Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 31. Richard Grant White

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXV. Scholars

§ 31. Richard Grant White

Richard Grant White (1821–85), who will demand attention later as one of the outstanding American editors of Shakespeare, having in the late sixties contributed to a periodical a number of articles on English usage, published them in a volume as Words and Their Uses (1870). A second series, Every Day English, appeared in 1880. In these books, White, of New England Brahmin stock, made up for having been accidentally born in New York by exhibiting all the linguistic and racial prejudices of Boston. He attached to English usage an alluring and a threatening social sanction, which helps partly to explain his popularity. His prohibition of certain forms of speech is “exclusiveness” in linguistic disguise; and the uninstructed reader felt—for White told him so—that he should probably be beyond the social pale even if he obeyed White, but should certainly be if he did not. Social distinction was thus the prize which White offered, with a precariousness that rendered it only the more attractive. It soon became evident that he had not sufficiently studied the history of some of the locutions which he condemned—“had rather,” “reliable,” and “is being built,” for example; but when taken to task for setting up personal preferences as if they were established by weight of usage, he would amiably deprecate authority, delicately implying that his opponent was of course learned, but a pedant. White’s more relevant defence was that historical usage afforded after all only the raw material from which present writers and speakers might choose, exercising by way of principles of selection both taste—especially in the direction of simplicity—and reason, to which White thought usage tended continually to approach.