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   Writers from the Early Modern English period


  See also Early Modern writings

Archaizers A collective term given to those English scholars and writers who favoured the revival of obsolete words to expand the vocabulary of English rather than borrowing terms from classical languages. The poet Edmund Spenser (?1552-1599) is the best known representative of this school of thought. See Purists.

Ascham, Roger Author of a work Toxophilus (1545) in which he criticised the inordinate number of borrowings from classical languages (Latin and Greek) flooding into English at the time.

Bacon, Francis (1561-1626) [philosophy] English philosopher and statesman. Born in London he was educated at Cambridge and was later a member of the House of Commons for some 30 years. He was in the service of both Elizabeth I and James I enjoying periods of grace and disfavour alternately. Bacon’s main philosophical works are The advancement of learning (1605) and the Novum organum or Indications respecting the interpretation of nature (1620). In these it is evident that his basic stance was empirical, believing that knowledge is derived from experience and observation. He advanced the science of logic considerably and is responsible for refining means of inductive reasoning. He is the major figure of the New Philosophy, the framework for empiricism and theoretical scepticism which was to characterise science in 17th century England.

Bailey, Nathan [lexicography] (?-1742) Author of a Universal etymological English dictionary (1721) with some 40,000 entries and of the Dictionarium Brittanicum (1730). Bailey was very popular and Dr. Johnson drew on his dictionaries for the word list he used in his own.

Barnes, William (1801-1886) [literary writing] A poet from Dorset. Barnes was a schoolmaster and clergyman who produced much work in the dialect of his native county. He is known to linguistics for his grammars of the Dorset dialect and for a glossary of the archaic dialect of Irish English found in the baronies of Forth and Bargy in the south-east corner of Ireland. Barnes was much in favour of using native Germanic elements in creating alternatives to classical compounds in English.

Blount, Thomas [lexicography] Author of an early ‘hard word’ dictionary, Glossographia (1656), which is unique for its time in its size (over 11,000 items).

Bowdler, Thomas (1754-1825) [English philology] English editor. Born near Bath, Bowdler attained notoriety for his attempts to purge Shakespeare’s works (1818) of what he regarded as unsavoury language and references — he did this in an edition of the Bible (1822) as well. His declared intention was to rid Shakespeare of words and expressions "which cannot with propriety be read aloud in a family". This prudish attitude has led to the formation of a new verb to bowdlerise.

Buchanan, James [prescriptive grammar] A Scotsman and author of The British grammar along with a dictionary of English (1769).

Bullokar, William (c.1530-1609) The author of a proposal for orthographic reform along the lines of John Hart, Book at large, for the amendment of orthographie for English speech (1581).

Butler, Charles Author of The English grammar (1633) a proposal for orthorgraphic reform in the vein of Hart and Bullokar. Contains much information on the divergence of pronunciation and writing in then contemporary English.

Carew, Richard (1555-1620) English nobleman and antiquary who translated Tasso and also wrote The excellency of the English tongue which was published in 1614 in William Camden’s Remaines concerning Britaine: But especially England, and the inhabitants thereof.

Cawdrey, Robert [lexicography] A schoolmaster whose reputation is founded on The Table Alphabeticall (1604) which is taken to be the first English dictionary. His exact dates of birth and death are not known.

Cheke, Sir John (1514-1557) [religious writing] Greek scholar and translator of the Gospels according to Matthew and Mark (1550) in which he devised a system of indicating phonemic length by doubling vowels. He was a supporter of the purist stance in Early Modern English.

Cobbett, William (1763-1835) [prescriptive grammar] The author of an English Grammar (1818) and a Grammar of the English language in a series of letters (1829). These works, which were intended for autodidactic use, are written in plain and simple English and contain useful information for the historical linguist, for instance on the possible verb forms at that time.

Cockerham, Henry [lexicography] One of the early English lexicographers who produced The English Dictionarie (1623) a guide to the ‘hard words’ of the language.

Cole, Elisha [lexicography] Author of an English dictionary (1670).

Cooper, Christopher [prescriptive grammar] The author of a grammar of English Grammatica linguae anglicanae (1685) similar to that by Wallis with an identical title.

Cooper, Thomas (1517?-1594) [lexicography] An early lexicographer who was bishop of Winchester and dean at Oxford. In 1565 he produced a Thesaurus linguae Romanae & Britannicae which contained indications of pronunciations.

Cranmer, Thomas (1489-1556) [religious writing] The compiler of the Book of common prayer in its first two versions (1549 and 1552). He was born in Nottinghamshire and became a scholar in Cambridge and later Archbishop of Canterbury and put to death in Oxford.

Elyot, Sir Thomas (1499?-1546) Author of an eductional work The book named the Governor (dedicated to Henry VIII).

Gil, Alexander [English philology] The author of Logonomia Anglica (1619), a work on contemporary English pronunciation and orthography.

Hart, John (d. 1574) Author of An orthographie of English (1569) which was the first suggestion for a spelling reform of English to bring the orthography into line with contemporary pronunciation.

Hodges, Richard Author of A special help to orthographie: or, the true writing of English (1643) and The English primrose (1644) both works on the topical subject of pronunciation and writing.

Holder, William [phonetics] English scholar concerned with matters of pronunciation which he expressed in his Elements of speech: An essay of enquiry into the natural production of letters published in 1669.

Johnson, Samuel (1709-84) [lexicography] English writer and lexicographer. Johnson was a major critic and scholar who was known both for his brilliant conversation and the quality of his writing. As a man of letters his influence on literature of his day and later periods was considerable. His significance for linguistics lies in the fact that he compiled the first major monolingual dictioanary of English Dictionary of the English language (1755) which was a model for all future lexicographers.

Jonson, Ben (1572-1637) [literary writing] A major dramatist of the Elizabethan period and afterwards. He is known to linguistics as the author of An English grammar (published posthumously in 1640) written ‘for the benefit of all strangers’.

Lowth, Bishop Robert [prescriptive grammar] Author of a normative, prescriptive grammar Short introduction to English grammar (1762) which achieved great popularity for the manner in which it made recommendations for grammatical usage, something which was interpreted as very prescriptive, even though this may not have been intended as such. Lowth was professor of poetry in Oxford and later bishop of Oxford and of London (as of 1777).

Mulcaster, Richard (c.1530-1611) An English scholar and educationalist who is the author of a work on the orthography of contemporary English (see Hart and Bullokar) entitled The first part of the elementarie (1582) which favoured borrowing from Latin but also showed a proper appreciation of the stature of English. Mulcaster may have been the model for the pedant Holofernes in Love's Labour Lost.

Parker, Matthew (1504-1575) [English philology] English bishop and scholar who is generally credited with initiating the study of Old English (various manuscripts which were in his possession are called after him). Parker’s motivation was largely religious: he was concerned with demonstrating the continuity of the Church of England and examined its antecedents in the Old English period.

Priestley, Joseph [prescriptive grammar] One of the 18th century prescriptive grammarians (like Lowth and Murray) who published The rudiments of English grammar in 1761.

Purists A collective term for those English scholars in the 16th century who supported availing of the resources present in the language when coining new words rather than borrowing excessively from classical languages. The most prominent purist of early Tudor times is Sir John Cheke who practised his ideas in his partial translation of the Gospels.

Puttenham, George (d. 1590) Author of The arte of English poesie in which he favours the use of English in forming new words rather than borrowing wholesale from classical languages.

Royal Society A scientific society founded in London in 1660 for the advancement of knowledge (full name: Royal Society of London for the Promotion of Natural Knowledge adopted in 1663 after the granting of two royal charters; first called Royal Society for the Advancement of Experimental Philosophy). It initially consisted of a small group of scholars and scientists who met to discuss matters of mutual interest and were acting in the tradition of scientific inquiry associated which Francis Bacon who preceded them. The society entertained a committee for a while with the intention of improving English grammar and reforming the orthography but the plans did not reach fruition. The society was largely Puritan in orientation from the beginning and was thus largely independent in its opinions; it has had many distinguished members such as the poet John Dryden, the physicist Isaac Newton, the architect Christopher Wren and the scholar Bishop John Wilkins. The society has never achieved official status but it is the nearest thing which England has had to the academies of science of many continental European countries.

Sheridan, Thomas (1719-1788) Born in Dublin (or possibly Co. Cavan) and educated in London and Dublin. He was first an actor and later a travelling expert on elocution. Sheridan is best known for his efforts in the field of elocution, producing a Rhetorical grammar of the English language (1781) and General dictionary of the English language (1780) in which he gives guidelines for the correct use of English. Thomas Sheridan was the father of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

Smith, Sir Thomas [phonetics] Author of a detailed treatment of the sounds of English De recta & emendata linguæ anglicæ scriptione (1568).

Sprat, Thomas (1635-1713) English bishop and member of the Royal Society. His is noted for his History of the Royal Society (1667) which offers insights into this institution in its early years.

Swift, Jonathan (1667-1745) [literary writing] Irish clergyman, scholar and writer. Swift was born in Dublin to English-speaking parents and was educated there and in London. Swift is a typical Anglo-Irish figure who was caught in the tension between his English leanings and his Irish sentiments, this being a productive tension for his creative writings. He had a heightened awareness of language and was generally conservative in his linguistic attitudes as expressed in his Proposal for correcting, improving and ascertaining the English tongue (1712) where he maintains that the best English was spoken from the beginning of the Tudor period up to the deposing of Charles II. Swift was also quite inventive, for instance in the names of fictitious people which occur abundantly in his Gulliver's Travels (1726).

Thomas, Thomas [Lexicography] Author of a Latin-English dictionary Dictionarium Linguae Latinae et Anglicanae (c. 1588) which had an influence on monolingual dictionaries, notably that by Robert Cawdrey (1604).

Walker, John [phonetics] A prescriptive author of the late 18th century, born in London. He is best known for his Critical pronouncing dictionary (1791) which enjoyed great popularity in its day and went through many editions throughout the 19th century.

Wallis, John [prescriptive grammar] The author of an early grammar of English Grammatica linguae anglicanae (1653) which was very popular and went through many editions for about a centry after its first publication.

Webster, Noah (1758-1843) [lexicography] American lexicographer and linguist. Born in Connecticut and studied at Yale. After fighting in the American Revolution he worked as a lawyer in Hartford. His Grammatical institute of the English language (1783-85) established his reputation as the foremost scholar of English in America. The first part of this work, The elementary spelling book, was instrumental in standardising American spelling even though not all of Webster’s suggestions were later adopted. His lexicographical work includes the Compendious dictionary (1806) which was followed by his major work, The American dictionary of the English language (1812) which contained 70,000 words, 12,000 of which had not been listed before. The work went through many revisions. The last which Webster saw through himself was that of 1840. It has been repeatedly revised and published and has retained its popularity in America.

Whythorne, Thomas (1528-1596) Author of a work Autobiography which attempted a modification of English spelling.

Wilkins, John (1614-1672) English author, bishop and sometime master of Trinity College, Cambridge who was interested natural science and in questions of universal grammar and who published an Essay towards a real character and a philosophical language in 1668.

Wilson, Thomas (?1525-1581) Author of two books on rhetoric, Logique (1552) and The Arte of Rhetorique (1553) in which he attacked inkhorn terms and recommended a plain style of writing.


Barber, Charles 1997. Early Modern English. 2nd edition. Edinburgh: University Press.

Cusack, Bridget 1998. Everyday English 1500-1700. Edinburgh: University Press.

Freeborn, Dennis 2006. From Old English to Standard English. 3rd edition. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Görlach, Manfred 1991. Introduction to Early Modern English. Cambridge: University Press.

Burnley, David 2000. The history of the English language. A sourcebook. 2nd edition. London: Longman.