Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.01.20


The Wheelock Crisis


Many of us who have used Wheelock for the last few decades were taken quite by surprise when our students turned up with fresh copies of a large-format glossy-covered text discouragingly titled Wheelock's Latin Grammar, now under the imprint of Harper Collins. Nearly everyone who has used this aging champion of the Latin wars has hoped for a fourth edition that will free us not only from the errors, inconsistencies, anachronisms, sexisms ("Luck gives beauty to many girls", "Gloria puellarum erat et est et semper erit forma"), and miscellaneous inconveniences like the use of words like poeta, nauta, and ager in sentences or donum as paradigms, when the words are never given in vocabularies, the strange division of diphthongs to indicate accent (e.g. po'ena, pa'uci); all problems that each semester await our befuddled excuses. According to the APA's "Greek and Latin Textbook Survey," few of us really like the text, called "the best of a poor selection," but the survey also notes that it is the textbook of choice for half the institutions that responded to the survey (60 schools), the next closest being Moreland and Fleischer, used at ten.

The new title does a real disservice. This is not a barebones set of rules and examples is, but a tried-and-true self-teacher for adults, long field tested in the classroom (unlike many texts written today for modern languages). Wheelock's goal was not a grammar but a teacher for the kind of audience more and more of us now face: "... a book which provides both the roots and at least some of the literary fruits of a sound Latin experience for those who will have only one year of Latin in their entire educational career, and a book which at the same time provides adequate introduction and encouragement for those who plan to continue their studies in the field" (vii). Thus there is probably one-fifth the vocabulary of Jenney-Scudder I. But for 1956, the date of the first edition, the amount of real Latin employed at the entry level is as remarkable as his choices are personal: an amazing aversion to myth (not a single mythological story or character), a consuming love of Cicero (27 of the prose selections, as opposed to 11 for Pliny and 6 for Nepos), and dull jokes (p. 203) make one wish that Balme could have contributed the passages. Even Wheelock's limited vocabulary drives students round the bend: bellum and bellusare given in the same chapter, for example. But Wheelock has the great advantage that has kept Jenney-Scudder (ultimately derived from Minnie Smith's First Latin Lessons 1907) alive for so long: the author and his method are invisible; the teacher is free to impose his/her own personality on the lessons.

Champions and detractors alike have prayed for a fourth edition, but the old chestnut about answered prayers has come true: this edition is a major disaster that will profoundly affect the teaching of Latin at the college level in this country. A blurb on the back announces that this book is part of "an all-new, in-depth series." None of Wheelock's errors or inconsistencies has been changed, the readings have not been increased nor have new notes been added to clarify old confusions. What is new? Well, for one thing, the format, which is atrocious: vocabulary is sprawled across the page rather than listed in twin columns, conjugations are presented with singulars on one page and plurals on the next (89-90, 97-8) and, most irritating, footnotes giving important information or vocabulary have been replaced by endnotes, unnecessarily complicating the student's job. But the chief contribution of this edition is a fatal number of errors. To say that this book has typos is to say that Rome has cats. From the title page, where Wheelock's Christian name is misspelled, to the back cover, which announces "Loci Anitiqui," we have the sloppiest production I have ever seen in any book released for public consumption, much less educational purposes. Clearly no one who knew one word of Latin had anything to do with putting this book together. To look only at the first ten chapters, we find that Chapter 1 gives us "laudat" (with a circumflex on the a), Chapter 3 "puerrum" and "agrrum," Chapter 4 strange double accents ("donorum" with acute on both o's and "consiliorum" with acute on the first i and on the o); Chapter 5 the sentences "Individiam populi Romani non sustinebis," and "Daveniam filio nostro," "Vita est supplcium"; Chapter 6 "tolerre"; Chapter 7 "laboraty" and "balabor" as cognates of labor and "sapeintiamque"; Chapter 8 gives the present of ducere as "ducu" in the paradigm chart [with circumflex on both u's] and "doco" in the vocabulary [yes, circumflexes on both o's: the infinitive is "duere" on p. 45); Chapter 9 "huis" "coservare," and the sentence, "tum me totum me totum philosophiae dabo"; Chapter 10 "isidiarum", "cicere" for "dicere", and so on and so on. The chart illustrating the plural of is on p. 49 is not lined up in columns and contains the forms "e-acute" (as fem. nom. sing. & neut. nom & acc. pl.). Imagine the effect on a class asked to read a sentence like "non ille dii vixit sed dii fuit" (56) or a vocabulary item "muto -re, -vi, -tum" (72) or "a'eta, aettis" or the forms ductus, auditus and captus, presented as "perfect active participles" (107).

The culprit here is corporate greed and inept high technology. Wheelock's text, matured for years, appears to have been crudely scanned either vocally or optically into a machine, set very unprofessionally (words are badly spaced, kerning does not exist and widowed or orphaned vocabulary items abound) and finally, obviously unproofread in the desire to get out another product in this "all-new series," pasted together so quickly that the only paragraph of text added by the publishers refers to "abbreviations in this catalog" rather than "book" (p. ix), a paragraph obviously lifted without even the slightest adaptation from another source. My guess is that it was somehow read orally into a machine by someone who knew no Latin, who looked at expectabant and read "exapectabant" (73) and made similar errors with "individiam" and the examples given above. The poor machine could not tell the difference between "facturis sit" (143), "anumus", or "vaciam" and their correct spellings. The result is an important disaster: This book is completely unusable and all across the country Wheelock's faithful if grousing users, will now scuttle to find a new textbook for next semester. This news should principally cheer Moreland and Fleischer, but also Patricia Johnston, Robert Ball, and others trying to crack the college Latin audience.

I and my students have cursed the late Professor Wheelock time and again, but this book is a curse he does not deserve. He did the teaching of Latin in this country a great service by giving us a reliable college text that could be used for 40 years with relatively little change; a classic of its kind. He has now been undone by a combination of the machine age and the corporate mentality, both of which have operated in unforgivable incompetence. The cover shows somewhat appropriately a crudely half-finished replica of a classic structure sitting on a worn and fragile pedestal. Those who have placed Wheelock both on and under a pedestal these many years will agree that he does not deserve this squalid treatment; his book should die, if it must, with dignity. It has been a long and useful life for this war-horse and the history of this book should be a lesson to us all, for as this volume might put it, libli sa fatae habbnt.

Ward Briggs
University of South Carolina
2 March 1992


You should by now have received twenty previous numbered BMCR items from volume 3, number 1, shipped over the last couple of weeks, plus two Ed.'s Disk columns and the Wheelock alert of last night. At this point, we subside once again into that slug-like torpor which characterizes the ordinary waking hours of Professor Hamilton and myself, and will stir into action again only (probably) in 4-6 weeks when vol. 3, no. 2 begins to move. In the meantime, those of you requiring entertainment are commended to John Lennard, But I Digress the history of the lunular parenthesis punctuation marks in English poetry (persist past the introductory chapter, where he shows that he can neither read nor transcribe Latin), or, for the more visually inclined, to a little movie that will probably sneak away before it gets appreciated, Hear My Song: this is particularly recommended for those of you who have fallen through BMCR into the habit of amusing yourself at the displays of intellectual sluggishness offered by your e-editor: the film has numerous excellences, not least the cow, but I particularly enjoyed the character named O'Donnell, who is quite refreshingly thick, malleable, and lucky, all qualities on which I have relied for years.

JO'D 3 March 1992


Lest the world of latin teaching be thrown into a not altogether necessary state of panic by the recent note of Ward Briggs, it should be noted that the publishers of the new Wheelock have become aware of the problems with their text and have promised a "revised" new version, due out March 15. Those who have purchased the unfortunate current monstrosity will be allowed (at least here in the heartlands) to trade it in one for one. Whether this "revised" version will be any real improvement, of course, remains a matter of real concern. Let us hope that the press has finally taken the desperate expedient of hiring someone who knows Latin to proofread it.

S. Douglas Olson
University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

Ed.'s note: a telephone from Harper Collins today confirms this arrangement, but Professor Olson's caution is exemplary. Caveat emptor.


Jim May of St. Olaf's College offers the following specifics for our Wheelock update. We had a call from Harper Collins at BMCR and expect to have something more formal from them, but in the meantime this assurance is welcome. The real point of my missive is the notice that appeared in BMCR along with Ward Briggs' review of the new edition of Wheelock. When I read it, it almost turned my stomach -- not only because I have used the text for almost 20 years, but also because our own text, 'Thirty-eight Latin Stories,' is keyed to it. We immediately dashed off a letter to Harper Collins, but lo and behold, last week our bookstore received a letter from Carol Cohen, Vice-President and Publisher for Harper Reference, saying that a new corrected edition is being prepared and will be available for shipment March 20. To distinguish it from the error-filled edition it will be called WHEELOCK'S LATIN GRAMMAR 4TH EDITION REVISED. Its ISBN is 0-06-467177-1. Any bookstore that has already ordered will automatically receive new, revised copies. Any questions should be directed to Anne Felsted at 703-878-1197. Although this revised edition will not include the needed changes as outlined by Ward in his review (things that we who use Wheelock have longed for), it should at least eliminate the ridiculous errors of the 4th edition. I'm pleased that Harper has acted so quickly on this and I thought your readers would appreciate notice of this development. They will, in fact, be able to obtain usable copies for next year's Latin classes.


Many thanks for passing along Ward Briggs rather scathing review of the recently published WHEELOCK'S LATIN GRAMMAR 4th Edition. While it is never a pleasant experience to be on the receiving end of such devastating commentary, unfortunately in this case it is hard to argue with the truth. We goofed, badly, and have been working to correct the problems with the 4th edition and reissued a revised 4th edition. A copy of that revised 4th edition is enclosed. Our intention was to reset the book in a more readable typeface and in a physically larger page size to allow students more room to work in the book. You know what they say about good intentions. In the last several weeks I have spoken not only with Professor Briggs but with many other professors of Latin around the country. Those conversations have been quite a learning experience. Most surprising to me was hearing as many complaints as compliments about the third edition. Based on the comments from those I've spoken with and those who've written we are investigating a true revision of this book.

Helen Moore, Managing Editor
HarperReference