Noah Webster

If you’re an American, you probably know that “Webster’s” is a synonym for “dictionary.” The first important American dictionary was published in 1828 by Noah Webster, an avid student of language. His name is still used by some publishers today even though their dictionaries have no connection to Noah Webster.

But Webster is more interesting than I expected! I was surprised to learn that Webster was a friend of Alexander Hamilton (the subject of the popular Broadway play Hamilton).  In 1793, Hamilton and and other Federalists persuaded Webster to start a  journal – The American Minerva – in New York City. (My source is Rosemarie Ostler’s marvelous book Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War over Words Shaped Today’s Language.)

Of course I knew that Webster persuaded Americans to drop the “u” in colour, honour, and flavour. (Thank you, Noah!). What I didn’t know is that he was a grammar reformer as well – or at least he tried to reform our grammar.

Webster’s reform project is just a footnote in the history of the English language – but I think it’s worth noting. For many years I believed that English was as strong as an iron-clad ship. The rules are the rules, and no one dared to challenge them.

The truth is that many people – including Webster – have tried to tinker with our grammar. Some (Lindley Murray, for example) were successful. But most – including Noah Webster – failed in their attempts to change the rules of English.

Here’s the story, according to Rosemarie Ostler (page 65):

He insists that when you refers to only one person, the following verb should be was. Referring to the trend toward replacing thee and thou with you, he argues, “If a word, once exclusively plural, becomes by universal use the sign of individuality, it must take its place singular number.” Webster backs up his argument with example from print sources, including contemporary court transcripts—”Was you there when the gun was fired?”

In Webster’s opinion, it’s only a matter of time before this use becomes completely acceptable. He says, “The compilers of grammar condemn the use of was with you—but in vain. The practice is universal, except among men who learn the language by books.”

Webster was wrong about you was. It was fairly common in his day, but became increasingly unacceptable as time went on. Standard grammar books continued to reject it, with Webster’s other pet usages.  

As I said, this is just a footnote in the history of English. But I think it matters. How often do you hear someone say “You was”? I hear it all the time. (I once had a former student excitedly greet me with “You was my English teacher!”)

Webster heard “you was” so often that he thought the rule should be changed – and he had a point. “Was” is the correct verb when you’re talking about a single person or thing – “Mr. Paulson was my English teacher.” Our you were rule is an anomaly.

But I think there’s an important takeaway from all this. Everyone knows how hard it is to break a habit. You was (and other usages that have been around for hundreds of years) are here to stay, whether we like them or not.

There’s no need to panic when someone says ain’t or uses the singular they. The sky isn’t falling. The language isn’t dying. It ain’t going nowhere.

Dictionary with an magnifying glass on top


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