Lewis Carroll, prescriptivist

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’.


Book cover of The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll, edited by Morton N. Cohen, featuring a colour photo of Carroll seated at his desk, facing right, holding a pen above a notebook and pagesCarroll’s fastidious feelings about language reappear in a letter to Enid Stevens, 13 September 1893, in which he describes ‘a little adventure’.

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.

[archive of posts on prescriptivism]

11 Responses to Lewis Carroll, prescriptivist

  1. David Jodrey says:

    Although Carroll’s 1889 novel Sylvie and Bruno earned its obscurity, there is a gem in it — “The Mad Gardener’s Song”. In one verse Carroll foresaw the metastasis of the financial sector from its proper role, as a facilitator of business activity, to its current position in which it is eating everyone’s lunch:

    He thought he saw a Banker’s Clerk
    Descending from the bus:

    He looked again, and found it was
    A Hippopotamus:

    “If this should stay to dine,” he said, “There won’t be much for us!”

    • Stan Carey says:

      It’s many years since I read it, and your excerpt has given me an appetite for more. I’ll revisit it one of these days (or, more likely, years).

  2. “That is one reason why…”? My mother (long dead, but when alive master’s in English, English teacher) drilled into my head, “The reason is not ‘why’; the reason is ‘THAT.'” True or false?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Either is fine. Prescriptivists often object to “the reason why” for its redundancy, but there’s nothing grammatically wrong with it. Even the conservative usage panel at the American Heritage Dictionary accepts it, in the main.

      • Mr. Carey – is “the reason why” strictly redundant? After all, “the reason why not” is a perfectly valid construction. Clearly, “the reason” as an expression renders the trailing “why” superfluous – but not strictly redundant. Hey, am I echoing the great Lewis Carroll’s persnicketiness? An honor to be in such company.

        • Oh, and “the reason not” does not strike me as adequate.

          • Sherry Roth says:

            The reason [that] something is, or the reason [that] something is not. The reason is also not “because.” The reason I am questioning this is ‘that’ (NOT ‘BECAUSE’) my mother drilled this into my skull. The reason is not that I care one way or the other. However, my mother would say, the reason is not ‘why.’ You were not allowed to say, “The reason why I am questioning this…” Nor could you say “The reason is because…” Just sayin’.

        • Stan Carey says:

          It’s redundant inasmuch as redundant can mean ‘superfluous’, since why can be omitted from a phrase like “one reason why I like reading the older novels” without any loss of information or communicative nuance. In another sense (the strict one you mention), it’s not redundant; Jonathon Owen has a good post on the reason why that’s so.

  3. astraya says:

    I am moderately convinced that ‘different from’ is the better choice – if one *wants* to or *has* to choose. But I have just searched my draft document of blog posts (most of which ends up on my blog but some is still a work in progress) and found seven relevant occurrences of ‘different ____’. Three are ‘different from NP’ and four are ‘different than’ – three are ‘different from NP’ and the fourth is ‘ejectives (which are different sounds than in Korean)’. Is this standard English? I certainly can’t write ‘different sounds from in Korean’.

    That said, I am still moderately convinced that ‘different from’ is the *better* choice (also bearing in mind the usage of ‘different than CLAUSE’ which you discussed in your previous post).

    At least I never use ‘different to’.

    • Stan Carey says:

      Different from is the most widely accepted, so it’s a good default unless your dialect favours another. I think I use all three, but mainly different from.

  4. […] linguistic style was a curious mix of playful and rigorous; for all his inventiveness he could also be prescriptive about English usage. But then he was never one to […]

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