The eighteenth century grammar books which are more widely known than the others are the following:
Joseph Priestley: The Rudiments of English Grammar (1761) Robert Lowth: A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) Anselm Bayly: The English Accidence (1771) James Harris: Philological Enquiries (1781) Lindley Murray: English Grammar (1795)
Priestley’s grammar, i.e., the first of the five books of grammar listed here, was the only book based on the modern concept of usage. In other words, this was the only book which, instead of prescribing rules, described the way the English language operated during the 18th century. This book, however, was not very successful in establishing the idea that “the custom of speaking is the original and only just standard of any language”.
The other four books represented the dominant spirit of the age and were frankly prescriptive in their orientation. The most important of these four prescriptive books, the book that exercised a great deal of influence by way of fixing and stabilizing the English language, was Lowth’s Short Introduction to English Grammar. The prescriptive stance of these four books can be described in terms of the following characteristics.
(a) Excessive Dependence on Latin Grammar:
Eighteenth century grammarians were all well-versed in Latin and when legislating certain expressions into use and certain other expressions out of use; they depended obsessively on Latin grammar.
These days it is common knowledge that every language is cut out in its own way and so when we describe the grammar of a language, we should describe it in its own terms and not in terms of the conventions of any other language.
During the Augustan period they stigmatized all those structures which were not in conformity with the norms and conventions of Latin. Sentences like “It’s me” were widely used during Shakespeare’s days and even during the eighteenth century but in spite of their wide use they were declared incorrect and vulgar because in Latin only the subject form and not the object form of pronouns were used in such sentences.
(b) Appeal to Etymology:
A number of grammatical constructions were justified on etymological grounds. For example, different from was considered correct but different than and different to were declared incorrect on the ground that the di- part of the word different meant division or separateness and that the preposition from was, therefore, the only preposition compatible with the idea of separateness.
The construction averse to was considered incorrect because the- part of this word meant “from” and, therefore, the preposition to was not a suitable preposition to be used after this word. The phrase under the circumstances was declared incorrect because the circum- part of this word meant “around” and, therefore, the preposition “under” in this phrase was found incongruent with the word circumstances.
Sentences like “Who did you give it to?” in which there is a preposition at the end were stigmatized as incorrect partly because prepositions were not used at the end of a sentence in Latin and partly because in view of its etymological meaning a preposition ought to be placed at the beginning and not at the end of a sentence.
(c) Appeal to Logic:
In Old and Middle English a cumulative use of negative particles was readily acceptable for expressing an emphatic negative idea. Double negatives were widely used during Shakespeare’s days as well. Eighteenth century grammarians condemned such constructions as illogical and incorrect, however, on the basis of the analogy that just as in algebra two minuses cancel each other and denote the presence of a plus mark, in English two negatives should cancel each other and give us a positive meaning.
(d) Appeal to What Sounded Best:
One of the criteria that these grammarians used for ascertaining the grammatical correctness of an expression was their intuitive assessment of “what sounded best” to them or what in their opinion was “within the genius of the English language”.
This was a highly subjective criterion no doubt but they all relied on this criterion every now and then. It lacked objective verifiability and could “be met only by counter assertion, and downed by nothing less than superior weight of authority”.