faintly lingering superstition.
This is one superstition I'll never forget because of what I had to go through in school. One day, my schoolteacher who had a hairdo that closely resembled a large black beehive told me sharply that I was wrong for having begun a sentence with 'and'. But unlike Sutherland who accepted unquestioningly what he was told by schoolteachers as clueless as himself in grammar, I had a dispute with my teacher. Since I was made to read the tracts of the Society for Pure English in my early childhood, I was familiar with the works of Fowler, Jespersen and other grammarians. I told my teacher she was wrong and I said I had the support of Henry Fowler. She said she had never heard of him but the nuns who taught her English in her school made it very clear that starting a sentence with 'and' was grammatically unacceptable. I remember telling her that nuns were hardly the sort of people who could be expected to get their grammar right. They couldn't even get their theology right or they would've been Protestants. I apologise to my Roman Catholic readers for this but If I'm to recount a story of my life, I must do so truthfully. What I said was wrong and rude but I was only a child and saying politically incorrect things has been my weakness since my earliest days. I don't remember how she responded or whether I was sent to the Headmaster's office. I don't even remember if she was RC. My memory has this happy tendency of getting rid of unpleasant events.

There are other errors in Sutherland's book which I will not deal with here. The purpose of this blog post is mainly to defend Fowler against a false charge. If the accusation were made by a relatively unknown person, I would have ignored it. But Prof John Sutherland is a highly regarded academic and many people who read his book and who are not familiar with Fowler's works may believe his false accusation without further investigation.

Sutherland is quite an elderly and respectable academic but in How Good is Your Grammar?, he writes with the obnoxious flippancy of a rebellious teenager.

If Sutherland will listen to a bit of advice, he should not venture beyond Victorian literature when he writes his next book. He may talk about the colours of the curtains in the house in which Jane Eyre lives - Sutherland fans should be able to tell from this that I've read his books and they will perhaps think less harshly of me - but  he should stay away from any subject of which he has no knowledge.

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