Every once in a while, I encounter a grammar rule from long ago that is so ridiculous that at first I think it is a joke. This one is a doozy.
Lindley Murray was a retired lawyer who, in the late 1700s, decided to write about grammar. His books were exceedingly popular in both Britain and America, having sold more than 15 million copies by 1840, and he is credited with further popularizing many of the grammatical theories put forth by his predecessors such as Robert Lowth. For example, his popular books promoted the notion that you shouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition, which is a notion that is not supported by grammarians today.
Murray's Outlandish Idea
Grammar books, like so many other things, are a product of their time and culture, and back in the late 1700s, people thought about children very differently than they do today.
In pondering when to use who and when to use that, Murray reached the conclusion that we shouldn’t use the word who to refer to babies because they aren’t rational beings. He wrote, “We hardly consider little children as persons, because that term gives us the idea of reason and reflection, and therefore the application of the personal pronoun who, in this case, seems to be harsh.” He specifically recommends against writing “A child who…” He then goes on to note that who is “still more improperly applied to animals.”
Like Other Ideas, Some Grammar Rules Change With the Times
Many of the things that people think of as grammar rules today come from Lowth and Murray, and I think this most outrageous example helps us to realize that these ideas came from fallible men who were writing a long time ago and with very specific points of view. Although there may have been a logic behind the rules—Murray certainly had a reasoning for his don’t-use-who-for-children rule—it’s not always a logic that holds up or that we would choose to embrace today. Further, when you go back and actually look at the text from Murray’s English Grammar in scanned documents, you immediately get a sense of how long ago and how different the language really was.
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