The Last of the Murderous Umayyad Grammarians

He presents, for example, the terrifying al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, the murderous Umayyad governor, as famed for his dazzling eloquence as for his brutality (he began his career as a grammar teacher).

Review of “Arabs” by Tim Mackintosh-Smith, The Wall Street Journal

“Just over the horizon, a participle is dangling–I can sense it.”


We had been on the run for many days, or rather nights.  The desert was too hot when the sun was out, so we traveled only between sundown and sunup, my fellow anti-grammarians and I.

We were apostates from a prescriptive grammarian sect–when our detractors referred to us as The Descriptivists, they always did so with a sneer.  “And where did you learn that you could end a sentence with a preposition–from a beggar in the streets of Damascas?  Pah!”  That nonce word “pah”–it meant nothing but contempt.

“No!” we would retort energetically.  “From Winston Churchill, the Westerner who knew the Middle East better than any other, who mocked your stupid rule by saying ‘This is the type of errant pedantry up with which I will not put.’”

That would shut them up, but it was better to keep the Umayyads talking, because when they stopped talking it was usually to draw their swords and decapitate you for violating one of the sacred tenets of their peculiar grammar-based religion.  They took everything so seriously.

“Did you hear that?  Someone split an infinitive–go get him!”


Our crime?  Well, which one do you want to talk about first?  How about “It’s me”?  We say it all the time when one of the Umayyad governors asks “Who’s there?”  It drives the grammatico-fascists crazy.  “You mean “it is I,” they say, and we say check the Beloved Bard of Avon, Shakespeare.  He used “That’s me.”  That puts them in their place, or to be hyper-precise about it, their respective places.  At least for a while.

“Somebody started a sentence with a conjunction!”


We are many in number, but our numbers are no match for the passionate intensity of the worst, to borrow a notion from Yeats’ The Second Coming.  We know we’re right, which makes us the best and, as Yeats said, the best lack all conviction.  We could use a little of the dogmatists’ conviction; they’d rather be right than shut up, while we’d rather just–you know–talk.  The Umayyad Prescriptivists won’t rest until the heads of the infinitive-splitters have been lopped off.

And so we flee from them and their disproportionate anger–they’re just words, and phrases, and clauses, and sentences, not things that live and love and die.  “Everyone has their pet peeve,” we start to say to them, but they cut us off: “Everyone has his or her pet peeve.”  You can’t win with those wing-nuts.

H.L. Mencken

But sometimes they radicalize a home-grown grammatical terrorist under our very roofs–mothers-in-law and maiden aunts are particularly susceptible to the siren-song of grammar fascism.  “Me and him are friends,” we’ll say, and they’ll shout “You mean ‘He and I are friends’ because nominative form blodda blodda blodda.”  I mean, they say that without the blodda blodda blodda part, I’m sparing you the rest of their hidebound argument.

At this point, verbal daggers are drawn and we resort to the ultimate descriptive grammarian weapon: H.L. Mencken, The American Language, 1937 ed., p. 456.  We draw ourselves up to our full 5′ 11″ height and say “The nominative, in the subject relation, takes the usual nominative form only when it is in immediate contact with its verb!”

Not as catchy as “Allahu Akbar,” but it has its charms.

Share this Post:

One thought on “The Last of the Murderous Umayyad Grammarians”

Comments are closed.