Letter by Thomas Jeffreson To John Waldo

Monticello, August 16, 1813

SIR, — Your favor of March 27th came during my absence on a journey of some length. It covered your “Rudiments of English Grammar,” for which I pray you to accept my thanks. This acknowledgment of it has been delayed, until I could have time to give the work such a perusal as the avocations to which I am subject would permit. In the rare and short intervals which these have allotted me, I have gone over with pleasure a considerable part, although not yet the whole of it.

But I am entirely unqualified to give that critical opinion of it which you do me the favor to ask. Mine has been a life of business, of that kind which appeals to a man’s conscience, as well as his industry, not to let it suffer, and the few moments allowed me from labor have been devoted to more attractive studies, that of grammar having never been a favorite with me. The scanty foundation, laid in at school, has carried me through a life of much hasty writing, more indebted for styleto reading and memory, than to rules of grammar. I have been pleased to see that in all cases you appeal to usage, as the arbiter of language; and justly consider that as giving law to grammar, and not grammar to usage. I concur entirely with you in opposition to Purists, who would destroy all strength and beauty of style, by subjecting it to a rigorous compliance with their rules. Fill up all the ellipses and syllepses of Tacitus, Sallust, Livy, &c., and the elegance and force of their sententious brevity are extinguished.

“Auferre, trucidare, rapere, falsis nominibus, imperium appellant.” “Deorum injurias, diis curae.” “Allieni appetens, sui profusus; ardens in cupiditatibus; satis loquentiae, sapientiae parum.” “Annibal peto pacem.” “Per diem Sol non uret te, neque Luna per noctem.” Wire- draw these expressions by filling up the whole syntax and sense, and they become dull paraphrases on rich sentiments. We may say then truly with Quinctilian, “Aliud est Grammatic, aliud Latin loqui.” I am no friend, therefore, to what is called Purism, but a zealous one to the Neology which has introduced these two words without the authority of any dictionary. I consider the one as destroying the nerve and beauty of language, while the otherimproves both, and adds to its copiousness. I have been not a little disappointed, and made suspicious of my own judgment, on seeing the Edinburgh Reviews, the ablest critics of the age, set their faces against the introduction of new words into the English language; they are particularly apprehensive that the writers of the United States will adulterate it. Certainly so great growing a population, spread over such an extent of country, with such a variety of climates, of productions, of arts, must enlarge their language, to make it answer its purpose of expressing all ideas, the new as well as the old. The new circumstances under which we are placed, call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects. An American dialect will therefore be formed; so will a West-Indian and Asiatic, as a Scotch and an Irish are already formed. But whether will these adulterate, or enrich the English language? Has the beautiful poetry of Burns, or his Scottish dialect, disfigured it? Did the Athenians consider the Doric, the Ionian, the Aeolic, and other dialects, as disfiguring or as beautifying their language? Did they fastidiously disavow Herodotus, Pindar, Theocritus, Sappho, Alcaeus, or Grecian writers? On the contrary, they were sensible that the variety of dialects, still infinitely varied by poetical license, constituted the riches of their language, and made the Grecian Homer the first of poets, as he must ever remain, until a language equally ductile and copious shall again be spoken.

Every language has a set of terminations, which make a part of its peculiar idiom. Every root among the Greeks was permitted to vary its termination, so as to express its radical idea in the form of any one of the parts of speech; to wit, as a noun, an adjective, a verb, participle, or adverb; and each of these parts of speech again, by still varying the termination,could vary the shade of idea existing in the mind.

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It was not, then, the number of Grecian roots (for some other languages may have as many) which made it the most copious of the ancient languages; but the infinite diversification which each of these admitted. Let the same license be allowed in English, the roots of which, native and adopted, are perhaps more numerous, and its idiomatic terminations more various than of the Greek, and see what the language would become. Its idiomatic terminations are: —

Subst. Gener-ation — ator; degener-acy; gener- osity — ousness — alship — alissimo; king-dom — ling; joy-ance; enjoy-er — ment; herb-age — alist; sanct-uary — imony — itude; royal-ism; lamb-kin; child-hood; bishop-ric; proceed-ure; horseman-ship; worthi-ness.

Adj. Gener-ant — ative — ic — ical — able — ous — al; joy-ful — less — some; herb-y; accous-escent — ulent; child- ish; wheat-en.

Verb. Gener-ate — alize.

Part. Gener-ating — ated.

Adv. Gener-al — ly.

I do not pretend that this is a complete list of all the terminations of the two languages. It is as much so as a hasty recollection suggests, and the omissions are as likely to be to the disadvantage of the one as the other. If it be a full, or equally fair enumeration, the English are the double of the Greek terminations.

But there is still another source of copiousness more abundant than that of termination. It is the composition of the root, and of every member of its family, 1, with prepositions, and 2, with other words. The prepositions used in the composition of Greek words are: —

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Now multiply each termination of a family into every preposition, and how prolific does it make each root! But the English language, besides its own prepositions, about twenty in number, which it compounds with English roots, uses those of the Greek for adopted Greek roots, and of the Latin for Latin roots. The English prepositions, with examples of their use, are a, as in a-long, a-board, a- thirst, a-clock; be, as in be-lie; mis, as in mis-hap; these being inseparable. The separable, with examples, are above-cited, after-thought, gain-say, before-hand, fore- thought, behind-hand, by-law, for-give, fro-ward, in-born, on-set, over-go, out-go, thorough-go, under-take, up-lift, with-stand. Now let us see what copiousness this would produce, were it allowed to compound every root and its family with every preposition, where both sense and sound would be in its favor. Try it on an English root, the verb “to place,” Anglo Saxon plaece, (note-Letters-5, see page 1300) for instance, and the Greek and Latin roots, of kindred meaning, adopted in English, to wit, {thesis} and locatio, with their prepositions.Johnson derives “place” from the French “place,” an open square in a town. But its northern parentage is visible in its syno-nime platz, Teutonic, and plattse, Belgic, both of which signify locus, and the Anglo-Saxon plaece, platea, vicus.


amphi-thesis a-location inter-location

after-place ana-thesis ab-location intro- location

gain-place anti-thesis abs-location juxta- location

fore-place apo-thesis al-location ob-location

hind-place dia-thesis anti-location per- location


ek-thesis circum-location post-location


en-thesis cis-location pre-location


epi-thesis col-location preter-location


cata-thesis contra-location pro-location


para-thesis de-location retro-location

over-place peri-thesis di-location re-location


pro-thesis dis-location se-location

thorough-place pros-thesis e-location sub-location

under-place syn-thesis ex-location super- location


hyper-thesis extra-location trans-location

with-place hypo-thesis il-location ultra- location

Some of these compounds would be new; but all present distinct meanings, and the synonisms of the three languages offer a choice of sounds to express the same meaning; add to this, that in some instances, usage has authorized the compounding an English root with a Latin preposition, as in de-place, dis-place, re-place. This example may suffice to show what the language would become, in strength, beauty, variety, and every circumstance which gives perfection to language, were it permitted freely to draw from all its legitimate sources.

The second source of composition is of one family of roots with another. The Greek avails itself of this most abundantly, and beautifully. The English once did it freely, while in its Anglo-Saxon form, e. g. boc- craeft, book-craft, learning, riht-Zeleaf-full, right-belief-ful, orthodox. But it has lost by desuetude much of this branch of composition, which it is desirable however to resume.

If we wish to be assured from experiment of the effect of a judicious spirit of Neology, look at the French language. Even before the revolution, it was deemed much more copious than the English; at a time, too, when they had an academy which endeavored to arrest the progress of their language, by fixing it to a Dictionary, out of which no word was ever to be sought, used, or tolerated. The institution of parliamentary assemblies in 1789, for which their language had no opposite terms or phrases, as having never before needed them, first obliged them to adopt the Parliamentary vocabulary of England; and other new circumstances called for corresponding new words; until by the number of these adopted, and by the analogies for adoption which they have legitimated, I think we may say with truth that a Dictionaire Neologique of these would be half as large as the dictionary of the academy; and that at this time it is the language in which every shade of idea, distinctly perceived by the mind, may be more exactly expressed, than in any language at this day spoken by man. Yet I have no hesitation in saying that the English language is founded on a broader base, native and adopted, and capable, with the like freedom of employing its materials, of becoming superior to that in copiousness and euphony. Not indeed by holding fast to Johnson’s Dictionary; not by raising a hue and cry against every word he has not licensed; but by encouraging and welcoming new compositions of its elements. Learn from Lye and Benson what the language would now have been if restrained to their vocabularies. Its enlargement must be the consequence, to a certain degree, of its transplantation from the latitude of London into every climate of the globe; and the greater the degree the more precious will it become as the organ of the development of the human mind.

These are my visions on the improvement of the English language by a free use of its faculties. To realize them would require a course of time. The example of good writers, the approbation of men of letters, the judgment of sound critics, and of none more than of the Edinburgh Reviewers, would give it a beginning, and once begun, its progress might be as rapid as it has been in France, where we see what a period of only twenty years has effected. Under the auspices of British science and example it might commence with hope. But the dread of innovation there, and especially of any example set by France, has, I fear, palsied the spirit of improvement.Here, where all is new, no innovation is feared which offersgood. But we have no distinct class of literati in our country. Every man is engaged in some industrious pursuit, and science is but a secondary occupation, always subordinate to the main business of his life. Few therefore of those who are qualified, have leisure to write. In time it will be otherwise. In the

meanwhile, necessity obliges us to neologize. And should the language of England continue stationary, we shall probably enlarge our employment of it, until its new character may separate it in name as well as in power, from the mother-tongue.

Although the copiousness of a language may not in strictness make a part of its grammar, yet it cannot be deemed foreign to a general course of lectures on its structure and character; and the subject having been presented to my mind by the occasion of your letter, I have indulged myself in its speculation, and hazarded to you what has occurred, with the assurance of my great respect.

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