Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade (ed.)

Münster: Nodus, 1996 [The Henry Sweet Society Studies in the History of Linguistics, vol. 2] 240 pp. ISBN 3-89323-452-7

The year 1995 saw the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Lindley Murray's English Grammar, a book that "was without doubt the most popular and frequently reprinted grammar of English during the nineteenth century"1, and yet among modern linguists there is widespread ignorance, or at least a lack of interest in such a kind of 'prescriptive' grammar.

However, with their homage to Lindley Murray's work the editor and the contributors to this volume have not only acknowledged one of the most outstanding scholars of 19th century grammar writing2, but also revealed a field of investigation that is really worth paying more attention to.

The present volume contains 13 articles with a variety of topics: Beginning with some aspects of Murray's biography (Charles Monaghan, pp. 27-43) and the presentation of his textbooks (Frances Austin, pp. 45-61)3, it continues with the reception of his work in Britain (Bernhard Jones, pp. 63-80), Germany (Friederike Klippel, pp. 97-106), the Netherlands (Jan Noordegraaf, pp. 107-123) and Japan (Kayoko Fuami, pp. 125-134), including a discussion of the concept of 'plagiarism' (Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade, pp. 81-96). The prescriptive nature of his Grammar is also discussed (Emma Vorlat, pp. 163-182). A number of contributions are concerned with Murray's treatment of specific linguistic phenomena, such as pronunciation (Linda C. Mugglestone, pp. 145-161), spelling (N.E. Osselton, pp. 135-144), the category of gender (Trinidad Guzmán, pp. 183-192), and number-concord (Xavier Dekeyser, pp. 193-205). Finally there is one article dealing with the rules for good composition in the Appendix of Murray's Grammar (Katie Wales, pp. 207-216).

Lindley Murray (1745-1826), an American-born Quaker, retired around 1784, after a successful career as a lawyer and businessman in New York, to Holgate, near York in England for reasons of ill-health. There he wrote his famous English Grammar and all the subsequent school-books.

In his works Murray avoided committing himself to current discussions about controversial linguistic issues. He clearly pointed out to the reader that he was writing for the use of the learner. He therefore tried to write an easier school-grammar than those existing up till then. In the Introduction to his English Grammar he states:

When the number and variety of English Grammars already published, and the ability with which some of them are written, are considered, little can be expected from a new compilation, besides a careful selection of the most useful matter, and some degree of improvement in the mode of adapting it to the understanding, and the gradual process of learners.4

This adaptation to the needs of learners must have been extremely successful, as is reflected in reviews and notices in contemporary English newspapers:

The number of editions through which a book runs is no absolute proof of its intrinsic merit; but, in the case of Mr Murray, it must be considered a general acknowledgement of the ability and judgement with which his Grammar is composed, and of its consequent utility.5

It finally ran into many editions and was not only used as a school-book in Britain6, but was also translated into many different languages. In this respect Murray made a considerable contribution to the development of English as a world language (Tieken-Boon van Ostade, p. 17).

In his prescriptivism Murray follows his predecessors, such as Robert Lowth (1710-87) and Thomas Sheridan (1719-88), on whom he basically draws7. It is not the language of the masses or general usage, but the practice of the 'best writers' which is taken as the 'standard' of the language (Frances Austin, p. 49; Emma Vorlat, p. 163ff.). His norms for good English are based on appeals to logic, on arguments concerning the 'nature' of the English language, on an analysis of the communicative function of language, on aesthetic criteria and on register requirements.

Murray also followed in the steps of his predecessors by including orthography in his grammar. The rules he established were traditional ones and often outdated, so that "they appear to relate only poorly to the real spelling problems of the time. [...] It is clear that many of the orthographical features taught in this hugely successful school manual bore little relevance to the needs of learners in his day, and also that many spellings favoured by Murray have not stood the test of time." (N.E. Osselton, p. 142).

Murray's prescriptivism throughout his works reveals a clear and consistent responsiveness to the idea that the 'educated' speaker could be identified by the application of norms and that elementary education could play an important role in encoding norms. In this respect 'accuracy' in pronunciation is an educational imperative in Murray's works. The rules he gives for 'correct' pronunciation not only reflect his attitude towards implementing norms of 'good usage', but also "serve as a concise guide to changing patterns of sensitization with reference to a range of linguistic phenomena such as the 'dropped h' in words such as hand or the 'dropped g' in words such as walking" (L.C. Mugglestone, p. 154).

The volume ends with an extensive bibliography of Lindley Murray, compiled by Bernhard Barr. It contains not only the primary sources, such as Murray's works on the English language and his other works, most of which deal with religious themes (both regular and irregular editions), but also secondary sources, i.e. publications relating to Lindley Murray. Also of considerable help is the index nominum at the end of the book.

Both as a homage to Lindley Murray's work, as the 'father of English grammar', and as a fascinating view of 18th/19th century grammar writing, this well-composed collection of articles should be of interest to anybody concerned with the field of Linguistic Historiography and English (Historical) Linguistics.


Murray, Lindley. [1795]. 1968. English Grammar, adapted to the different classes of learners. With an Appendix, containing Rules and Observations for Promoting Perspicuity in Speaking and Writing. York: Wilson, Spence, and Mawman, 1795; Menston: Scholar Press.

Nietz, John A.. 1961. Old Textbooks. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.


1. Murray, Lindley. [1795] (1968). Note by the publishers. (Back)

2. John A. Nietz (1961: 110) calls him the "father of English grammar", and this although Murray's Grammar was strongly criticised some 80 years after its appearance in the light of Modern Linguistics because of its 'ungrammaticality'. (Back)

3. Apart from his English Grammar, which ran to at least 65 numbered British and to numerous American editions and reprints, he published an Abridgment of the Grammar, which appeared in 1797 and which ran to twice that number of editions. And also his subsequent publications became popular all over the world and were widely used as school-books: his Exercises, the Key to the Exercises (1797), the English Reader (1799), its Sequel (1800), the Introduction to the English Reader (1801), an English Spelling Book (1804). (Back)

4. Murray, Lindley. [1795]. 1968: III. (Back)

5. Bernhard Jones, p. 69, quotes from the Anti-Jacobin, January 1804: 103. (Back)

6. Interestingly enough Murray was more popular in the United States than in Britain. According to Charles Monaghan (p. 27) he was the second largest selling author in the English speaking world in the first half of the 19th century after Noah Webster. (Back)

7. The 18th century is commonly considered the heyday of prescriptive grammars in England. (Back)

Ilse Wischer, Potsdam