The Dream Vaults of Opar


Even the Worthy Edgar

    “Perhaps, endowed as he was with supersensitive perceptive faculties, Tarzan should have sensed the presence of an enemy; but ‘Even the worthy Homer sometimes nods,’” Edgar Rice Burroughs tells us in the opening chapter of Tarzan and the City of Gold. That quotation is especially interesting if you know that there was a school of thought in the ancient world that revered Homer not only as the greatest of poets and a font of wisdom and enlightenment in all areas of knowledge, but as incapable of artistic error. These scholars argued that there could be no flaws in Homer’s work other than those introduced by faulty transmission and transcription, because Homer personified artistic perfection.
     In the last mailing I was taken to task for suggesting that ERB had committed minor errors of grammar in his use of the past perfect tense. “I must take issue,” Tyler wrote, with the “use of the term wrong in reference to the grammar of ERB.”
     Despite what my colleague would have us think, English grammar is not merely a collection of outdated, arbitrary rules promulgated by a bunch of fuddy-duddy know-it-alls who enjoy pointing out the shortcomings of others. Nor is it “a set of archaic, unbending rules that inhibit the natural flexibility of our language.” While it is true that early grammarians employed Latin models, the time has long since passed when any authority on the subject would consider it automatically wrong to split an infinitive or to end a sentence with a preposition. (More to the point, no one has accused ERB of either of those red herrings!)
     English grammar is the study of the way our language works at various levels of usage—formal and informal written English, formal and informal spoken English, regional English, dialectal, and other varieties of the language. The rules are neither arbitrary nor frozen. They are guidelines derived by the same methodology that compilers of dictionaries use to determine the standard spellings and definitions of words—analysis of actual usage at these different language levels. And just as dictionaries are updated, so too are grammars.
    While just about everyone accepts the notions of correctly and incorrectly spelled words and standardized punctuation, some people get their egalitarian hackles ruffled by the idea of incorrect grammar. Correct spelling is readily accessible to most literate people. One need only flip open a dictionary. To establish if a sentence is grammatically correct, however, one often has to work considerably harder, analyzing the sentence in light of the applicable rules. Not everyone is capable of doing this. That fault, however, lies not with evil, elitist grammarians, but with life itself, which is not, never has been, and never will be fair in its distribution of abilities.
     Correct grammar is not subjective. Virtually any native speaker of English over the age of six will agree that the sentences “Him hitted he” and “Whom is it?” are grammatically wrong. Barring some special circumstance, no native speaker would phrase such sentences. When people disparage correct grammar, what they are usually saying is that anything that doesn’t bother them shouldn’t be considered a mistake. (But should a misspelled word be considered correct merely because it doesn’t bother a particular reader, or even most readers?)
     Tyler is certainly right when he writes, “And if an author judges that communication is best served by deviating from some grammatical rule, then grammar be damned!” But that’s been the accepted view at least since Shakespeare, who had a wonderful time substituting nouns for verbs and playing with the language in just about every way. I am reminded of a comment made shortly after the death of Elvis Presley by a musician who had worked with that singer. He pointed out that despite an impressive vocal range of two and a half octaves and something approaching perfect pitch, Elvis was perfectly willing to sing off-key when he thought the song required it. Those off-key notes were art—when sung that way on purpose. Otherwise, they were mistakes.
     It is also correct that ERB “masterfully used the English language in a conversational story-telling style,” but not in The Land that Time Forgot, which is written (with occasional exceptions, such as use of the slang word Boche) in quite formal English (reread the opening paragraph if you doubt this!) and attempts throughout to adhere to the standards and grammar appropriate to that style of writing.
     In the first half of this century, the charge that a book contained poor grammar was a very serious one indeed. It could be the difference between a writer being taken seriously or being dismissed as unworthy of consideration.
     ERB understood this. In his earliest letters to his editors, both at Munsey and McClurg, he expressed his concern that because he had never formally studied English grammar in school, his use of the language might be flawed in this regard. He repeatedly requested that any grammatical mistakes he committed be corrected. To his dismay, his editors either failed to follow his instructions or followed them less than conscientiously. In the case of McClurg, this is particularly significant. McClurg failed to provide the careful editing that would have been afforded any “serious” book published in that era by a major publisher. This suggests that they held ERB, the wildly imaginative fiction he wrote, and his readers in something less than the highest esteem.
     To summarize: 1) To the best of my knowledge as a student of grammar (but not an expert), the constructions in contention are not, and have not been in the past, standard usage in formal or informal written English. They are not even recognized variations in conversational English. 2) They do not occur in dialogue, nor can they be excused as the phrasings of the first person narrator, whose prose is grammatically correct in virtually every other instance. 3) There is no reason to believe that ERB intentionally violated conventional grammar, or that he was even aware that he had employed a nonstandard usage. In other words, they show every indication of simply being mistakes. The examples I quoted are quite minor—much less significant than ERB's occasional problems with who and whom—but however minor they may be, they are at least as wrong as misspelled words would be in their places.
     Even the worthy Edgar sometimes nods.
—May 30, 1992

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Copyright © 1999 Patrick H. Adkins. All rights reserved.