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Review of  The Bishop's Grammar

Reviewer: Laura L. Paterson
Book Title: The Bishop's Grammar
Book Author: Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Syntax
History of Linguistics
Subject Language(s): English
Issue Number: 22.2940

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AUTHOR: Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade
TITLE: The Bishop's Grammar
SUBTITLE: Robert Lowth and the Rise of Prescriptivism
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2011

Laura Louise Paterson, Department of English and Drama, Loughborough University


Over nine chapters, Tieken-Boon van Ostade sets out to re-evaluate the position
of Robert Lowth, Bishop of London, as the founder of traditional prescriptive
grammar in English. She begins by focusing on Aitchison's (1981) evaluation of
Lowth's work, rejecting the notion that ''so many of his strictures were based on
his own preconceived notions'' of correct English (Aitchison 1981, p. 25; quoted
in Tieken-Book van Ostade, 2011, p. 6). As part of her argument, Tieken-Boon
van Ostade claims that Lowth was not, in essence, a prescriptivist, but rather
suggests that the prescriptive label which has been attached to him is based
upon other grammar writers, such as Murray (the American, whose famous grammar
was published in 1795), adopting and recasting Lowth’s work in increasingly
prescriptive tones. She notes that, far from setting out to correct English
usage, Lowth's original motivation for writing the grammar was for his son, and
he only published it because Henry Bilson Legge, who was to become Chancellor of
the Exchequer, requested a copy. Tieken-Boon van Ostade also points out that it
was not the author, but the publishers, who saw a gap in the market for a book
such as Lowth's, adding subsequently that Lowth sold his copyright.

In the second chapter, the author documents her primary sources for the book,
which include Lowth's personal memoires, a corpus of his correspondence, and his
will, not to mention different editions of his famous grammar. Tieken-Boon van
Ostade uses these texts to present a picture of Lowth's life outside of the
grammar, including his career in the church, and his family, highlighting the
fact that Lowth had friends in high places, and was chaplain to the king (p.
27). Having established Lowth's social connections, Chapter Three is a detailed
and comprehensive history of the grammar, in which Tieken-Boon van Ostade notes
that the first edition was anonymous, insofar as Lowth's name did not appear on
the cover. Yet, she acknowledges that the text was advertised and talked about
as '''Lowth's grammar' from the start'' (p. 60). She then discusses the
development and expansion of the grammar into the second edition, which was
based in part on the submissions of the readers of the first edition, as Lowth
had called for such input in his preface to the original. In the second half of
the chapter, Tieken-Boon van Ostade deals with the popularity and distribution
of the grammar, and documents the authorised editions, and unauthorised reprints
and ''pirated'' versions of the text (p. 72), which spread as far as the US and
Europe. She also highlights the impact that Lowth's grammar had, by noting that
a number of texts, including ''The Child's Grammar'' (Fenn, 1799), were written
specifically as introductions to Lowth's work aimed at children (and perhaps the

Chapter Four deals with the structure of the grammar itself, which includes
sections on letters, grammar, word classes, and punctuation, and the author
proposes some possible sources for Lowth's choice of segments and titles.
Tieken-Boon van Ostade also pays special attention to Lowth's footnotes in the
syntax section (which is perhaps his most famous contribution to grammar), which
are based on a corpus of grammatical errors made by dead authors. She discusses
the implications of using Lowth's method as a potential building block for
corpus-based work on pages 96-7, and provides further arguments for her defence
of Lowth by stating that his correction of negative examples was actually
proscriptive (rejecting ‘incorrect’ forms), rather than prescriptive (endorsing
particular alternative forms) . She also contrasts Lowth with other grammarians
of the time, such as Priestly, and suggests that they were equally, or more,
prescriptive than Lowth. To this end, she directly compares Lowth's treatment of
weak and strong verbs with other grammar writers (Murray and Ward) and with
their equivalents in Present Day English (p. 126). She also takes issue with
specific words used in Lowth's grammar, such as ''vulgar'' and ''vicious'' (pp.
111-12) and suggests that, although they are presently shaded with modern
meanings, at the time of writing the grammar, the words did not have such
negative connotations, and therefore were not necessarily social judgments on usage.

In Chapter Five, following on from establishing Lowth's personal life in Chapter
Two, Tieken-Boon van Ostade seeks to reconstruct Lowth's social networks using
his personal correspondence. She provides a lot of descriptive detail about her
corpus of letters, but notes its limitations. Using address forms as a marker of
social relationships, she classifies the letters into groupings of intimacy
based on their openings and closings and whether such terms are reciprocated by
both parties, coming up with a rank scale from 'relatives' through 'fellow
scholars' to 'enemies'. However, the author does not always provide relevant
contextual biographical information about Lowth's correspondents, and therefore
the social significance of Lowth's relationships is left implicit.

Across Chapters Six and Seven, Tieken-Boon van Ostade analyses Lowth's letters
in relation to the content of his grammar, in order to spot inconsistencies and
illustrate his awareness and use of different levels of formality and style. For
example, she provides a close analysis of the contractions Lowth used - noting
that they generally decrease as formality and politeness increase - followed by
a detailed section on Lowth's use of variant spellings. Her analysis of Lowth's
letters shows that he did not always follow his own teachings, and thus the
author again tackles Aitchison's (1981) viewpoint, saying that the idea that
Lowth merely prescribed his own preferences ''barely holds water'' (p. 227). This
is due, in part, to the fact that Tieken-Boon van Ostade argues that Lowth ''was
particularly sensitive to the language of those who were highly placed in
society'' (p. 222).

In Chapter Eight, the author contextualises the grammar in terms of the
standardisation of English, but notes that Lowth's grammar was published well
before more overtly-prescriptive usage guides were common place. In addition,
she compares the number of proscriptions Lowth makes to that of other grammar
writers, and shows that he is at the bottom of the pile. In her final chapter
Tieken-Boon van Ostade restates her assertion that it was Murray's (and others')
use of Lowth's grammar which was prescriptive, and not Lowth's original text,
before returning once more to Aitchison's comments about how confident Lowth was
in his assertions (p. 291). She concludes by arguing that Lowth was not the
traditional grammatical prescriptivist that scholars, like Aitchison, portray
him to be, and whilst she notes that his work did have an impact on grammar
writing in the eighteenth century and beyond, his role has been greatly


This is a key book for any scholar working on grammatical norms of the English
language, and/or the codification and standardisation of English. Tieken-Boon
van Ostade provides an alternative account to the standard depiction of Robert
Lowth as an initiator of prescriptive grammar. However, one criticism is that
she treats negative evaluations of Lowth's grammar, and his characterisation as
a prescriptivist, as negative evaluations of the person himself. She focuses on
Lowth as a man, and as such, does not consider that at least some evaluations of
'Lowth' in the wider literature refer to the grammar itself, and not to the
person who wrote it.

On a different point, the limitations of Tieken-Boon van Ostade's primary
sources are clear. However, she does note that the letters she uses represent
only a small amount of the correspondence that Lowth was engaged in during his
lifetime, and as such, the corpus of correspondence cannot tell Lowth's whole
story. Nevertheless, one feature of the limited number of letters is that some
quotes are used more than once throughout the book, and repetition is not
uncommon. In addition, on a graphological note, the quotations from the letter
manuscripts could have been standardised to make them accessible to more
readers, however, this is a minor quibble and does not affect the overall
reading of the book.

Whether one sides with Tieken-Boon van Ostade's depiction of Lowth or not, and
whether one believes that he deserves, or indeed even has, the negative
reputation that she attributes to him, her arguments are well supported. She
notes the limitations of her data, and although there could have been a few more
examples from the grammar, she supports her viewpoints well. Her analysis of
individual grammatical features in Chapters Six and Seven is especially
thorough, and convincing. Although the book is not for the uninitiated, and
would therefore probably not be suitable for undergraduates, or non-linguists,
it would be of great interest to a range of scholars, from those working on the
nuances of eighteenth century grammar, to those looking at modern usage, and
more broadly at the codification and standardisation of languages. Tieken-Boon
van Ostade presents her argument well throughout the text, and it is clear that
she is a stalwart defender of Lowth's name.


Aitchison, Jean. 1981. Language Change: Progress or Decay? (Reprint, 1984;
second edition, 1991; third edition, 2001.) Bungay: Richard and Clay (The
Chaucer Press) Ltd.

Fenn, Ellenor. 1799. The Child's Grammar. Dublin: No imprint.

Murray, Lindley. 1795. 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.

Laura Paterson is about to complete her PhD in the Department of English and Drama at Loughborough University. Her work centres on epicene pronouns in written British English, focusing specifically on generic 'he' and singular 'they'. Her thesis involves examining the interplay between social factors, such as language prescriptions, and empirical factors, such as how pronouns are processed in the brain, and analysing what impact (if any) each type of factor has on epicene production.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 019957927X
ISBN-13: 9780199579273
Pages: 352
Prices: U.K. £ 65.00

Format: Hardback
ISBN-13: 9780199579273
Pages: 352
Prices: U.S. $ 110.00