Lewis Carroll was an enthusiastic and prolific letter-writer. On New Year’s Day in 1861, aged 28, he began to keep a register of the letters he sent, and the last one it records is number 98,721. The full tally, forever unknown, is probably much higher.
The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll (Macmillan Press, 1982), edited by Morton Cohen, has some items of interest on the subject of language use. For example: Writing to Edith Rix on 15 January 1886, Carroll teases her about a spelling error and about her choice of preposition after different: she uses to, but he favours – insists on – from:
Now I come to your letter dated December 22nd, and must scold you for saying that my solution of the problem was “quite different to all common ways of doing it”: if you think that’s good English, well and good; but I must beg to differ to you, and to hope you will never write me a sentence similar from this again. However, “worse remains behind”; and if you deliberately intend in future, when writing to me about one of England’s greatest poets, to call him “Shelly”, then all I can say is, that you and I will have to quarrel! Be warned in time.
Different to is perfectly fine, by the way, as is different from. Different than is criticised more than either, but it’s OK too. Caveats apply for dialect and formality; I explored these in the post ‘Different from, different than, different to’.
Out walking, he came across a boy and girl who ‘seemed to be in some trouble’. The girl had been stung by a wasp, so Carroll told them a home remedy and gave them a brief chemistry lesson into the bargain.
When I got home, I thought, “Now I won’t be so badly provided, next time I come across a stung little girl” (or a “little stung girl” – which is the best way to say it?) …
The parenthesis points to a fascinating aspect of English grammar: adjective order. Native speakers generally order adjectives intuitively, structuring a sequence at once conventional and unconscious. This article at Slate (which featured in a 2014 linkfest on Sentence first) has a good overview. Language Log visited the topic last year in response to a book excerpt by Mark Forsyth that went viral online:
… adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. So you can have a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife. But if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.
The book’s claim, of course, oversimplifies the situation.
On 10 July 1892, Carroll gave writing advice to his sister Mary. Notice his fondness for emphasis – in his letters he used underlines to convey this.
You ought not to be content, in writing for print, with grammar and punctuation which would be a little slipshod, even in a letter. Good English, and graceful arrangement, are higher qualities, not attainable by rule, but only by having read much good English, and so having got a musical “ear,” so to speak. But grammar and punctuation are matters of ordinary rule; and your tract, to put it mildly, is capable of improvement in both these particulars. If you like to send me a copy that I may mark, I will treat it as if I were correcting it for the Press; and then you will see what I mean.
He proceeds to lament the state of English, blaming journalists:
I think newspapers are largely responsible for the bad English now used in books. How few novels of the day are written in correct English! To find any such, you must go back 50 years or more. That is one reason why I like reading the older novels – Scott’s, Miss Austen’s, Miss Edgeworth’s, etc. – that the English is so perfect. We have one living novelist, whose English is lovely – Miss Thackeray. I have brought a volume of hers with me, to read a bit, now and then, and get my ear into tune, before going on with Sylvie and Bruno Concluded, which will be, I hope, my principal occupation for 3 months to come.
His date for the era of ‘correct English’ is, significantly, fifty years earlier, when he was ten. It’s a common tendency among prescriptivists to hark back to a golden age of English prose which often coincides, funnily enough, with the time of their childhood instruction in the language’s formal style.
More excerpts from Lewis Carroll’s letters can be found in this Twitter thread (his difficulty remembering names, his avoidance of society) and in a Tumblr post on the mathematics of reconciling after a quarrel.
Finally, the passage below shows him equivocating over book titles. Instead of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland we could have ended up with Alice Among the Goblins.