The eighteenth century was a productive period for the development of English grammar.  It was a time when the language had attained respectability as a medium for the arts and letters.   It was also a time when English was being used in the sciences.  British intellectuals took pride in their language and wanted to provide it with legitimacy and stability.  With the demise of Latin as an international language and with the rise of vernacular languages, the most common means of providing stability to a language was to have it regulated by an academy.  The French and the Spanish had already established their language academies, but the British intellectuals decided against this move.  What they decided instead was to provide the English language with the apparatus of scholarly study that was to be found among the language academies of other countries.  They placed their emphasis on the creation of dictionaries, the writing of grammars, the development of rhetoric, and they attracted the best minds in England to assist them in these tasks.  However, they fell short of creating an official academy.  For example, Samuel Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755 and created the foundations of Modern English lexicography.  In 1761, Joseph Priestley wrote manuscript on The Rudiments of English Grammar, however, he was noted more for his work in chemistry rather than linguistics.  The next year, Robert Lowth also produced a grammar, A Short Introduction to English Grammar.  These early grammars were concerned with the propriety of language.  These grammarians wanted to focus on what was considered to be correct language.  Their grammars provided examples of proper language and included examples from such famous British authors as Shakespeare, Pope, and Milton.  These authors helped to establish examples of good writing. 
The tradition of grammatical studies soon became a part of the school curriculum. Lindley Murray, an American lawyer, immigrated to Britain after the American Revolution and settled in Yorkshire.  At the request of the teachers of the girl’s school in York, he wrote his English Grammar Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners (1795).  Evidently, the strong interest in the English language was no longer limited to intellectuals.  It was now a driving concern among teachers of the language.  By 1795, Murray published companion works to his grammar.  These supplements consisted of exercise books on grammar which included such topics as the parsing of sentences, punctuation rules, prosody (the principles of versification), etymology (word origins), grammatical rules or syntax, and lessons on rhetoric (the art of writing).    These books were very successful and became the standard texts for English grammar in England and in the United States  The text went through fifty editions and the supplements ran through one hundred and twenty editions.
American scholars began to realize how much their language different from those of England.  It had its own sound system, its own prosody, it was laden with different loan words from numerous indigenous languages of North America, and it had its own patterns of usage.  By 1828, Noah Webster developed the American Dictionary of the English Language in which he stressed American usage.  Murray’s model of classroom textbooks was soon imitated by American scholars who produced their own spelling books, readers, and grammars.  Eventually, textbooks from England were excluded from the American textbook market.  This new tradition in the United States was called “the language arts.”  By the end of the century, the language arts were further modified by Alonzo Reed and Brainerd Kellogg.  They created a system of parsing sentences; they differentiated subjects from predicates, verbs and direct objects, and between a verb and the predicate nominative.


One final comment on traditional grammarians that merit discussion is the work of George O. Curme.  This American was one of the few North American scholars to contribute to the writing of English grammars.  His work followed an historical orientation and in this regard it was similar to that of Jespersen’s A Grammar of the English Language.   It was supposed to emerge as three volumes.  Only two of these have appeared in the United States, Syntax (1935) and Parts of Speech and Accidence (1931).  This work ends the tradition of traditional grammar with its concern for linguistic propriety.  These grammars were replaced by structural grammars, a tradition that is closely aligned with the rise of structural linguistics in Europe and in the United States.  Before considering these grammars, it would be interesting to consider the use of Latin as the model upon which traditional grammars were based.


Why was there such a focus on language systems among contemporary linguists?   After all, traditional linguists did not necessarily concern themselves with synchronic linguistics.  They knew that languages form syntactic patterns and other systemic structures.  They were fully aware of how languages pattern themselves.  There were numerous publication which emerged from the latter part of the last century that provided ample evidence of this new structural awareness.  Many tomes were written about the how language families shared similar linguistic structures and how they shared the same systemic properties.  The answer to shift from historical linguistics to synchronic linguistics becomes even more intriguing when one considers the tradition in which historical linguistics operated.  Before resolving this enigma, one should more fully examine this tradition and its implications. It was normally assumed, for example, that all languages patterned themselves in accordance with Latin.  They were assumed to share the same system.  An example of this reconstruction of language to comply with the dictates of Latin grammar can be found in the writings of traditional English grammarians.

Traditional grammarians were prescriptivists.  They noted that when some is asked “who is there?” the response was usually “It is me.”  They considered this to be an incorrect response because in Latin, the answer would be “Sum ego”  (It is me).  The fact that English has Germanic roots and follows different language patterns did not concern them.  When these traditional grammarians defined the English parts of speech, they modeled them after the Latin mold.  English, it was argued, had nominative, accusative, dative, ablative, and vocatives case endings.  “Oh book” was an example of the English vocative case.  Furthermore, they patterned English grammars in accordance with the rules of Latin.  The terms “predicate nominative” and “predicate adjective” were taken directly from Latin grammar books.  This terminology reflects the fact that in Latin, the predicate noun or the predicate adjective was in the same nominative case as the subject noun.


  Predicate Nominative:   

   John is a student

NP be NP

 Predicate Adjective:    

  John is happy



So were the aspect markers such as “preterit” and the “imperfect.”

This distinction was important for Latin, but not for English.  In Latin, one had to decide whether or not an action was completed or perfected.  This way of talking about the world constitutes the grammatical nature of the Latin language. It is not a distinction that exists structurally in Modern English and so the question may be asked about whether such terminology is relevant for English grammar.  What distinctions are important for English are the aspects of Punctual, Durative, and Iterative[1] 

            Punctual:    John dropped the ball
            Durative:    John has dropped the ball
            Iterative:    John is dropping the ball

Another concern of Latin grammarians was their predisposition for defining grammatical forms.  Hence, the “noun” was defined in accordance with the dictates of Latin grammar as the “name of a person, place, or thing.”  Finally, even the term “case” is taken from the Latin model of grammar.  This word means “fall.[2]”  According to Latin grammarians, cases represent a falling away from the nominative.  Hence, the nominative was called “casus rectus” or the upright case.


Hence, the following examples of parsing within the Latin Paradigm. The accusative is horizontal; the nominative is vertical; and the other cases are oblique.






Given this strong tradition of modeling grammars after Latin, why should one want to change the way of defining grammatical systems?  The answer to this enigma can be found in the research of linguists who were studying non-Indo-European languages.


The study of words was a major concern among traditional grammarians.  There are several reasons for this: One reason is that sentences are made up of words.  Whenever grammarians parsed sentences, they ended up with words.  The study of words was a natural consequence of sentential analysis.  The second reason had to do with the parts of speech.  Traditional grammarians were intrigued by the parts of speech because they that these words provided important insights into the structure of grammar.  The parts of speech are made up of words and morphology was a natural consequence of the practice of cataloging the parts of speech in language.  The final reason why words study was important was due to the intense interest that traditional grammarians had for definitions.  Everything had to have a definition.  A noun, for example, was defined as the name of a person, place, or thing.  What they were defining in this case, were words.  Hence, the definition of a word became a major topic among traditional grammarians.

Words are structured.  The major textbooks of the last century are quick to point out that a word has a root form, and affixes.  The affixes appeared as prefixes and suffixes.





Root Form
















Several questions arose from this kind of analysis of words.  One of them had to do with suffixes.  Some of these function as grammatical markers and were called inflections.  Others are used in word formation and were designated as derivations.



Noun Declension




Noun Derivations








-s (Plural)


- r  (Singular)















Nouns were inflected for number.  They are either singular or plural. Plurals were usually marked by the inflectional suffix “-s” or “-es.”  However, the singular form was unmarked and was called the “zero form.”  Nouns were not limited to this pattern of inflection.  Some underwent vowel changes in root form as a way of designating plurality. Others had special inflection endings.  

                        goose                           geese (vocalic change)
                        tooth                            teeth
                        child                             children (special suffix)
                        sheep                           sheep (no change)
                        ox                                oxen

  Furthermore, the way in which nouns were formed differed from those of verbs.  This difference necessitated a special vocabulary; nouns were declined and verbs were conjugated. 



Verb Conjugations




Verb Derivations




-s (Present Tense)


-ed (Past Tense)









-ing (Present Participle)


-en (Past Participle)

Not all verbs were conjugated according to this pattern.  Some of them had undergone vocalic changes in the root form, and a few had even undergone the morphological process of suppletion, a change of the base form of the total verb morphology in the past tense. 

                       Sing                  sang     (vocalic change)
                       eat                    ate       
                        fight                  fought
                        may                  might
                        find                   found
                        bear                 bore
                        lose                  lost
                        hit                     hit         (no change)
                        go                    went     (suppletion)

The study of words involves far more than the mere classification of word types.  Traditional grammarians were also interested in word formation.  They knew that a word could change from one class into another by the simple addition of a derivational suffix.





Derivational Suffix


Changes in Word Formation

work (verb)

-er (Agentive)

from verb to noun, one who does the action of the verb

employ (verb)


From verb to agentive noun

employ (verb)


from management to worker

employ (verb)


from verb to noun

emerge (verb)


from verb to abstract noun

state (concrete noun)


from concrete to abstract

happy (adjective)


from adjective to noun



from verb to noun



masculine agent



feminine agent



from verb to adjective

Traditional grammarians noted that adjective and adverbs had interesting morphological properties. Adjective preceded nouns and adverbs preceded verbs, but adjectives could be changed into nouns by the addition of a suffix.

















a few



                        The act was bad (adjective)

                        He was badly beaten (adverb) footnote 8

Just as nouns and verbs have a special kind of internal structure, adjectives also exhibit internal structural constraints.These patterns have to do with the semantic order of adjectives. 






















school house

























very very








Perhaps the most difficult area of morphological research was concerned with compound nouns. They encountered many problems in describing how new structures were created when two words are combined to form a compound noun.  Traditional grammarians soon found that the word was not the minimal unit of meaning.  Words are made up of free and bound morphemes. 

                        Strawberry       (straw + berry)
                        cranberry          (What is a cran?)
                        receive             (What is ceive?)
                        conceive           (con+ceive)

Another problem had to do with the hierarchical structure of the new nouns. For example, a noun [universe] can be made into an adjective [universal] and back into a noun [universality] through the use of suffixes. 

 Case  Singular  Plural
 Nominative  dom     domes
 Accusative  dom     domes
  Dative    dom         domes
 Genitive       domes     domes

dom   judgment

The only nominative, accusative and dative forms all coalesced into the same form.  The genitive form remained as a separate ending.  The plural forms were also regularized to “domes.”   The pronoun system was also simplified.

            MIDDLE ENGLISH

I love                            we loven

thou lovest                    ye loven

he, she, hit loveth         they loven

The pronouns, however, still retained the complex system of personal endings characteristic of Old English.  This is not surprising as pronoun systems are always very conservative and are the last to change through time.

            MIDDLE ENGLISH

Nominative Singular    I, ich 
Genitive                    my myn (before vowels) cf. mine eyes
Dative                       me
Accusative                  me

Nominative Plural        we
Genitive our,              oures
Dative                       us
Accusative                 us

Middle English is also characterized by a plethora of loan words from French.  These loans were considered to be part of the new prestigious language of English.  Today, these French borrowings are part of Formal English.

           French Loan Words

            government, chastisement, indictment, performance, confession, courtesy,         
            fortune, liquor, melody, pilgrimage, courage, strange, devout, dance, chance, fancy, etc.

Another influence from the French language came in the new orthography.  Many words changed their Old English spellings to reflect the French method of orthography.  

            OLD ENGLISH                     MIDDLE ENGLISH

            hus                                           house
            mus                                          mouse

There is much that can be said about the history of the English language.  This synopsis is meant to provide some insight into how Old and Middle English differed from Modern English.  One will find these topics discussed in great detail in texts and courses dealing with the history of the language.


Latin was an international language.  It was the language used by all of the territories within the Holy Roman Empire.  It began as an international language at the time when Caesar began his conquests throughout Europe.  Any scholar who wanted to exchange his views with others was forced to write in Latin.  Eventually, the political hegemony of Rome began to disintegrate and this led to the creation of separate nation states.  Each state had its own vernacular and each wanted to convey its knowledge and literary traditions in that language.  This opportunity for national expression created a concern for the national language.  Many countries decided to create national language academies to guard and protect the national treasures of language and literature.  The British were an exception to this trend.  They did not create a language academy.  Some would argue that the British had all of the paraphernalia that one would find in a language academy: dictionaries, etymologies, grammars, morphology, rules of prosody, rules of punctuation, the history of the language, examples of literary excellence, and so forth.   What this means, in essence, is that the British had a language academy even though it was not officially promulgated under that name.

During the periods of European expansion, scholars from Portugal, Spain, France, Germany, The Netherlands, and England learned about the existence of many exotic languages.  Early attempts to analyze these languages were not fully successful and this was because Latin was used as the model for their linguistic analyses.  For over a century, this imposition of Latin structure on the analyses of other languages continued to exist.  Many linguists were aware of the problem, but none really offered an alternative to the Latin model.  It was not until the rise of structuralism that linguists found a solution to their problem.  Ferdinand de Saussure contrasted diachronic linguistics with synchronic linguistics.  The latter mean that each language had its own system.  Each language had its own structure.  American structuralists were quick to point out that these structures already exist in a language and that they must be discovered by those who are analyzing the language.  Several traditional concerns were no longer of interest to these structuralists.  They were no longer obligated to use the traditional parts of speech and they no longer had to follow the Latin model for parsing sentences.  The new focus was on discovering the function words in a language and in describing the sentence patterns of that language.  The details of these new approaches to language are the subject of the next chapter.


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Campbell, Jeremy 1982 Grammatical Man: Information, Entropy, Language, and Life. New York: A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, Inc.

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Greenberg, Joseph H. 1963 Universals of Language. Cambridge, MA.:MIT Press.
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Katz, J. and J. Fodor 1963. The structure of semantic theory. Language 39:170-210.

Landar, Herbert 1965 Language and Culture. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

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Petit, Philip. 1975 The Concept of Structuralism: A Critical Analysis. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.