GRAMMATICAL ERRORS OF STANDARD AUTHORS
Common Stumbling Blocks - Peculiar Constructions - Misused Forms.
Even the best speakers and writers are sometimes caught napping. Many of
our standard authors to whom we have been accustomed to look up as
infallible have sinned more or less against the fundamental principles of
grammar by breaking the rules regarding one or more of the nine parts of
speech. In fact some of them have recklessly trespassed against all nine,
and still they sit on their pedestals of fame for the admiration of the
crowd. Macaulay mistreated the article. He wrote,--"That a historian
should not record trifles is perfectly true." He should have used an.
Dickens also used the article incorrectly. He refers to "Robinson Crusoe"
as "an universally popular book," instead of a universally popular
The relation between nouns and pronouns has always been a stumbling block
to speakers and writers. Hallam in his Literature of Europe writes,
"No one as yet had exhibited the structure of the human kidneys, Vesalius
having only examined them in dogs." This means that Vesalius examined
human kidneys in dogs. The sentence should have been, "No one had as yet
exhibited the kidneys in human beings, Vesalius having examined such
organs in dogs only."
Sir Arthur Helps in writing of Dickens, states--"I knew a brother author
of his who received such criticisms from him (Dickens) very lately and
profited by it." Instead of it the word should be them to agree
Here are a few other pronominal errors from leading authors:
"Sir Thomas Moore in general so writes it, although not many others so
late as him." Should be he.--Trench's English Past and Present.
"What should we gain by it but that we should speedily become as poor as
them." Should be they.--Alison's Essay on Macaulay.
"If the king gives us leave you or I may as lawfully preach, as
them that do." Should be they or those, the latter
having persons understood.--Hobbes's History of Civil Wars.
"The drift of all his sermons was, to prepare the Jews for the reception
of a prophet, mightier than him, and whose shoes he was not worthy
to bear." Should be than he.--Atterbury's Sermons.
"Phalaris, who was so much older than her." Should be she.--Bentley's
Dissertation on Phalaris.
"King Charles, and more than him, the duke and the Popish faction were
at liberty to form new schemes." Should be than he.--Bolingbroke's
Dissertations on Parties.
"We contributed a third more than the Dutch, who were obliged to the same
proportion more than us." Should be than we.--Swift's Conduct of the
In all the above examples the objective cases of the pronouns have been
used while the construction calls for nominative cases.
"Let thou and I the battle try"--Anon.
Here let is the governing verb and requires an objective case after it;
therefore instead of thou and I, the words should be you (sing.)
"Forever in this humble cell, Let thee and I, my fair one, dwell"
Here thee and I should be the objectives you and me.
The use of the relative pronoun trips the greatest number of authors.
Even in the Bible we find the relative wrongly translated:
Whom do men say that I am?--St. Matthew.
Whom think ye that I am?--Acts of the Apostles.
Who should be written in both cases because the word is not in the
objective governed by say or think, but in the nominative dependent on
the verb am.
Who should I meet at the coffee house t'other night, but my old
"It is another pattern of this answerer's fair dealing, to give us hints
that the author is dead, and yet lay the suspicion upon somebody, I know
not who, in the country."--Swift's Tale of a Tub.
"My son is going to be married to I don't know who."--Goldsmith's
The nominative who in the above examples should be the objective
The plural nominative ye of the pronoun thou is very often
used for the objective you, as in the following:
"His wrath which will one day destroy ye both."--Milton.
"The more shame for ye; holy men I thought ye."--Shakespeare.
"I feel the gales that from ye blow."--Gray.
"Tyrants dread ye, lest your just decree Transfer the power and
set the people free."--Prior.
Many of the great writers have played havoc with the adjective in the
indiscriminate use of the degrees of comparison.
"Of two forms of the same word, use the fittest."--Morell.
The author here in trying to give good advice sets a bad example.
He should have used the comparative degree, "Fitter."
Adjectives which have a comparative or superlative signification do not
admit the addition of the words more, most, or the terminations,
er, est, hence the following examples break this rule:
"Money is the most universal incitement of human misery."--Gibbon's
Decline and Fall.
"The chiefest of which was known by the name of Archon among the
Grecians."--Dryden's Life of Plutarch.
"The chiefest and largest are removed to certain magazines they call
libraries."--Swift's Battle of the Books.
The two chiefest properties of air, its gravity and elastic force,
have been discovered by mechanical experiments.--Arbuthno.
"From these various causes, which in greater or lesser degree,
affected every individual in the colony, the indignation of the people
became general."--Robertson's History of America.
"The extremest parts of the earth were meditating a submission."
"The last are indeed more preferable because they are founded on some new
knowledge or improvement in the mind of man."--Addison, Spectator.
"This was in reality the easiest manner of the two."--Shaftesbury's
Advice to an Author.
"In every well formed mind this second desire seems to be the strongest
of the two."--Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments.
In these examples the superlative is wrongly used for the comparative.
When only two objects are compared the comparative form must be used.
Of impossibility there are no degrees of comparison, yet we find the
"As it was impossible they should know the words, thoughts and secret
actions of all men, so it was more impossible they should pass judgment
on them according to these things."--Whitby's Necessity of the Christian
A great number of authors employ adjectives for adverbs. Thus we find:
"I shall endeavor to live hereafter suitable to a man in my station."
"I can never think so very mean of him."--Bentley's Dissertation on
"His expectations run high and the fund to supply them is extreme
scanty."--Lancaster's Essay on Delicacy.
The commonest error in the use of the verb is the disregard of the
concord between the verb and its subject. This occurs most frequently
when the subject and the verb are widely separated, especially if some
other noun of a different number immediately precedes the verb. False
concords occur very often after either, or, neither, nor, and
much, more, many, everyone, each.
Here are a few authors' slips:--
"The terms in which the sale of a patent were communicated to the
"The richness of her arms and apparel were conspicuous."--Gibbon's
Decline and Fall.
"Everyone of this grotesque family were the creatures of national
"He knows not what spleen, languor or listlessness are."--Blair's
"Each of these words imply, some pursuit or object relinquished."
"Magnus, with four thousand of his supposed accomplices were put
"No nation gives greater encouragements to learning than we do; yet at
the same time none are so injudicious in the application."
"There's two or three of us have seen strange sights."--Shakespeare.
The past participle should not be used for the past tense, yet the
learned Byron overlooked this fact. He thus writes in the Lament of
"And with my years my soul begun to pant With feelings of strange
tumult and soft pain."
Here is another example from Savage's Wanderer in which there is
"From liberty each nobler science sprung, A Bacon brighten'd and a
Other breaches in regard to the participles occur in the following:--
"Every book ought to be read with the same spirit and in the same manner
as it is writ"--Fielding's Tom Jones.
"The Court of Augustus had not wore off the manners of the republic"
Moses tells us that the fountains of the earth were broke open or
"A free constitution when it has been shook by the iniquity of
"In this respect the seeds of future divisions were sowed abundantly."
In the following example the present participle is used for the infinitive
"It is easy distinguishing the rude fragment of a rock from the splinter
of a statue."--Gilfillan's Literary Portraits.
Distinguishing here should be replaced by to distinguish.
The rules regarding shall and will are violated in the following:
"If we look within the rough and awkward outside, we will be
richly rewarded by its perusal."--Gilfillan's Literary Portraits.
"If I should declare them and speak of them, they should be more
than I am able to express."--Prayer Book Revision of Psalms XI.
"If I would declare them and speak of them, they are more than can
"Without having attended to this, we will be at a loss, in understanding
several passages in the classics."--Blair's Lectures.
"We know to what cause our past reverses have been owing and we
will have ourselves to blame, if they are again incurred."--Alison's
History of Europe.
Adverbial mistakes often occur in the best writers. The adverb rather is
a word very frequently misplaced. Archbishop Trench in his "English Past
and Present" writes, "It rather modified the structure of our sentences
than the elements of our vocabulary." This should have been written,--" It
modified the structure of our sentences rather than the elements of our
"So far as his mode of teaching goes he is rather a disciple of
Socrates than of St. Paul or Wesley." Thus writes Leslie Stephens of Dr.
Johnson. He should have written,--" So far as his mode of teaching goes
he is a disciple of Socrates rather than of St. Paul or Wesley."
The preposition is a part of speech which is often wrongly used by some
of the best writers. Certain nouns, adjectives and verbs require
particular prepositions after them, for instance, the word different
always takes the preposition from after it; prevail takes upon;
averse takes to; accord takes with, and so on.
In the following examples the prepositions in parentheses are the ones
that should have been used:
"He found the greatest difficulty of (in) writing."--Hume's
History of England.
"If policy can prevail upon (over) force."--Addison.
"He made the discovery and communicated to (with) his friends."
--Swift's Tale of a Tub.
"Every office of command should be intrusted to persons on (in)
whom the parliament shall confide."--Macaulay.
Several of the most celebrated writers infringe the canons of style by
placing prepositions at the end of sentences. For instance Carlyle, in
referring to the Study of Burns, writes:--"Our own contributions to it,
we are aware, can be but scanty and feeble; but we offer them with good
will, and trust they may meet with acceptance from those they are
--"for whom they are intended," he should have written.
"Most writers have some one vein which they peculiarly and obviously
excel in."--William Minto.
This sentence should read,--Most writers have some one vein in which they
peculiarly and obviously excel.
Many authors use redundant words which repeat the same thought and idea.
This is called tautology.
"Notwithstanding which (however) poor Polly embraced them all around."
"I judged that they would (mutually) find each other."--Crockett.
"....as having created a (joint) partnership between the two Powers in
the Morocco question."--The Times.
"The only sensible position (there seems to be) is to frankly acknowledge
our ignorance of what lies beyond."--Daily Telegraph.
Lord Rosebery has not budged from his position--splendid, no doubt,--of
(lonely) isolation."--The Times.
"Miss Fox was (often) in the habit of assuring Mrs. Chick."--Dickens.
"The deck (it) was their field of fame."--Campbell.
"He had come up one morning, as was now (frequently) his wont,"
The counsellors of the Sultan (continue to) remain sceptical
Seriously, (and apart from jesting), this is no light matter.--Bagehot.
To go back to your own country with (the consciousness that you go back
with) the sense of duty well done.--Lord Halsbury.
The Peresviet lost both her fighting-tops and (in appearance)
looked the most damaged of all the ships--The Times.
Counsel admitted that, that was a fair suggestion to make, but he
submitted that it was borne out by the (surrounding) circumstances.
Another unnecessary use of words and phrases is that which is termed
circumlocution, a going around the bush when there is no occasion for
it,--save to fill space.
It may be likened to a person walking the distance of two sides of a
triangle to reach the objective point. For instance in the quotation:
"Pope professed to have learned his poetry from Dryden, whom, whenever an
opportunity was presented, he praised through the whole period of his
existence with unvaried liberality; and perhaps his character may receive
some illustration, of a comparison he instituted between him and the man
whose pupil he was" much of the verbiage may be eliminated and the
sentence thus condensed:
"Pope professed himself the pupil of Dryden, whom he lost no opportunity
of praising; and his character may be illustrated by a comparison with
"His life was brought to a close in 1910 at an age not far from the one
fixed by the sacred writer as the term of human existence."
This in brevity can be put, "His life was brought to a close at the age
of seventy;" or, better yet, "He died at the age of seventy."
"The day was intensely cold, so cold in fact that the thermometer crept
down to the zero mark," can be expressed: "The day was so cold the
thermometer registered zero."
Many authors resort to circumlocution for the purpose of "padding," that
is, filling space, or when they strike a snag in writing upon subjects of
which they know little or nothing. The young writer should steer clear of
it and learn to express his thoughts and ideas as briefly as possible
commensurate with lucidity of expression.
Volumes of errors in fact, in grammar, diction and general style, could
be selected from the works of the great writers, a fact which eloquently
testifies that no one is infallible and that the very best is liable to
err at times. However, most of the erring in the case of these writers
arises from carelessness or hurry, not from a lack of knowledge.
As a general rule it is in writing that the scholar is liable to slip; in
oral speech he seldom makes a blunder. In fact, there are many people who
are perfect masters of speech,--who never make a blunder in conversation,
yet who are ignorant of the very principles of grammar and would not know
how to write a sentence correctly on paper. Such persons have been
accustomed from infancy to hear the language spoken correctly and so the
use of the proper words and forms becomes a second nature to them. A
child can learn what is right as easy as what is wrong and whatever
impressions are made on the mind when it is plastic will remain there.
Even a parrot can be taught the proper use of language. Repeat to a
parrot.--"Two and two make four" and it never will say "two and two
In writing, however, it is different. Without a knowledge of the
fundamentals of grammar we may be able to speak correctly from
association with good speakers, but without such a knowledge we cannot
hope to write the language correctly. To write even a common letter we
must know the principles of construction, the relationship of one word to
another. Therefore, it is necessary for everybody to understand at least
the essentials of the grammar of his own language.
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