The bishop’s grammar: Robert Lowth and the rise of prescriptivism

The bishop’s grammar: Robert Lowth and the rise of prescriptivism. By Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. 352. ISBN 9780199579273. $110 (Hb).

Reviewed by Julie M. Winter, Gonzaga University

Ingrid Tieken-Boon von Ostade has long been fascinated by Robert Lowth and his A short introduction to English grammar, first published in 1762. In this book, she explores Lowth’s work in depth and ascertains its true place in the codification and standardization process of English. The author wants to set the record straight and give Lowth his proper due for the novel work he created and absolve him of the role he has come to inhabit in modern linguistics—that of the stern bishop who tried to prescribe the rules of English.

One of the many strengths of this undertaking is its reliance on a newly available database containing a large number of letters and other materials written by and to Lowth These documents give insight into the person of Lowth and his social milieu, thus enabling an understanding of his real motivation for writing the grammar and of what happened to the work after it was published. These materials furthermore demonstrate how Lowth and the people he corresponded with actually used language and are, therefore, important documents in tracing the socio-historical development of English.

According to the author, Lowth never intended to write a prescriptive grammar; rather, he wrote the book for his son who was about to enter school and start a formal study of Latin. Lowth thought that by describing the rules of English, he would give his son a foundation for learning Latin grammar. It was natural that the grammar was written using Latin terminology and parts of speech, as this was the only model available at the time. Lowth’s publisher then promoted and marketed the book, causing it to become enormously popular. It went through several editions and was copied, pirated, and plagiarized by other writers. One main reason for the grammar’s success was that people who were climbing the socio-economic ladder during the Industrial Revolution put great value on speaking ‘correct’ and ‘polite’ English, thereby distinguishing themselves from the lower classes.

In particular, Lindley Murray copied extensively from Lowth, but phrased the rules and strictures in such a way as to make them prescriptive in nature, rather than descriptive as Lowth intended. It is true that Lowth gave numerous examples of usage mistakes by English authors in his footnotes, but these were not intended to be the main focus of his grammar. The prescriptive use of Lowth’s work instigated a long line of prescriptive grammars up to the present day, including Henry Watson Fowler’s Modern English usage, reissued in a new edition in 1996.

This book is a remarkable work, solidly researched and written with finesse and attention to detail. The results of the author’s exploration of Lowth’s life and work with respect to the codification and standardization of English should cause scholars to take note and re-evaluate the judgment that the bishop was personally responsible for the rise of prescriptivism.