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The History of The Study of English Grammar

authored by Tamara E. Wong


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Historical Context

The events that lead the small island country of Great Britain to educate it’s students in the vernacular.


The English Reformation in the Sixteenth Century created an incubator for the idea of an English Grammar book. The English Reformation was brought about by King Henry VIII who, in an effort to divorce his wife, severed ties from the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. The effects of the Reformation were not only a change in religion, but also a change in thought. With Protestantism abounding in England, people began to look at the system of Education, especially since Latin was tied to the Holy Roman Empire.

The Enlightenment

John Locke.jpg

During the Enlightenment (1600s), there were great thinkers such as John Locke (1632 –1704) whose ideas circulated throughout Europe. As a pioneer of educational psychology, Locke’s views influenced English Education. In his letters entitled Some Thoughts Concerning Education, he wrote to a friend about his views on what constituted a good education. As an empiricist, he asserted that training by repetition must start early to mold children. Although the theory was not named yet, Locke was a believer in operant conditioning where approval or disapproval were the best methods of rewards and punishments rather than concrete rewards like sweets. Although Locke wrote that a sound body makes a sound mind, he also believed that some suffering was good for a child. These ideas pervaded English Education for centuries to come.[1]


During the Middle Ages, Grammar Schools in England were founded. These Grammar Schools were the main method of education for boys up until the Seventeenth Century. Although the schools were located in England, Latin was the prevailing language taught. The Fifteenth Century Humanist curriculum dictated that knowledge of Latin and some Greek was integral to a sound education. Grammar, Poetry, Rhetoric, History, and Moral Philosophy were also taught in these Latin Grammar Schools.[2] The teaching of Latin Grammar continued to be important even when English Grammar began to be studied.

The Masses

While the first English Grammar text was published in 1586, it was not until later that English was actually studied in schools. It began slowly with the involvement of the lower class of England. During the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries, schools were mostly closed off to lower classes and it was not until the Sixteenth Century were the doors open to them. The push for lower class English boys to attend school was due to the “lowered economic barriers” and “changes in curriculum” to reflect daily life.[3] The inclusion of more people who would not need Latin in their lives ignited the need for English to be taught in English Grammar schools. In 1612, Brinsley advised school teachers about the dissatisfaction of Latin in schools:

But to tell you what I thinke wherein there seemes unto mee to bee a verie maine wante in all our Grammar schooles generally, or in the most of them; whereof I have heard some great learned men to complaine; That there is no care had in respect, to traine up schollers so, as they may be able to expresse their minds purely and readily in our owne tongue, and to increase in the practice of it, as well as in the Latine or Greeke; whereas our chiefe endevour should be for it, and that for these reasons[4]

The English began to see the impracticality of teaching soley Latin and people like Bacon and Shakespeare began to comment on the need for English to be taught in schools. Soon after schools began to open, English Grammar was taught along with Latin Grammar.[5]

Important People

William Bullokar

William Bullokar is credited with writing the first English Grammar book in 1568 called Bref Grammar for English. This work was written in English about English Grammar, but most of the Grammar of these early texts were prescripted from Latin forms.

Early Grammarians

Many early English Grammarians created works about English Grammar in either English or Latin, but all looked at English through the lens of Latin. Latin added legitimacy to their texts and became the standard that all other languages were measured by. Latin was viewed as the languages that “could not be corrupted by the barbarous uses of the uneducated”[6] and those languages, like English, were spoken by ‘sick’ people who needed to be ‘healed’ by the superior structures of Latin. These texts viewed that Latin had six tenses and, therefore, English must have six tenses, when in reality, it has twelve. The different structures forced on English was like trying to put a circle into a square hole and was a continued belief until late in the Nineteenth Century. To be consistent with the way that Latin was taught and the way that Locke believed people learned, students were taught by rote, drills, and memorization. Their texts were different from those seen today, where they were purely reading with no exercises and from this they remembered their grammar, often without being able to apply it to real life.[7]

Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray

Robert Lowth.jpg

Robert Lowth (1710 – 1787) and Lindly Murray (1745—1826) both created works that lasted well into the Nineteenth Century[8]. Lowth’s A Shorte Introduction to English Grammar was published in 45 editions and advocated for the same prescriptive, sick version of Grammar that the previous books promoted. Lowth’s book is a text that involves long explanations of different grammar points that do not relate to real life: “ THE PREPOSITION, put before nouns and pronouns chiefly, to connect them with other words, and shew their relation to those words.”[9] This example shows how Lowth explains grammar with grammar and does not include usage or any realistic example that a learner can relate to Lowth's book, like this present day definition of a preposition:

A preposition links nouns, pronouns and phrases to other words in a sentence. The word or phrase that the preposition introduces is called the object of the preposition. A preposition usually indicates the temporal, spatial or logical relationship of its object to the rest of the sentence as in the following examples:

The book is on the table. The book is beneath the table. The book is leaning against the table. The book is beside the table. She held the book over the table.

She read the book during class.[10]

The pure text and no exercises reinforced the notion of drill and memorization as a method of learning. This resulted in a language that was spoken and written entirely different than it was taught. The impacts of these texts are very surprising.

Impact of the Early Grammars


The impact of these Grammars was enormous on education in Britain and other English speaking countries and was the prescribed method of teaching English for centuries. The Grammars, like the one written by Lowth, treated the reader as if he had a deficiency in his communication that needed to be fixed by the Latin/English grammar. This resulted in a hospital-like setting created in schools. It also created a setting where teachers would be using drill, rote, and memorization for hundred of years, “grammar to memory, page by page and rule by rule [as] that is the inheritance of the English race for a thousand years.”[11]


Surprisingly, language did not change very much, even though Latin Grammar was prescribed into English Grammar for centuries. There are few things that still prevail today, such as words that are derived from Latin forms like: location, ingredient, motion, science, video, evolve, etc.[12] There are words that are actually Latin as seen in the medical field, as well as word endings like octopi, rather than the standard octopuses that English would have created. Latin had eight parts of speech and so does English. However, English still uses twelve tenses rather than the Latin six tenses, and many other examples of how English stayed the same, as it did not change so it is unrecognizable. Historians in The Cambridge History of the English Language demonstrate “that the attention of grammarians had some effect on direction or rate of language change, but careful study of the ravings of purists show that they have had almost no consequential influence.”[13] It is amazing that the influence of hundreds of years did not affect the evolution of English much.


Compare the first verse of Sir Phillip Sydney’s Astrophel and Stella, written around the 1580s, close to the time when Bulloker had the first English Grammar published


To John Milton’s verse from Paradise Lost, written in 1667, about 100 years later:


To this excerpt from Charles Dickens Oliver Twist, written in 1838, 171 years after Milton wrote Paradise Lost


The main difference between Sydney and Dickens is spelling – which was standardized by Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755. This standardization in spelling can be seen in Milton’s work and the standardization of grammar is observable by comparing Milton and Dickens. Therefore, the largest contribution that the Early English Grammars had on the English language was standardization.

Compare Robert Lowth's A Shorte Introduction to English Grammar

Sample Grammar.jpg

To a popular Grammar text today Onestopeenglish

Sample grammar2.jpg


Bailey, R. W.(2002) The Cambridge History of the English Language [Review of The Cambridge History of the English Language, 1476-1776 Ed. by Roger Lass] Language, 78, 565-569.

Glau, G.R.(1993) Mirroring Ourselves? The Pedagogy of Early Grammar Texts. Rhetoric Review, 11, 418-435. Retrieved from

Goodwin, J.C. (2008) A History of Modern Psychology (3rd ed). Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

Hunt, L., Martin, T., Rosenwein, B. H., Hsia, R. P., & Smith, B. (2001) The Making of the West: People and Cultures. Boston: NY: Bedford/St. Martin's

Lowth, R. (1763)A Short Introduction to English Grammar (2nd ed). Retrieved from

Milton, J. Paradise Lost. Retrieved from

Potter, U. (2008) To School or Not to School: Tudor Views on Education in Drama and Literature. Parergon,25, 103-121. doi:10.1353/pgn.0.0049

Sidney, P. (2004)Astrophel and Stella. Retrieved from

University of Ottawa (2010). Writing Centre. Retrieved from

Wikipedia (2010) History of the English Language. Retrieved from

Wikipedia (2010). List of Latin Derivatives. Retrieved from


  1. Goodwin, 2008, p. 42
  2. Hunt, Martin, Rosenwein, Hsia, & Smith, p. 493
  3. Potter, 2008, p. 103
  4. Potter.To School or Not to School, p. 116
  5. Potter, 2008.
  6. Glau, 1993, p. 421)
  7. Glau, 1993
  8. Glau, 1993, p. 424
  9. Lowth, 1763, p. 9.
  10. University of Ottawa Writing Centre, 2010
  11. Glau, 1993, p. 423
  12. Wikipedia, 2010
  13. Bailey. 1999 p. 566