Item of the Day: A Grammatial Institute of the English Language (1796)

Full Title: A Grammatical Institute of the English Language, Comprising an Easy, Concise and Systematic Method of Education. Designed for the Use of English Schools in America. In Three Parts. Part Second: Containing a Plain and Comprehensive Grammar, Grounded on the true Principles and Idioms of the Language. By Noah Webster, Jun. Esquire . . . Albany: Printed by Charles R. & George Webster, and sold at their Bookstore, in the Whites House, corner of State and Pearl-Streets, 1796.

APPENDIX.

VERB.

We say, what ails him? but seldom he ails a fever, or other disease.

Owing and wanting are used in a passive sense. What is wanting? A debt is owing to me, are established phrases.

We say a man is well read in law, he was offered so much for a thing, where the subject and object seem to have changed places; for the meaning is, law is well read, so much was offered, &c. This inversion may be allowed, where it is not attended with obscurity.

On the use of auxiliary verbs, Dr. Priestly, has this criticism. “By studying conciseness, we are apt to drop the auxiliary, to have, though the sense relate to past time. I found him better than I expected to find him. In this case analogy seems to require that we say, I expected to have found him: that is, to have found him there.” This is a great error, and for the reason which he immediately assigns, that is, “the time past is sufficiently indicated by the former part of the sentence.” The truth is, the time is ascertained by the first verb, I expected, which carries the mind back to the time; then to use another verb in the past, is to carry the mind back to a time preceding the existence of my expectations. He gives an example from Hume, which he says is certainly faulty. “These prosecutions of William seem to be the most iniquitous,” &c. It is faulty, not because both verbs are not in time past, but because neither of them is past time; seem to have been, or seemed to be, would not have been correct; but seemed to have been, would not have been grammatical. His remarks on this point seem to have been made with less accuracy of judgment, than we observe in most of his writing. . . .

The use of mistaken is equally singular. When applied to persons it is synonimous [sic] with wrong or erroneous. This is almost, or quite universally understood to be its meaning; and this common understanding constitutes its true signification, which no man has a right to dispute or attempt to change. But when applied to things, it is always used in a passive sense, equivalent to misunderstood. I am mistaken, you are mistaken, mean, I am wrong, you are wrong; but the nature of a thing is mistaken, means its nature is misunderstood. . . .

 

 

 

 

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Filed under 1790's, Grammar, Language, Posted by Caroline Fuchs, United States, Vocabulary

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