Good English

Good English

One of the most famous ads of all time began, "Do you make these mistakes in English?" and went on to list several:

  • "Leave them lay there."
  • "Mary was invited as well as myself."
  • "between you and I"

The ad, which appeared in newspapers, magazines and even comic books for more than 40 years, was written by a man named Sherwin Cody, who was selling a corres- pondence course. The man, the ad and the course are the subjects of a new book by a professor of English at Southern Oregon University.

"Do You Make These Mistakes in English? The Story of Sherwin Cody's Famous School," by Ed Battistella (Oxford University Press, 224 pages, cloth, $29.95), is the story of one of the most ubiquitous correspondence courses ever.

One of the founders of modern business communication, Cody stumbled into the field by accident in 1903, then went on to publish some 200 books on selling by mail, advertising, commercial testing, business education, correspondence courses and improving communications.

Battistella says that Cody's English course stood alongside the Harvard Classics and the Book of the Month Club as "one of the ways that ordinary people tried to get ahead."

In the early 1900s, American language was in danger of being taken over by the businessman, the manager and the professional. By the 1930s, people were clipping coupons to order "Sherwin Cody's 100 percent Self-correcting Course in the English Language" through the mail.

The ads said that proper speech and writing were "a trademark of good breeding," and Cody had them for sale. He promised he would improve his students' speaking and writing in just 15 minutes a day.

"You do not need to study anything you already know," the ads promised. "There are no rules to memorize."

Linguist Battistella places Cody in the cultural history of his times, showing how he became a businessman-writer-entrepreneur and who coined phrases such as "Good Money in Good English." Battistella writes that Cody was part of a larger shift in American attitudes beginning early in the 20th century as self-reliance morphed into self-improvement.

Using Cody's course as a reference, he also examines the ethic reflected in such products as The Harvard Classics, The Book-of-the-Month Club, The U.S. School of Music, "The Book of Etiquette" and even the Charles Atlas and Dale Carnegie courses. The results are provocative not only in terms of language usage but as social history.

For more, go to oup.com.

Reach reporter Bill Varble at 776-4478, or e-mail bvarble@mailtribune.com.

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