Carol Percy


Associate Professor
Department of English
University of Toronto


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My research focusses on the social history of the Early Modern English language in the eighteenth century, a critical time in the standardization of English and its dissemination around the world. The social impact of standardization is revealed by recurring patterns and hidden assumptions in sources like newspaper advertisements, book reviews, and grammar books. I'm particularly interested in how the rising status and standardization of English both marginalized and was manipulated by educationally disadvantaged authors like women and sea captains.

How did I end up doing this? As an undergraduate, I studied English (specialist) and Anthropology (Archaeology/major) at University College at the University of Toronto. Only in fourth year did I realize that there was a way of combining the two subjects, when I took George Rigg's undergraduate course in the history of the English language (ENG367Y). After graduation I took my M.A. from our Graduate Department of English, before going to the University of Oxford (Faculty of English Language and Literature, and Lady Margaret Hall). This isn't a route that I'd necessarily recommend, but it's how I got here.

My doctoral dissertation on editorial changes to the language of James Cook's first voyage journal (1990) identified some interesting inconsistencies between the editor's practice and the linguistic precepts that were multiplying in grammar books and book reviews. I subsequently published articles on Cook's language and style, the most recent one charting some conflicts between his activities as a scientist and as a literary author.

The errors mocked by book reviewers weren't always codified in contemporary grammars, and I got interested in book reviews as a more representative guide to prescriptive linguistics in eighteenth-century England. To this end, SSHRC (and the Mentorship and Work-Study programs at U of T) supported the research for a database of linguistic criticism in eighteenth-century book reviews (the Monthly Review and the Critical Review). Student research assistants systematically recorded book reviewers' comments about language, and entered these in a very large database. Long-haulers on this project included Jessica Bowslaugh, Mary Catherine Davidson, Emma Gorst, Eliza Marciniak, Karin Marley, Jen Marston, Bill Moreau, Noreen O'Rinn, Kelly Quinn, Rebecca Schwarz, Michelle Syba, Robert Winkler, and other students from the Mentorship Program (Amy Boyd, Annamaria Enenajor, Karen Fried, Marcia Jones, Ruth Kanfer, Zofia Kumas, Valerie Legros, Silvia Odorcic, David Reevely, Aba Stevens, Peter Tseng, Ashwini Vasanthakumar), the Research Opportunity Programme (Katherine Baker-Ross, Debbie Lerech), and the Work-Study Program (Jesse Archibald-Barber, Andrea Cameron, Natasha Charles, David Heath, Jaan Lilles, Kara Macaulay). And I'm most grateful for the ongoing advice of Philippa Matheson, who designed the database program, "Ferret".

So far, the book reviews project has produced a number of articles: one on stereotypes of the language of women authors ("Easy women..."), another on prescriptions for "Manly English", another (inspired by Samuel Johnson's nicknames like "Bozzy") on contractions and colloquialisms in the period, and a frustratingly inaccessible paper about the use of Latinate spellings like honor and explane in eighteenth-century pamphlet wars. More recently published is a chapter connecting periodical reviews with the rise of prescriptive grammar, another one explaining "How eighteenth-century book reviewers became language guardians," and (finally!) one summarizing trends in the reviews of the increasing number of grammars that appeared in and after the mid-century. The (often savage) reviews confirm the need for grammar books, and the swift popularity of Robert Lowth's 1762 grammar.

Robert Lowth's grammar was--and is--notable for using quotations from great English authors to illustrate not good but bad grammar. Perhaps because I teach in an English department, I've been interested in Lowth's relationship to literature for a long time. In "Paradigms Lost", I compared different editions of Lowth's grammar to see if we could reconcile the Lowth who catalogued solecisms in English literary texts with the Lowth who defended similar errors in Hebrew poetry on the grounds of poetic licence, observing that in some of his grammatical pronouncements he was clearly aware of stylistic variation. More recently, Lowth's biographer Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade gave me another chance to think about Lowth and literature: in "Lowth and the Critics" I find antecedents for Lowth's grammatical fault-finding in recent editing of Shakespeare and Milton.

Although he was the most popular grammarian of the mid-century, Lowth was by no means the only grammarian. Many grammars were written by teachers, many from what we might think of as the geographical and social margins. I've been interested in grammars for and by women for a long time. I began with a now out-of-date survey of women's grammars in the century generally, which I've been able to update more recently in a Cambridge UP book chapter on Women's Grammars. I've also written a chapter on the first grammar of English written for females by a woman, the elite teacher Ellin Devis; an article explaining how Lady Ellenor Fenn used the teaching of grammar to boys (and girls) to gain authority for mothers (and women), and a chapter showing how after the French Revolution women schoolteachers negotiated the difficulties of teaching grammar in a cultural climate often hostile to women's education. Because of my interest in the impact of prescriptivism on 'ordinary' middling-class people, I've also looked at evidence in classified ads for the increasing importance of correct English to "consumers of correctness." Because of my work with newspapers and reviews, I was asked to write an overview of how historical newspapers have been used by historical sociolinguists more generally.

In the last few years, again supported by SSHRC, my students and I have been reading (auto)biographical records and building up our knowledge of the cultural history of English grammar in British society more generally. The first article to appear from this project is about King George III: "The King's Speech: Metalanguage of Nation, Man, and Class in Anecdotes about George III" will appear in English Language and Linguistics 16:2 (2012): 281-299. My students have also contributed to an on-line anthology of texts illustrating variation and change in the early modern and modern English language. I'm very grateful for the work done towards all of these projects by Samuel Allemang, Geoffrey Allen, Rachel Caballero, Jennifer Cairns, Joyce Chan, Leigh-Anne Coffey, Tonia Djogovic, Kate Francombe, Katherine Frankl, Aidan Goodwin, Julie Grajales, Christianna Guy, Zeenat Haq, David Heath, Arden Hegele, Miriam Helmers, Andrew Hope, David (Dave) Jamieson, Mufei Jiang, Mary Joh, Malcolm Johnston, Emily Law, Hanji Lee, Nicole Lees, Jaan Lilles, Madeline Malczewska, Eliza Marciniak, Cari Mason, Maandeeq Mohamed, Sharon Mugg, Bianca Raynor, Mel Rhodes-Gray, Brett Rhyno, Yvonne Robertson, Shannon Robinson, Alexis Sampson, Kathryn Sharaput, Kate Stevenson, Joshua Wasserman, Dylan White, and Christine Williams. Arden Hegele published two articles of her own while taking notes on projects for me: one contextualizing Maria Edgeworth's representation of French governesses, the other offering an identification of an anonymous playwright, author of The Governess: or the Boarding-School Dissected. Arden Hegele also put together a website on language variation in eighteenth-century comedy: Bad Grammar in the Eighteenth Century is an interpretive survey of language variation in 93 comedies of the period. It's a wonderful resource, and I mention it here to give Arden's work more publicity.

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