Or “Let me give a Resume of the Subject” [i]
My public library is one of my favorite places to buy used books. In a large area of the lobby, there are rows and rows of books spanning all categories. My favorite is the one they call ‘vintage.’ Mostly acquired from estate sales these are books published around the turn of the 20th century through the 1930s, which is MY time. Not that I lived then, a sorry turn of fate, but it is a time that has always felt familiar. I regularly find something that excites me.
My latest find is called, Putnam’s Minute-a Day English for Busy People, published in 1921 . Like many popular grammar and English usage books of the day, it is a call, a method, a philosophy to get Americans on the same grammar/word-usage page. Because “someones” have decided that certain language constructions ain’t correct any longer or that we all must get clear on the same pronunciation of words. The word baptize, for example, was sometimes pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable, bap tize’, instead of the more modern bap’ tize. (Although a little later in time, in the 1947 film, Life with Father, William Powell as Clarence Day, uses the former pronunciation throughout as he tries to make up his mind on whether or not to get bap tized’).
An example from Putnam’s:
Edwin Hamlin Carr wrote Putnam’s, not as a serious, laborious tome, but for ‘supper-table fun; language games for school and home….” [ii] Through the “laws of association” where only the correct forms are presented, he uses poems, ditties, rhymes and brief stories from newspapers and magazines to illustrate the issue at hand. Think Grammar Girl, 1921! Here’s an example (click on all the photos for an enlarged view):
For me, Putnam’s is at once an early 20th century American English grammar concerned with correct syntax and pronunciation for English speakers and perhaps emigrants as well as a historical document of early 20th century American cultural self-expression.
Carr believed that following his method of association would give the interested person “an accurate and effective form of English expression…if he will give to the task at least one minute a day.” [iii] And due to the fact that my copy had written notes throughout, in that old-fashioned cursive reminiscent of my grandparents, makes me believe that Carr’s purpose in writing the book was taken seriously, at least by the previous owner of my book.
To give a little context, William Strunk, self-published his ‘little book’ in the late teens and wrote it specifically for his college students, whereas Putnam’s was written for the home and family. Project Guttenberg has this original text if you would like to read Strunk before White got involved and it became Strunk and White’s Elements of Style!
I have to admit that as much as I have enjoyed reading this from a historical perspective, as a sort of primer on the issues and questions plaguing American language critics of the time, it is also an enjoyably useful book for those of us who could use a little nudge in the right grammatical direction!
From chapters on grammar and pronunciation to spelling, syllabication and “suggestions for party games,” I hope you find these examples fun and enlightening. And remember,
“A bit of correcting every day,
Drives the wrong syllabication away.” [iv]
And how did I do with this ‘resume’ of the book? Was it a decent summary? And did you pronounce it ray zu may’ ? Maybe something for YOUR next supper table!