English grammar

Ann Fisher was the first female English grammarian (van Ostade, 2000). Her dissatisfaction towards the levels of education permitted to women led her to write A New Grammar (1745), in which she proposes some refreshing grammatical reforms which diverge from the traditional attempts to ‘Latinise’ English grammar. Her work contains “a practical method of teaching English grammatically” (1754: vii), which she, as a teacher, used “with uncommon Success, for some Years past” (1754: vi). She advises a progression from learning the simplest elements of the language, and gradually working towards the more complex structures.

Thus, her grammar is divided into four sections: orthography, prosody, etymology and syntax. In the Preface, Fisher reinforces the Johnsonian view that language is bound by rules and it is the grammarian or lexicographer’s purpose to prescribe these rules. This is seen when she states, “The Method of… expressing the Ideas of one Person to another… is universally called LANGUAGE – And the Art of doing the same by Rule, or in the Manner the best speakers and Writers express their Sentiments, is every where called GRAMMAR… (Fisher 1753: i).

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Fisher associates grammatical rules with “the best speakers and Writers”, and such an attitude is also seen by Priestley, who provides examples of composition “from the most celebrated writers” (1761: 65), perhaps functioning in a similar way to Johnson’s (1755) illustrative quotations, which serve to authorise his included words. Another criterion for the setting of Fisher’s grammatical rules is hinted at when she suggests that the “Ten English Rules” for English concord are “necessary in our Language” (1753: 113), which as Rodri?? guez-Gil (2003: 192) notes, suggests a “personal bias in the election of the rules to be included”.

In the Etymology section, Fisher divides the different parts of speech into four categories: names, qualities, verbs and particles; the latter category, comprising of adverbs, conjunctions, prepositions and interjections. This fourfold system of parts of speech and her replacement of some of the traditional Latin names with more vernacular terminology demonstrate her departure from the tradition of producing ‘Latinate’ English grammars and make Fisher one of the earliest grammarians in the “movement of reform” identified by Michael (1970: 509), a group consisting of only twenty-five grammars.

Fisher’s fourfold division of grammar contrasts to the eight parts of speech identified by authors such as John Entick (1728), John Collyer (1735) and James Buchanan (1762), and according to Michael (1985: 214), this eightfold classification “represents the direct application of Latin to English”. Fisher’s grammar therefore, remains more faithful to the nature of the English language and unlike other eighteenth century grammars like that of Lowth and Murray, does not “downgrade English in relation to Classical tongues” (Myer, 1997: 84-5).

Furthermore, while grammarians such as Priestley criticise the lack of inflectional endings in English as being the “greatest defect in our language” (Priestley, 1761: 16), Fisher dismisses this contemporary belief and chides such grammarians who use Latin as a basis for prescribing rules to the English language, “Such Zealots might as well contend that the English Language should be rendered conformable to all the Idioms peculiar to the Latin…

and so oblige us to throw away our valuable Prepositions and introduce in their Places, a Set of Cases with their various Endings” (Fisher 1753: 119). Fisher sarcastically highlights that Latin uses inflectional endings to convey grammatical information, and therefore should not be used to describe English, which instead relies on syntax. Her divergence from this Latinate tradition suggests attempts to anglicise English grammar, and in doing so, she places greater emphasis on the description of English language trends based on her observation, rather than the prescription of Latinate features.

Consequently, Fisher controversially rejects usages that other grammarians have prescribed, in favour of rules that fit the English language more closely, “Whom cannot directly follow a Verb, [and] is elegantly used only after a Preposition… This Remark is objected to by many; perhaps, because it runs counter to a Rule of the Latins… ” (Fisher, 1753: 119).

Similarly, Fisher openly defends the use of the use of the Saxon genitive, “Though this ‘s be deemed by some severe Critics and Linguists an Impropriety, alledging that of is the only true Sign of the Genitive Case in English: Yet as every Language has some Peculiarities of its own; as Grammar is to be adapted to Language; as through Custom we have enfranchised this ‘s to make a Genitive Case by an easy Pronunciation” (Fisher, 1754: 116). Thus, Fisher acknowledges the uniqueness of English, appearing to encourage this feature precisely because it is a “Peculiarity”, which is antithetical to the views of prescriptive grammarians of the time.

In doing so, she describes a contemporary linguistic usage as the Saxon genitive “was already established by the end of the seventeenth century for the use of genitive singular forms and in the eighteenth century for the genitive plural forms” (Moessner, 2000: 395). This view contrasts to that of Johnson, who appears to accept the irregularities within the language rather reluctantly, stating that “Every language has its anomalies, which though inconvenient, and in themselves quite unnecessary, must be tolerated among the imperfections of human things” (1775: Preface).

The anonymous author of The Pleasing Instructor: Or, Entertaining Moralist (1760: vii) discusses at length the education of females. He suggests that “Grammatical Learning is at present, perhaps, too much out of Fashion, especially among the Ladies”. He clearly favours Fisher’s anglicised grammatical approach as he blames many popular English grammars for being “so dependent upon the Latin, that they appear only Translations of them…

” He therefore recommends a “Practical English Grammar”, mentioning specifically “FISHER’s English GRAMMAR” because it is “independent of the Latin, except in such Articles as are common to both”. The writer implies that grammars such as this may help women overcome the “obstacle” (viii) of understanding grammar. However, he is careful not to propose any radical reforms in female education, noting that he does not “mean to recommend READING at the Expence of SEWING”, which indicates that although women should learn grammar, fulfilling their household duties should be their main priority.


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