Regulating Early Modern English:

Grammar and grammars


C18th attention to English grammar (Tompson 1977)



to 1600

to 1700












Alston new (rpt.)







































Inseparable from the ‘status of English’

§       priorities of vernacular speakers in a trading nation: relative utility of English over Latin

o      more subjects treated in the vernacular, e.g. medicine, physics

o      other subjects vernacular to begin with, e.g. trade


§       English taught in the schools as an end in itself by second half of seventeenth century

o      Locke [1690]: “Can there be anything more ridiculous, than that a father should waste his own money, and his son’s time, in setting him to learn the Roman language when, at the same time, he designs him for a trade?”


§       nationalist sentiments

o      vs. e.g. French

o      vs. e.g. Hanoverian kings 1714- (George III the first native speaker of English)


“Cultural insecurity” (McIntosh) (remember English wasn’t yet a lingua franca!)


“For who did ever in French authors see

The comprehensive English energy?

The weighty bullion of one sterling line,

Drawn to French wire would through whole pages shine.”


Roscommon (quoted by Defoe)


"TALK of war with a Briton, he'll boldly advance,
That one English soldier will beat ten of France;
Would we alter the boast from the sword to the pen,
Our odds are still greater, still greater our men;
In the deep mines of science though Frenchmen may toil,
Can their strength be compar'd to Locke, Newton, and Boyle?
Let them rally their heroes, send forth all their pow'rs,
Their verse-men and prose-men, then match them with ours!
First Shakspeare and Milton, like Gods in the fight,
Have put their whole drama and epick to flight;
In satires, epistles, and odes, would they cope,
Their numbers retreat before Dryden and Pope;
And Johnson, well-arm'd like a hero of yore,
Has beat forty French, and will beat forty more!"



Function and status of ‘grammar’


§       rising status of English: part of standardization process (Beal)

o      after southern variety ‘selected’ and ‘elaborated’, need for ‘codification’ and ‘control

o      like the classics and the European vernaculars, English should be codified

§       first grammar of a European language was of Spanish (1492)

§       France and Italy had academies (France’s registered in 1637)

o      early aim: “assimilation of English into Latin grammatical categories” (McIntosh)

§       habit

§       assumption that you learned English grammar so that you could learn a foreign language (another function)

o      problem of using Latin as a model

§       mismatch of categories: Latin had no article; treated adjective and noun together

§       implications of terms: ‘preposition’


§       Enlightenment ideals of ‘order’, ‘reason’, ‘regularity’

o      (grammar a way of ordering language)

o      other things standardized in the period too, e.g. measurement

§       1707: Act of Union attempted to standardize weights and measures across England and Scotland

§       1790: the French National Assembly commissioned the Academy of Science to design a simple, decimal-based system of units [“based on a length from nature”]; ...the metric system.”


§       contemporary functions of figurative ‘order’ (and ‘grammar’)

in “the eighteenth century, [the] ideology of politeness was composed of the following values: decorum, grace, beauty, symmetry, and order. These values were transformed into the social symbols for membership in the class of the gentry that the upwardly mobile emergent middle classes eagerly sought to attain. In a word, they became features of the legitimate language, ‘standard English’.” (Watts)


§       assumption that linguistic || social (dis)order (still around!)

§       writing a grammar of the English language will restore the order of English society

Evelyn 1665: “I conceive the reason both of additions to, and the corruption of, the English language, as of most other tongues, has proceeded from the same causes; namely from victories, plantations, frontieres, staples of com’erce, pedantry of schooles, affectation of travellers, translations, fancy and style of Court, vernility & mincing of citizens, pulpits, political remonstrances, theatres, shopps, &c.” [cured by grammar!]

§       elementary literacy texts often instil social values (not just C18th!)

Devis 1775: Accidence for young ladies

Judy and Patty are good girls ; Demosthenes and Cicero were great orators


o      higher cultural status of the ‘general’ and the ‘abstract’ and the ‘theoretical’ and of ‘metalanguage’

o      our composition texts tend to begin with narrative and move up/on

o      essays are ‘product’ rather than ‘process’



Who had the authority to codify English grammar?


An academy?

§       Académie Française had been established since 1630s (registered 1637, founded a bit earlier) to “fix the standard language and keep it as pure as possible”

o      “Il sera composé un Dictionnaire (1694, 1718, 1740, 1762, 1798), une Grammaire, une Rhétorique et une Poétique sur les observations de l’Académie” (Rickard)

§       [its grammar appeared in 1932 “and satisfied no one”]

§       Vaugelas 1647: Remarques sur la langue françoise

§       Lancelot and Arnauld 1660: Grammaire générale et raisonée, (Port-Royal)


§       Royal Society subcommittee (“scientists and men of letters”)

o      Evelyn 1665: first item on his list was “a Grammar ... the rules, the sole meanes to render it a learned & learnable tongue”


§       pamphlets or essays: Defoe’s Essay upon projects, Addison Spectator 135 (1711), Swift’s open letter to the Lord High Treasurer, Proposal for Correcting, Improving, and Ascertaining the English Tongue (1712)

o      self-serving: who would serve on this committee?

§       Defoe: “composed of none but persons of the first figure in learning; and it were to be wished our gentry were so much lovers of learning that birth might always be joined with capacity.”

§       Swift: “a free judicious Choice should be made of such Persons, as are generally allowed to be best qualified for such a Work, without any regard to Quality, Party, or Profession ...Your Lordship, and other Persons in great Employment, might please to be of the Number...”

o      Why so much activity in the 1710s?

§       in part political: assumption that linguistic || political stability

§       1707: Act of Union with Scotland

§       1714: Hanoverian succession to heirless, sickly Anne

§       in part social: see below


In practice: English grammar codified by individuals

§       polymaths:

o      Wallis 1653, “mathematician and cryptographer”

o      Lowth 1762, “biblical critic and Bishop of London” (though not yet)

o      Priestley 1761 and 1768, “theologian and natural philosopher”

o      Murray 1795, “grammarian and lawyer”


§       teachers (majority), e.g.

o      Lane 1700: “long chain’d” to the “Gallies” of the classroom ...

o      Greenwood 1711, Mattaire (“classical scholar and typographer”) 1712

o      (Newcastle) Fisher: in the 1740s in Newcastle taught night school to “young ladies who chuse to learn the English grammar”

o      (Scottish) Buchanan 1761

o      (dissenter) Priestley 1761, 1768: wrote his Rudiments while teaching at the Warrington academy


§       publishers alert to a willing market and the selling power of a school text

o      Brightland (insurance entrepreneur, vintner)-> Gildon (“writer”) (1711)

o      Fisher (teacher) married Slack (printer/publisher) [1745] 1750-

§       author alert to the importance of book trade!?

§       London editions made their textbooks more marketable in the south

o      Dodsley -> Johnson (1755), Lowth (1762)

§       Ingrid Tieken has revised the stereotype of Lowth’s grammar as the autocratic/authorized production of a bishop: she (Beal:) “argues that the success of Lowth’s grammar was due to Dodsley’s entrepreneurial skills rather than Lowth’s authority as a ‘religious leader’”

·       commissioned by Dodsley

·       Lowth wasn’t yet a bishop

Why was grammar so desirable?

o      grammarLatin grammar”

o      e.g. Lily’s A short introduction to grammar “Latin grammar”

§       gateway to Latin language

§       gateway therefore to all other arts and sciences

·       elite boys only    

·       instrument and symbol of social empowerment and exclusion

·       taught by violence (at least stereotypically!)

o      vernacular grammar was therefore extraordinarily empowering, at least in theory

§       from a symbol of exclusion to an instrument of agency and empowerment

§       but it remained second-class relative to the classics

·       Beal: “mainly advocated for those who were deemed not to need a classical education: women, dissenters, and the middle classes.”


§       popularity of politeness generally at this time

o      Klein: “purveyed to non-elite individuals in an array of manuals and encyclopedia guides, ... [esp.] between 1660 and 1730, the period during which 'politeness' rose to prominence in English discourse.”: not just grammars but all sorts of ‘manuals’ linking knowledge and social status

§       polite = not vulgar, not rustic

§       polite = not useful, but supplemental to it

·       You don’t need to know how to parse a sentence (i.e. apply concepts and terms) in order to construct an acceptable one

·       making money: merchants motivated to be able to speak well to genteel customers

·       crafting an image: educated but impoverished “proto-white collar population”, “pen-pushers and pedagogues” “striving valiantly to retain some dignity” on meagre incomes


Social prestige of ‘politeness’ and ‘polite conversation’ especially as represented in writing in Addison and Steele’s periodicals the Tatler and the Spectator


§       authors and readers represented as a sociable community united by ‘politeness’ of “manners, dress, and conversation”

o      public invited to contribute letters to the periodicals

o      Mr Spectator a model for his readers

o      [if it helps to make this real for you, contemporary young guys hoped not just to impress fellow men with their polite conversation but to pick up girls...]

I don't know how, I am the worst person in the world to entertain a lady in conversation. Though I can be free with Mrs Lee yet I cannot tell how to maintain an agreeable discourse with her: I am presently at a stand and at a loss what to say. Went with Mrs Lee to Watford, when the coach was got just into the inn before us. I wish I could arrive at the talent of appearing indifferent in the company of the ladies. It is this that chiefly gives that life and spirit to a conversation which is agreeable and which the women especially universally like, and indeed what enters very much into the modern character of a gentleman. (1715)


§       there was some metalinguistic commentary in the periodicals, e.g.

o      attacks on contractions

o      which is right, which or who or that?

§       need for an academy ->


This often perplexes the best Writers, when they find the Relatives whom, which, or that at their Mercy whether they may have Admission or not; and will never be decided till we have something like an Academy, that by the best Authorities and Rules drawn from the Analogy of Languages shall settle all controversies between Grammar and Idiom. (Spectator 135)


§       but the periodicals furnished relatively few specific rules for polite writing

o      this lack of explicit/comprehensive codification would have been unnerving, since there was still a great deal of variation


By the mid-century, things looked different

§       McIntosh: goals had changed “from the assimilation of English into Latin grammatical categories, to the polishing and improvement of the English language”

§       English had a nice fat expensive dictionary (1755)

§       English book reviews (Critical Review founded by anxious Scots in 1756) applied grammar rules monthly and publicly

§       grammar books contained more and more explicit ‘dos and don’ts’


Overview of grammatical “prescriptivism”

§       in Fisher 1750: “Exercises of Bad English’ to correct

o      “In the manner of Clark’s and Bailey’s Examples for the Latin, to prove our Concord by” [lots of subsequent imitators]

§       from 1750s onwards: savage application of (not necessarily codified) rules in book reviews

§       in Lowth 1762: Examples of grammatical errors in literary writing

o      cf. Johnson’s use of literary quotations in his 1755 dictionary

§       in these and many other texts: linguistic and social correlations



Fisher ([1745] 1750-), A (practical) new grammar, with Exercises of Bad English


Rule IV: Two or more Names Singular, having a Conjunction Copulative coming between them, will have a Verb Plural

George and Daniel has been fighting. – Honour and Renown attends virtuous Actions.


Rules for Polite and Useful Conversation, in a Praxis for Orthography, as well as Syntax

By obsarving the laws of poleitness, tho you are not Master Enough of Youmer and abundence of Words, so as to say witte Things, and tel an Agreable storie, you  may carrey yourself so Oblegingley to the cumpanie, as to plese: and whatever a Mestakein vanety may suggest, I will dare to say, that it is more Advantagious to a mans reputasion, for a parson to plese in convarsation, then to Shine in it.


Maxims for the Ladies, in a Praxis of Bad Grammar [from the Spectator]

That no wimen can be handsom by the forse of featers alone, any more then she can be wittey Onley by the Help of speach. ...


A few examples of linguistic variation from the Monthly Review, a book review founded in 1749

§       past participle wrote used by some reviewers in the 1750s and 1760s

o      e.g. “This comes very ungracefully from an author who is, by no means, a master of the language in which his satire is wrote

o      "language of this pamphlet...differs both from the true idiom and grammar of the English wrote and spoke in Middlesex"

o      "had he lived and wrote in these more polished times, in which accuracy of composition, and neatness of expression are more attended to than they were in Butler's days" [correct = modern]

§       but censured by others at the same time, e.g.

o      "theatrical declamation of the ancients was composed and wrote, (we should rather say, written)."

o      another reviewer cites some ungrammatical phrases, eg wrote for written


Codification of (e.g.) irregular verbs not consistent in grammar books

o      for an overview of prescript and practice relating to the verb write, see Oldireva Gustafsson’s online article

o      early editions of Fisher’s grammar (1750 through 1775 at least) list

o      past tense of ‘to write’: wrote, writ

o      past participle of ‘to write’: written, writ

o      Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary among a few texts still to recommend wrote as a past participle

o      many other grammars recommend only written


Buchanan, The British grammar (1762)


“Note, a ridiculous Solecism has been very prevalent of late, I mean the using the Preter-Time after the Verbs have and am, instead of the Passive Participle; as, I have wrote, for I have written ... in all which examples a Verb, without the least Necessity, is absurdly used to supply the proper Participle. Females and mean Authors first introduced these Absurdities, and even Writers of Note (or the Printers for them) have sometimes inadvertently copied after them: But it is to be wished, that those who are studious of correct Composition, would for the Future be exemplary in rejecting such Barbarisms ; otherwise the few Traces of Analogy that are to be found in our Language will, in a little Time, be utterly annihilated. For some perhaps, from a fond Regard to Novelty, may hereafter introduce, with equal Barbarity, I have saw, for I have seen ...


Lowth¸ A short introduction to English grammar (1762)


“This general inclination and tendency of the language, seems to have given occasion to the introducing of a very great Corruption ; by which the Form of the Past Time is confounded with that of the Participle in these Verbs ... This confusion prevails greatly in common discourse, and is too much authorized by the example of some of our best Writers. Thus it is said, He begun for he began ; he run, for he ran ... the Participle being used instead of the Past Time. And much more frequently the Past Time instead of the Participle: as, I had wrote, it was wrote, for I had written, it was written ...”


“Mr. Misson has wrote.” – Addison, Preface to his Travels. “He could only command his voice, broke with signs and sobbings, so far as to bid her proceed.” Addison, Spect. No. 164.

          Addison and The Spectator a favourite target! (Fitzmaurice)


Prescriptive or descriptive? (Beal)


Did the grammar rules

§       describe the existing usage of model writers and speakers?

§       prescribe rules according to other criteria, e.g.Latin or logic?



§       certainly the basis for categories and terminology:

o      hard to break away from established practice

o      assumption that learning English was a step on the way to learning Latin

§       some grammarians certainly bashed English into inappropriate categories

o      Jane Gardiner (teacher) demonstrates the ‘ablative case’ of the English adjective and noun with “from, by, with, or in a young girl”

§       in the early 18th century, some grammarians (including Gildon, Fisher) tried to use more ‘native’ categories and terms,

o      e.g. “Name” rather than “Noun”, “Quality” rather than “Adjective”

o      Fisher and others celebrated the distinctive features of English: “Thus by the Use of these Helping Verbs ... we are entirely freed from the various Endings of Verbs, in the past Times, or the preterimperfect and preterpluperfect Tenses of the Latin, also from those of the several Moods in both Voices; which produce near 200 Variations ...”


Have Latin rules been imposed on English? (This from Beal)

§       idiomatic preposition-stranding  (“up with which I will not put”)

o      Dryden had criticized it in Jonson’s writing and removed it from his own

o      Lowth describes it as “an idiom which our language is strongly inclined to; it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the more familiar style in writing; but the placing of the Preposition before the Relative is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous.”

§       split infinitive: Latin infinitives are single-word and can’t be split, amare ‘to love’

o      wikipedia blames Lowth for it

o      but it’s not proscribed until 1834


What about rules based on logic rather than contemporary custom? (Beal)

o      Lowth tries to restore the historical past participle sitten on the analogy of other past participles in –en (but unsuccessfully)

o      the grammarians seem to have embraced written before educated users

§        it took a long time for written to establish itself


o      grammarians also blamed for exterminating the double negative (Greenwood, Fisher, Lowth)

o      Lowth: “two Negatives in English destroy one another, or are equivalent to an Affirmative” [1763]

§       included in the second edition only after readers wrote in

o      recent research makes it pretty clear that the double negative had receded from educated usage (Beal citing Tieken and Austin)

§       less common in EmodE lawyers’ and merchants’ language

§       playwrights put them in the mouths only of vulgar speakers

§       in ‘real’ C18th usage, informal / lower-class / speech-based writing


o      the ‘double comparative’ (more fairer) seems also to have been recessive in educated usage (Beal citing Rodriguez-Gil)


And it was Fisher who first codified the ‘sexist’ grammar rule (Tieken) that

“The Masculine Person answers to the general Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as, Any Person who knows what he says.”

o      in an empowering context

o      don’t impose modern sensibilities on historical texts

Result of explicit codification of rules?

More inclusive for authors marginalized by region or class?

§       Boswell 1776: I began today a curious bargain which I made with the Hon. Henry Erskine in order to acquire correctness in writing. We were to give to each other a copy of every one of our printed papers, and each was to be censor on the other. For every ungrammatical expression and every Scotticism except technical phrases, a shilling was to be incurred; ... Each was to keep an account of debit and credit, and nothing was to be charged but what was acknowledged by the writer of the paper to be just. Erskine had many objections to a paper of mine today. Lord Hailes was at once appealed to and gave it for me. Erskine was too nice; for it was not inelegance but incorrectness that was liable to a fine. The former was very arbitrary. The latter, Johnson and Lowth could determine. He had three shillings against me today. I am persuaded that this will do me much good...

§       Beal: linguistic texts written by authors like Thomas Spence and William Cobbett exemplify “link between grammar and the emancipation of the lower orders”...

§       Cobbett 1796 (cited by McIntosh): “I procured me a Lowth’s grammar, and applied myself to the study of it with unceasing assiduity, and not without profit; for, though it was a considerable time before I fully comprehended all that I read, still I read and studied with such unremitting attention, that at last I could write without falling into any very gross errors. The pains I took cannot be described: I wrote the whole grammar out two or three times: I got it by heart;I repeated it every morning and evening”


More excluding?

§       Fitzmaurice: “Far from being the sign of good manners and social mobility, ‘polite English’ had become the means by which the society could be stratified: sorted into its different levels.”

§       Watts: “it is ... hardly surprising that those in control of that discourse, paying lip-service to the aspirations of the middle classes, presented it as an attainable goal whilst at the same time doing everything they could to thwart those ambitions.”

§       Book reviewers ‘infer’ social status from language, e.g. l-c women


An insipid, flimsy, uninteresting tale; which, were it not that a scrap or two of Latin seems to contradict the supposition, one might suspect to be the work of some novel-struck chamber-maid: for such, it seems are now become free of the worshipful company of Adventurer-makers. We are led into this conjecture by the inaccuracy of the Writer's language; which, though not in general contemptible, is here and there sprinkled with vulgarisms, only to be expected from a scribbling female: such as,... “I "laid" in the same room with my benefactress”, by which it might possibly be understood, that the young lady who tells the story, had gracelessly "laid" an "egg" in the chamber of her benefactress. Nor is this an accident or error of the press; but the common language of the narrative; for we find the same impropriety in other parts of the book. (gives exx).


"The inaccuracies which we have noticed, are not indeed, many or important; but we cannot attribute to Lord Mansfield [judge presiding over divorce proceedings of which this is a transcript] such vulgarisms as... [improper use of ‘lay’, profusely exemplified]. The reviewer also criticizes "that vile contraction ‘don't' for ‘do not’: which would be rather expected from the mouth of a hair dresser, or a milliner's apprentice".


“Vulgar language” used to disqualify petitions to parliament

§       Cobbett, Political register 1817 (cited by Beal):


The present project ... is to communicate to all uneducated Reformers, a knowledge of Grammar. The people, you know, were accused of presenting petitions not grammatically correct. And those petitions were rejected, the petitioners being ignorant: though some of them were afterwards put into prison, for being ‘better informed’. ... There was only one thing in which any of you were deficient, and that was in the mere art of so arranging the words in your Resolutions and Petitions as to make these compositions what is called grammatically correct. Hence, men of a hundredth part of the mind of some of the authors of the Petitions were enabled to cavil at them on this account, and to infer from this incorrectness that the Petitioners were a set of poor ignorant creatures, who knew nothing of what they were talking; a set of the ‘Lower classes’, who ought never to raise their reading above that of children’s books, Christmas Carrols, and the like. For my part, I have always held a mere knowledge of the rules of grammar very cheap. It is a study, which demands hardly any powers of mind.”





Beal, Joan C. English in modern times 1700-1945. London: Arnold, 2004.

McArthur, Tom. The Oxford Companion to the English Language. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Fitzmaurice, Susan. "The Commerce of Language in the Pursuit of Politeness in Eighteenth-Century England," English Studies 79:4 (1998). 309-328.

Klein, Lawrence E. "Politeness for Plebes: Consumption and Social Identity in Early Eighteenth-Century England," The Consumption of Culture 1600-

1800. Image, Object, Text, ed. Ann Bermingham and John Brewer. London and New York: Routledge, 1995. 362-382.

McIntosh, Carey. The evolution of English prose 1700-1800: style, politeness, and print culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Rickard, Peter. A history of the French language. 2nd ed. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade. "John Kirkby and The Practice of Speaking and Writing English: Identification of a Manuscript." Leeds studies in English

23 (1992). 157-179.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid. "Robert Dodsley and the Genesis of Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar." Historiographia Linguistica

27:1 (2000). 21-36.

Tompson, Richard S. "English and English Education in the Eighteenth Century," Studies on Voltaire and the eighteenth century 167 (1977). 65-79.

Watts, Richard. “From polite language to educated language: the re-emergence of an ideology.” Alternative histories of English. Ed. Richard Watts and

Peter Trudgill. London and New York: Routledge, 2002. 155-172.


Further reading


Finegan, Edward. “English grammar and usage.” The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume IV 1776-1997. Ed. Suzanne Romaine.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Sundby, Bertil et al. A Dictionary of English Normative Grammar 1700-1800. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 1991.

            [Useful but hard to use.]

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid. "Normative Studies in England." History of the Language Sciences ... An International Handbook on the Evolution

of the Study of Language From the Beginnings to the Present, ed. Sylvain Auroux et al. Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2000.