Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The Little Words": The Close Reading of Really Small Things

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

The Little Words": The Close Reading of Really Small Things

Article excerpt

As the rake-hero Robert Lovelace says in Richardson's Clarissa (1747-48): "I have often thought, that the little words in the republic of letters, like the little folks in a nation, are the most significant" (Richardson 4:206). The "really small things" to which my title refers are the little, nameless, unremembered acts of prepositions and punctuation in the works of Samuel Richardson, Ann Radcliffe, and Jane Austen.1 The 18th century witnessed significant changes in grammar and typography, and it is worth paying as close attention to early novelists' use of really small things as one does to poets'.

Up through the 18th century, prepositions were sometimes treated as subclasses of particles, sometimes as their own part of speech, sometimes as cases, and for one 17th century grammarian, as a kind of noun.2 In general the preposition was overlooked, hustled around, dismissed, and generally belittled or ignored. The author of A Compleat Guide to the English Tongue (1708) says of adverbs, conjunctions, and prepositions: "I shall speak of these three Parts of Speech under one Head, because I han't [sic] much to say of any of them" (77). The seventh edition of Chambers's Cyclopoedia (1751) notes loftily: "F. Buffier does not allow the preposition to be a part of speech" (Chambers 2:416). As Ian Michael explains in English Grammatical Categories and the Tradition to 1800, "The function of the preposition was traditionally 'to be set before' another word; the grammarian's eye was fastened not on the preposition itself but on the word it governed" (454).

But in the second half of the 18th century, the so-called "lesser" parts of speech--along with various typographical forms--began to earn a wider respect for their agility in forming new combinations of rhetorical and visual patterns. Ian Michael analyzes the "rise of the English grammar" from the 16th through the 18th centuries, counting thirty-two in the 17th century, and 231 in the 18th--most of which appeared in the second half of the century. In 1765, James Elphinston referred to the "numberless elegancies of which every particular preposition must in its various senses and substitutions be susceptible" (qtd. in Lundskaer-Nielsen 225). In 1795, Anne Fisher (the first woman to publish an English grammar) pointed out that composite prepositions "give a peculiar Beauty, Fluency, and Elegance to our Language, by the Help of which we do all that the Greeks and Latins did" (95n). But the real powers of the preposition were most beautifully articulated by William Chauncey Fowler in his 1850 English Grammar:

Prepositions, although a secondary and less important part of speech, deserve more attention than is usually paid to them in our common grammars. They exhibit in a striking manner the analogy of the external or sensible world with the internal or intellectual. [... They] express not the substance, but the form of our ideas [... As] the mind supposes a close resemblance between the physical and intellectual worlds, so prepositions denoting the external relations are also employed to express the internal. [...] These relations arrange themselves in antitheses, forming a beautiful system; as, In and out, the only absolute relation of space. (Fowler 323)

In all language grammars, nouns are defined first because "A Noun absolute is the name of a thing" (Butler 33). "I Begin with Nouns Substantive," the 1708 Compleat Guide to the English Tongue intones rather biblically (29). It concludes with "the Use of PREPOSITIONS" (80). The 1740 edition of Thomas Dyche's A New General English Dictionary reduces the usual eight parts of grammar to four, and calls "these four Parts by the received Names of a Noun Substantive, a Noun Adjective, a Verb, and an Article" (A4v). This recalls the School of Languages in Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726), working busily to "shorten Discourse by cutting Polysyllables into one, and leaving out Verbs and Participles; because in reality all things imaginable are but Nouns" (157). …

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