Gwynne's Grammar: the ultimate introduction to grammar and the writing of good English (2013)
By N.M. Gwynne
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"Steeped in a rectitudinal style that many will find mellifluous but which others will find stultifying"
Gwynne's Grammar is the current darling of the grammar-book scene. Ebury Press republished it in a new format in April this year and it has shot right to the top of the sales charts, much in the way that Eats, Shoots, & Leaves did a decade earlier. Whether or not this book reaches the 5-million mark a la Eats remains to be seen. But one thing is certain: if you liked Eats, Shoots, & Leaves then this book is for you; if, however, you disliked its verboseness then you may have the same feelings towards this book.
Mr NM Gwynne, as he likes to be known, came to write this book from having spent many years teaching – among other things, English, Latin, Greek, grammar, matehmatics, history and music – to pupils all around the world. His aim with the book was to give his readers the fundamentals of English grammar, which he believes is the basis of the many subjects that he has taught.
The book is divided into three parts and covers his method of teaching and learning grammar, an introduction and elements of the rules of usage as set out in the original 1918 version of Prof. Strunk's The Element's of Style (now out of copyright) as well as a section of appendices featuring definitions of grammatical terms and various adumbrated chapters on usage. The pocket format and choice of light, uncoated paper stock makes for a compact, lightweight book that can easily be carried round in a bag, etc.
Mr Gwynne takes the liberty of using up the first four chapters of the book to introduce his philosophy, outlook and method in unmistakably dogmatic style. His view is that our generation has a duty to learn as well as protect the heritage of the grammar and language that we have inherited. This approach will certainly suit "older" readers who still long for the return of the strict schoolmaster and the values that can only be instilled at a proper grammar school. Gwynne's writing is steeped in a rectitudinal style that many will find mellifluous but which others will find stultifying. Unlike the before mentioned Eats, Shoots, & Leaves, the good news is that Mr Gwynne's writing contains far less vituperation than Lynne Truss – even if his particular style of pedaguese does at times suffers from garrulity.
For those prepared to delve beneath Mr Gywnne's sonority, the fundamentals of English grammar awaits. He goes into a lot of detail about the divisions of grammar, the definitions of grammar and the eight parts of speech. His book gets right to the heart of the principles of grammar. Even the most learned of readers will find something new. For instance, Gwynne outlines the correct order of adjectives when there are more than one: "opinion–size–age–shape–colour–origin–material–purpose". He explains: "Following this rule, the book you re holding is therefore a nice little just-published oblong-shaped attractively coloured much needed paperback grammar textbook. Put those in the wrong order and the meaning breaks down". (No mention there of the need for any commas, though. But anyhoo!)
The next main section is the reproduction (with minor changes) of Prof. Strunk's The Elements of Style from 1918. This gives readers a concise lesson in composition, Plain English and style. For those who already own a version of this book (extended as Strunk and White's The Elements of Style) they will no doubt find this section is instantly superfluous. The final section is a mixed bag of lists featuring irregular verbs, special prepositions and the formation of particular plurals. The most vaulable part here is the inventory of definitions of grammatical terms.
Overall, Gwynne's Grammar fits the mould for the renaissance of old-style books and old-style writing. It does a decent job of breaking down and presenting grammar but the sonorous style may be more suited to the older reader than those used to a more modern style of writing. There will be many who love this book and I suspect that a majority of those reading it will already be familiar with the contents of the book from the start. To them I say: I have it on good authority that his follow-up book looks set to be Gywnne's Latin. His fans (fanatics, for those who prefer uncontracted words) will no doubt be clamouring for more. Well done, Mr Gwynne!
About the author
Jesse Karjalainen is the author of The Joy of English and editor of whichenglish.com.