Murray Develops a Modern English Grammar Book

Lindley Murray produced a simple-format English grammar book that was widely adopted by schools in both England and the United States. It proved to be an acceptable compromise between proponents of rules of usage and a universal grammar, and those who wanted language presented and described as it actually was used.

Summary of Event

During the eighteenth century in Britain, great attempts were made to codify the English language Education;grammar
Languages;and grammar[grammar]
Languages;English and to determine how it should be taught. The century saw the first major English dictionaries Dictionaries and grammar books. A rising middle class Middle class;and education[education] was eager to educate Education;England its children to the level of the upper classes, and there were concerns over language norms. Lindley Murray’s grammar book (or, simply, grammar), which was published at the end of the eighteenth century, took into account earlier efforts and produced a focused, eclectic, fairly prescriptive grammar for children of the middle classes. [kw]Murray Develops a Modern English Grammar Book (1795)
[kw]Book, Murray Develops a Modern English Grammar (1795)
[kw]Grammar Book, Murray Develops a Modern English (1795)
[kw]English Grammar Book, Murray Develops a Modern (1795)
Grammar, English
[g]England;1795: Murray Develops a Modern English Grammar Book[3190]
[c]Education;1795: Murray Develops a Modern English Grammar Book[3190]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;1795: Murray Develops a Modern English Grammar Book[3190]
Murray, Lindley
Johnson, Samuel
Lowth, Robert
Priestley, Joseph

Until the end of the seventeenth century the term “grammar” had applied only to the study of Latin Latin, study of
Languages;Latin and, to a lesser extent, Greek. Greek, study of Indeed, “grammar school” originally meant a school where Latin and Greek were taught. Between 1612 and 1669, no fewer than 169 editions of Latin grammars were printed. By contrast, only a few English grammars were produced, modeled on the Latin. The dramatist Ben Jonson’s The English Grammar
English Grammar, The (Jonson, B.) of 1640 was one of the first grammars in English.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, however, there was a new confidence in the elegance and potentialities of the English language. As part of the Enlightenment Enlightenment;Europe philosophy of codifying the natural world, languages, too, were believed worthy of codification. In some countries, academies had been set up to perform this type of work, but the English believed these academies were too restrictive. In England, therefore, individuals, and not the government, were left to codify the language. One major landmark in the study of English was the systematic production of A Dictionary of the English Language
Dictionary of the English Language, A (Johnson) by Samuel Johnson, which he began in 1746 and published in 1755. The dictionary attempted to include both etymologies (origins of words) and meaning distinctions with quotations to show meanings in use. Another major landmark was the English grammar of Robert Lowth, A Short Introduction to English Grammar
Short Introduction to English Grammar, A (Lowth) (1762), who sought an “elevated style” with prescriptive rules, as in Latin grammar, and a fixed universal grammar.

By contrast, Joseph Priestley, a Unitarian scientist and linguist, had argued in his The Rudiments of English Grammar
Rudiments of English Grammar, The (Priestley) (1761) that the job of a grammar book was to describe the language as it was actually used, not to make it conform to an abstract set of rules. This view was reinforced by George Campbell’s The Philosophy of Rhetoric
Philosophy of Rhetoric, The (Campbell) (1776), in which language, as varied and fluid, requires that grammars be descriptive, Descriptive grammar not prescriptive. Prescriptive grammar Campbell’s view prevails in linguistic studies. The problem with determining current usage, however, was the question, Whose usage? In the end, the descriptionists chose the usage espoused in liberal education, with the criteria that it be reputable, national, and current. Murray preferred a descriptive grammar.

An American Quaker who had come to live in York, England, after the Revolutionary War, Murray had been trained as a lawyer but ultimately made his wealth in trade and speculative commerce, the career path of the rest of his family. There are several different accounts of why he settled in England in 1784 on his accumulated wealth. One account cites health reasons; another, that family members were British loyalists, and although they did not suffer confiscation, it was expedient for Murray to leave the country. For whatever reason, he settled in the Quaker community of York, where he was approached by a local Quaker girls’ school to develop its English curriculum. He wrote The Power of Religion on the Mind in 1787, which was in its sixth edition by 1795, the year in which he published An English Grammar: The Principles and Rules of the Language. English Grammar, An (Murray)

Murray believed that the existing grammars, some two hundred of them, were unsuitable for girls. Education;women and girls
Women;education Some were written specifically for sons of tradespeople; others for grammar school students; others included the study of logic and rhetoric. Many were not for school use at all. Although Murray agreed with the usage based on liberal education, his main influence was Lowth, whose prescriptive approach he modified. However, he also acknowledged the work of others, including James Beattie’s Of Accent: Its Nature and Use (1783), on phonology, and Thomas Sheridan’s A Rhetorical Grammar of the English Language (1781), on spoken as well as written expression.

Murray’s grammar comes in two volumes. The first volume has four parts: orthography, etymology, syntax, and prosody and pronunciation. The second and shorter volume has three parts: words and phrases, sentences and figures of speech, and usage and criticism. The orthography section is brief, with a set of fairly arbitrary spelling rules. In etymology, he discusses, mainly, parts of speech, and includes very short chapters on word derivation and vocabulary. One significant aspect of this chapter is the running argument Murray conducts in small print with other grammarians (the large print is for student use). For example, while rejecting full Latinate case declension for the noun, he is uncertain as to precisely how many cases should be employed in English. He also argues for a “potential” mood for verbs, whereas modern linguists would speak of modal auxiliaries (“may,” “must,” “ought to,” and so on). These arguments are part of the historical development of English grammar, which—like a good deal of eighteenth century science—was conducted by amateur scholars rather than professional academics.

The section on syntax, in volume 1 of the grammar, presents twenty-two rules to govern the correct writing Writing;grammar of sentences. One of the suggested exercises for students is “parsing,” which requires a word in a sentence to be given a full grammatical analysis, an exercise borrowed from Latin grammars. The sentences Murray uses are of a morally edifying nature. The grammar was not written simply for the acquisition of linguistic skills; it also intended to inculcate moral principles. Good language and good morality typically were considered two sides of one coin during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The other exercise employed is the correction of sentences, an exercise that was used by Lowth and many contemporaries, though not without controversy. Some had argued against the correction of sentences, claiming it was better to work with actual mistakes made by the students, for example, in their own letters or compositions.

In the second volume, which covers sentence stylistics, a number of key words are repeated as a type of Enlightenment mantra: “perspicacity,” “purity,” “propriety,” and “precision.” The criteria are both logical and moral. “Low” expression is considered morally as well as stylistically reprehensible.

After the initial and quite unexpected success of the grammar’s first edition in 1795, Murray produced a shorter version that omitted the initial work’s theoretical discussion. He also produced a reader as well as a series of exercises with a key, both of which were combined in various ways with other works. For example, the shorter grammar was combined not only with the exercises but also with other authors’ work, such as John Entick’s The New Spelling Dictionary
New Spelling Dictionary, The (Entick) of 1765. Murray’s grammar was criticized by other grammarians, so every new edition either had modifications or added points of debate.

What Murray did not include is also significant. He made no attempt at rhetoric or composition. He addresses the grammar of the single sentence only. He does not examine the swelling eighteenth century paragraph or the heavily embedded complex periodic sentence. Prose style was kept simple and plain, which anticipated a more general shift.


Lindley Murray’s An English Grammar, together with the exercises and reader, outsold every grammar book during the fifty years that followed its first edition in 1795, including its competitors on both sides of the Atlantic. Eventually, more than three hundred editions would appear. Murray outsold even his great American contemporary, Noah Webster, Webster, Noah whose A Grammatical Institute of the English Language
Grammatical Institute of the English Language, A (Webster) had appeared in 1784. In the long run, however, Webster had the greater influence as a lexicographer.

Murray’s grammar worked above all as a school textbook, one that fairly unqualified instructors could use, because it required no prior knowledge of Latin. Its sets of rules, its exercises and passages with their keys, its moral sentiments, and its sense of propriety made it “safe” for teachers and parents alike. Its outline and approach became the template of school grammars for the next hundred years.

Further Reading

  • Mitchell, Linda C. Grammar Wars: Language as Cultural Battlefield in Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century England. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2001. A thorough background survey of the battle of ideas over grammar being fought in Murray’s time. Lists all the grammars produced in the eighteenth century.
  • Monaghan, Charles. The Murrays of Murray Hill. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Urban History Press, 1998. The first part of this work examines the Murray family; the second part looks at Lindley Murray’s propagation of Enlightenment ideals through his school textbooks.
  • Romaine, Suzanne, ed. The Cambridge History of the English Language. Vol. 4. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Chapter 6 examines English grammar and usage, and discusses Murray’s work and that of his contemporaries.
  • Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid, ed. Two Hundred Years of Lindley Murray. Münster, Germany: Nodus, 1996. This work traces the popularity of the various versions of Murray’s school textbooks.

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