Why we love the language police


STARTING LAST SPRING, a new figure began popping up everywhere on British television and radio and in newspaper pages, berating his audience for their grammar abuses: a spry, white-haired Latin and English grammar tutor named N.M. (or Nevile) Gwynne. His claim to fame was a short polemical guidebook, “Gwynne’s Grammar,” which brings a bewitching zeal—and a defiantly old-fashioned approach—to the study of English grammar and usage. “What I maintain is that our ancestors created this language, which is one of the three best languages in history,” Gwynne said (he considers the other two to be Latin and classical Greek). “And we know how they passed that on from generation to generation….The children were jolly well made to learn it exactly.”

“Gwynne’s Grammar,” which began as a pamphlet put out by the father of one of Gwynne’s students, has become massively popular in the United Kingdom. After a mainstream press published it in 2013, in a longer form and with the curious addition of the 1918 version of William Strunk Jr.’s “The Elements of Style” (known best in its 1959 form revised by E.B. White), it spent five months on the top-ten best-seller list. Prince Charles called the book “outstandingly useful.” Michael Gove, the former Conservative secretary of education who returned grammar to national curriculums, assigned Gwynne’s book to all the members of his department. This week, it will be published for the first time in the United States.

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