"How barbarously we yet write and speak...": The 18th Century & the Origins of Prescriptive Grammar

The Perception of Decay

Describing Standard English can be compared to the blind men trying to describe an elephant: we all know it's there, but what is it? In the "age of reason," a wide spectrum of society clamored for authoritative answers to the question, "what is correct?" It is from that period in the language's history that many of the features today regarded as "standard" were first imposed on the grammar of English.

The eighteenth century regarded the period of Civil War and the Restoration as a lesson in license and disorder to be avoided. The period is often called the Age of Reason; the example of classical writers achieved an almost divine status, and this example ruled the codification of English that the age undertook to produce. The linguistic innovation that characterized the Early Modern period gave way to conformity and correctness. In part, these concerns derived from an awareness of language change, the difficulty of understanding older forms of English, and a concern for their own writings' place in posterity. Alexander Pope, for example, in An Essay on Criticism (1711), complained that:

No longer now that golden age appears,
When patriarch wits survived a thousand years:
Now length of fame (our second life) is lost,
And bare threescore is all even that can boast;
Our sons their fathers' failing language see,
And such as Chaucer is, shall Dryden be. (478-483)

In 1712, Jonathan Swift published A Proposal for Correcting, Improving, and Ascertaining the English Tongue, addressed "To the Most Honourable Robert, Earl of Oxford, etc." Just as today many perceived "corruptions" are attributed to the social upheavals of the 1960s, Swift regarded the Golden Age of English as having come to an end "with the Great Rebellion in Forty Two":

From the Civil War to this present Time, I am apt to doubt whether the Corruptions in our Language have not at least equalled the Refinements of it; and these Corruptions very few of the best Authors in our Age have wholly escaped. During the Usurpation, such an Infusion of Enthusiastick Jargon prevailed in every Writing, as was not shook off in many Years after. To this succeeded that Licentiousness which entered with the Restoration, and from infecting our Religion and Morals, fell to corrupt our Language. (Bolton 112)

This marks a striking contrast with the attitude expressed by Sidney just over a century before. John Dryden now complains that "we have as yet no prosodia, not so much as a tolerable dictionary, or a grammar" (Discourse Concerning Satire [1693]). Dryden would often solve his own problems with English Grammar by translating the sentence in question into Latin and then back into English, thus using Latin Gammar as the ultimate arbitor for English style. He was shocked to learn that he (as were most) was guilty of stranding prepositions at the end of sentences. As a result he reformed his own practice and established the shibboleth that has plagued English writers ever since.

Echoing the attitudes expressed by the Purists during the Inkhorn Controversy, Swift observes:

I have never known this great Town without one or more Dunces of Figure ["of importance"], who had Credit enough to give Rise to some new Word, and propagate it in most Conversations, though it had neither Humor, nor Significancy. If it struck the present Taste, it was soon transferred into the Plays and current Scribbles of the Week, and became an Addition to our Language; while the men of Wit and learning, instead of early obviating such Corruptions, were often seduced to imitate and comply with them. (Bolton 113)

To counter this corruption, Swift declares that

what I have most at heart, is that some method should be thought on for ascertaining and fixing our Language for ever, after such Alterations are made in it as shall be thought requisite. For I am of Opinion, it is better a Language should not be wholly perfect, than that it should be perpetually changing. (Bolton 117)

George Campbell, author of the Philosophy of Rhetoric (1776), is able to observe later in the century that many of Swift's pet peeves had died natural deaths:

I shall just mention another set of barbarisms, which also comes under this class, and arises from the abreviation of polysyllables, by lopping off all the syllables except for the first, or the first and second. Instances of this are hyp for hypochondriac, rep for reputation, ult for ultimate, incog for incognito, hyper for hypercritic, extra for extraordinary. Happily all these affected terms have been denied the public suffrage. I scarcely know any such that have established themselves, except for mob for mobile. And this it hath effected at last, notwithstanding the unrelenting zeal with which it was persecuted by Dr. Swift, wherever he met with it. But as the word in question hath gotten use, the supreme arbitress of language, on its side, there would be as much obstinacy in rejecting it at present, as there was perhaps folly at first in ushering it upon the public stage. (Campbell I. 428-29; quoted in Baugh & Cable 254-5)

Throughout the period, concern for "fixing" the language was widespread, and the strongest advocates were often those who had a vested interest. The poet Edmund Waller, in Of English Verse, wrote:

Poets that Lasting Marble seek,
Must carve in Latin or in Greek;
We write in sand . . . .

Thomas Sheridan, in 1756, urges Lord Chesterfield: "Suffer not our Shakespear, and our Milton, to become two or three centuries hence what Chaucer is at present, the study only of a few poring antiquarians, and in an age or two more the victims of bookworms" (British Education xvii).

Proposed Solutions

In the "Age of Reason," it was natural that one of the tools for "fixing" the English language would be logic. But the use of logic to solve grammatical uncertainties sometimes produced conclusions that were completely false, because the "logic" was based on appeals to the analogy of Latin grammar, and this was entirely different from English grammar. The motivation for this was a belief in Universal Grammar. In the eighteenth century (but not restricted to that time), many believed that all linguistic changes were corruptions of some original ideal structure, which was still evident in Latin but severely corrupted in most modern languages, especially English. Thus there was a tendency to work deductively rather than inductively when it came to discerning the rules of English grammar.

The Call for an English Academy

The concerns cited above resulted in proposals for an English Language Academy to halt the corruption of English. Thus, Dryden: "I am desirous, if it were possible, that we might all write with the same certainty of words, and purity of phrase, to which the Italians first arrived, and after them the French; at least that we might advance so far, as our tongue is capable of such a standard" (from his dedication of Troilus and Cressida to the Earl of Sunderland, 1679; quoted in Baugh & Cable 252).

As precedents, proponents pointed to the established Academies in France and Italy. The most famous example of such institutions in Italy was called Accademia della Crusca, founded late in the sixteenth century, with goal of purifying Italian language. As a means to this end it published a dictionary--the Vocabulario degli Accademici della Crusca--in 1612. In France, Cardinal Richelieu in 1635 offered a royal charter to a small group of men to establish l'Academie française to establish rules and to ensure purity and eloquence. In order to achieve these ends, the French Academy was charged to produce a dictionary, a grammar, a rhetoric, and a treatise on the poetic arts. The dictionary finally appeared in 1694.

Also in 1664, Dryden, in the dedication of Rival Ladies, expressed the wish that the English might one day have an Academy like the one in France.

Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, included in his 1697 An Essay on Projects an article entitled "Of Academies," proposed a Society whose function would be:

to encourage Polite Learning, to polish and refine the English Tongue, and advance the so much neglected Faculty of Correct Language, to establish Purity and Propriety of Stile, and to purge it from all the Irregular Additions that Ignorance and Affectation have introduc'd; and all those Innovations in Speech, if I may call them such, which some Dogmatic Writers have the Confidence to foster upon their Native Language,, as if their Authority were sufficient to make their own Fancy legitimate. (Bolton 93)

The Society would be:

wholly compos'd of Gentlemen; whereof Twelve to be of the Nobility, if possible, and Twelve Private Gentlemen, and a Class of Twelve to be left open for meer Merit, let it be found in who or what sort it would, which should lye as the Crown of their Study, who have done something eminent to deserve it. The Voice of this Society should be sufficient Authority for the Usage of Words, and sufficient also to expose the Innnovations of other mens Fancies; they shou'd preside with a Sort of Judicature over the Learning of the Age, and have liberty to Correct and Censure the Exorbitance of Writers, especially of Translators. The Reputation of this Society wou'd be enough to make them the allow'd Judges of Stile and Language; and no Author wou'd have the Impudence to Coin without their Authority. Custom, which is now our best Authority for Words, wou'd always have its Original here, and not be allow'd without it. There shou'd be no more occasion to search for Derivations and Constructions, and 'twou'd be as Criminal then to Coin Words, as Money. (Bolton 94-5)

©Daniel W. Mosser

That an English Academy was not created is perhaps largely due to the publication of Johnson's Dictionary, followed shortly by Lowth's Grammar. It is worth considering also what the consequences of such an institution would have been, since most speakers of English do not routinely consult a dictionary or grammar in the course of day-to-day conversation and perhaps only infrequently do so in the course of informal writing projects. And the French, in spite of authoritative prohibitions against the use of English and English-derived words in French ("Franglais") seem scarcely able to survive in the commercial sector without it: "drivethru" lanes at a French McDonalds, for instance, are "MacDrives"; parking lots invariably are referred to with some form of the word "parking"; and in the graphic at the left--a sign posted on the door of a French discount store, known as "Ed"--it appears that the most efficient way to tell the clientele that the store is open continuously on Saturdays (no two-hour closing for lunch) is to use the single-word phrase "nonstop."

In the United States, after the Revolution, similar calls for an National Academy were heard.

Development of Traditional English Grammar

Shortly after the establishment of the Accademia della Crusca in Italy in 1582, William Bullokar published his Bref Grammar (1586), believed to be the first description of English grammar. But this and subsequent grammars of the next 125 years exerted little, if any influence on the language. Ben Johnson published a work aimed primarily at non-native speakers, entitled English Grammar, in 1640. John Wallis's Grammatica Linguae Anglicanae (1653) was an unusual contribution in that it conceded that Latin grammar did not constitute the best model for the structure of English. Not until the eighteenth century, however, was English grammar regarded as a worthy subject of investigation in and of itself. William Loughton, schoolmaster at Kensington, in his best-selling Practical Grammar of the English Tongue (1734), castigates those who "have attempted to force our Language (contrary to its Nature) to the Method and Rules of the Latin Grammar" (cited in Baugh & Cable 269).

Joseph Priestly (perhaps best known as the discoverer of oxygen), who published Rudiments of English Grammar in 1761, took a markedly different approach to grammar than most of his contemporaries in that he asserted that usage, "the custom of speaking," constituted "the original and only just standard of any language" (ix; quoted in Finegan 31). In A Course of Lectures on the Theory of Language, and Universal Grammar, published a year after Rudiments (1762), he elaborated:

In modern and living languages, it is absurd to pretend to set up the compositions of any persons whatsoever as the standard of writing, or their conversation as the invariable rule of speaking. With respect to customs, laws, and every thing that is changeable, the body of a people, who, in this respect cannot but be free, will certainly assert their liberty, in making what innovations they judge to be expedient and useful. The general prevailing custom where ever it happen to be, can be the only standard for the time that it prevails. (184; quoted in Finegan 31)

Alas, Priestly was too reasonable for the Age of Reason, and the attitude that was to prevail could not have been more contrary to Priestly's views on usage.

Robert Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar

In 1762 (about a month after the publication of Priestly's Rudiments) Robert Lowth, a professor of Hebrew at Oxford (later Bishop of London), published a Short Introduction to English Grammar. It is from this work that many of our modern notions about the grammar of English are derived. More than twenty editions of this work appeared in eighteenth century. Although Lowth acknowledged the importance of usage, he relegated it to a subordinate role, privileging instead the guiding principles of analogy (primarily with the grammar of Latin) and logic. Lowth chastized those writers, such as Milton, Dryden, Pope, Addision, and even Swift, who "confounded" the past tense forms of strong verbs with their past participle forms. In Milton, for example, he ferreted out the examples "have spoke," "was took"; Addison sinned with "Mr. Milton has wrote"; and Swift committed to print the phrases "had not arose" and "have stole" (examples cited in Finegan 25). It was Lowth, who through logic and mathematical analogy, proscribed multiple negation in English: "Two Negatives in English destroy one another, or are equivalent to an Affirmative." Lowth and his fellow prescriptive grammarians in the eighteenth century succeeded in stigmatizing the use of the objective case following the copula, arguing that, for example, "It is I" is correct, while "It is me" is not. They insisted that the distinctions of who/whom, shall/will, lie/lay, between/among, and between you and me (not "between you and I") be singled out as markers of correctness. (Arguably, the distinctions were not well-observed prior to this time, and their insistance on them as grammatical necessities has produced more in the way of error resulting from hypercorrection than clarity and conformity.) Lowth's Grammar also branded the use of singular verb forms with the second person singular pronoun (e.g., You was with me yesterday) "an enormous solecism," despite its being in common usage. (Cf. Webster's views.)

George Campbell's Philosophy of Rhetoric (2 vols., 1776) was a notable exception to the prescriptive tradition in that Campbell's principles were based on usage. However, he often exhibited a different attitude in practice:

When etymology plainly points to a signification different from that which the word commonly bears, propriety and simplicity both require its dismission. I use the word plainly, because, when the etymology is from an ancient or foreign language, or from obsolete roots in our own language, or when it is obscure or doubtful, no regard should be had to it. The case is different, when the roots either are, or strongly appear to be, English, are in present use, and clearly suggest another meaning. Of this kind is the word beholden, for obliged or indebted. It should regularly be the passive participle of the verb to behold, which would convey a sense totally different. (quoted in Baugh & Cable 276)

In 1770, Robert Baker produced Reflections on the English Language, in which he boasted of knowing no classical languages, owning no books, and being unfamiliar with Johnson's dictionary; as Baugh & Cable wryly observe: "by men such as these was the English language 'ascertained'" (271).

Campbell, following Priestly, states: "Language is purely a species of fashion.... It is not the business of grammar, as some critics seem preposterously to imagine, to give law to the fashions which regulate our speech. On the contrary, from its conformity to these, and from that alone, it derives all its authority and value. For, what is the grammar of any language? It is no other than a collection of general observations methodically digested, and comprising all the modes previously and independently established, by which the significations, derivations, and combinations of words in that language are ascertained...." Authority for usage is defined by Campbell as "present, national, and reputable use" (quoted in Baugh & Cable 278-9). However, Campbell repeatedly violated his own doctrine of usage.

The influence of Lowth on American grammar instruction was profound.

Grammatical/Syntactic Developments

The eighteenth century marks the development of progressive verb forms: the auxiliary ("helping verb') form of be+present participle is called the "progressive" since the combination signifies that the action is "in progress" during the time indicated by the tense of the form of be.

The construction develops from use of a participle-as-noun governed by the preposition on, as in "he burst out on laughing." This weakened to "he burst out a-laughing" and finally just "he burst out laughing" (Baugh & Cable 286-7). The intermediate construction has been retained in varieties of English (such as Appalachian) that employ "a-prefixing" forms.

By the end of the eighteenth century, the progressive forms were extended into the passive: "the house is being built," a development from "the house is building," which in turn had developed from "the house is on building" (Baugh & Cable 287-8). This innovation gave prescriptivists something else to be upset about. George Marsh, in Lectures on the English Language (1859), noted that "The phrase 'the house is being built' for 'the house is building' is an awkward neologism, which neither convenience, intelligibility, nor syntactical congruity demands, and the use of which ought therefore to be discountenanced, as an attempt at the artificial improvement of the language in point which needed no amendment" (quoted in Baugh & Cable 288).


Eighteenth-Century Resources (Jack Lynch, Rutgers University)