Posted by: mattcolvin | July 17, 2013

Lewis on the Effect of Classics on English Style

I gave my mother a difficult time when I was a 12-year-old learning Latin, and she has never let me live it down, though I have recanted many times over. (Moreover, the sins of the father are visited upon the son, for my own Ezekiel is a bellyaching and footdragging resister until about 10 minutes into his Latin lessons with me, when he resigns himself to his fate and starts translating like a natural.)

As an offering to my mother’s penates, allow me to present C.S. Lewis on another of the benefits of learning Latin and Greek:


[A recent report about the teaching of English] believes that “any teacher” in the course of teaching his own special subject can teach clear and logical English. The view would have been plausible when the oldest of those who made the Report were themselves at school. For then all teachers had been trained in the Classics. The results of that discipline on English style were not, it is true, so good as is often claimed, but it removed at least the worst barbarisms. Since then the Classics have almost been routed. Unless English, seriously studied, succeeds to their place, the English which “any teacher” inculcates in the course of teaching something else will be at best the reflection of his favourite newspaper and at worst the technical jargon of his own subject. – C.S. Lewis, “Is English Doomed?”


Thus Jack. An instance of what he is talking about: I was tickled today when one of my Latin students correctly used “if he had been drinking” in a past contrary-to-fact conditional sentence. I can’t claim credit for this accomplishment, since we haven’t reached pluperfect and imperfect subjunctives yet in her class. Yet it immediately jumped out at me as a symptom of the “doom” of English that Lewis speaks of. Most English speakers have no idea what is the right way to say such a thought. They jumble various auxiliary verbs together and produce a solecism I call, not the “future less vivid,” but the “past potential damned unclear”: namely, “If he would have been drinking…”

Now, the student in question is from a family with British ancestry, so perhaps the correct construction came more naturally to her than it does to Americans. Be that as it may, I submit that the past contrafactual conditional is a very difficult construction for an entire nation of Latin-less English-speakers to maintain, so that the loss of the construction in the daughter country has proceeded at a faster rate than its demise in her mother, which still had Latin as the core of its education more recently.

This is not a mere matter of high-falutin style. It affects one’s ability to express clearly what one is thinking, viz. to delimit just when the action of the “if” clause is conceived as occurring or not occurring; to state (without any need for an additional negative) that it did not occur; and finally to explain what relation the “then” clause bears to the “if” clause.

Unfortunately, even the Classicists have now abandoned Lewis’ idea that the study of Latin and Greek will improve a man’s clarity and strength of thought. They are probably correct, but only because they have made a self-fulfilling prophecy. It is not honesty, but abdication: they have disavowed that they have any duty to shape the English of their students by their teaching of the Classics, and they thereby contribute to the self-immolation of their own discipline. Quis puniet istos custodes ignavos?

Lewis was concerned about English teachers inculcating the style of their “favourite newspapers”. What must he think of the influence of the internet on English prose?

Jack has just finished facepalming while reading another essay by a Latinless undergraduate.

Jack has just finished “facepalming” while reading another essay by a Latinless undergraduate.


  1. Jack was fortunate not to have lived to see internet postings, but unfortunate to have passed away the same day as Jack Kennedy and to have had his death virtually unrecognized as a result.

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