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Late Modern English

The rise of prescriptivism
Changes in grammar
Introductions to this period

  For more literature on Late Modern English please consult the relevant section of the Reference Guide

It is now normal to divide the time since the end of the Middle English period into the Early Modern English period (1500-1700) and the Late Modern English period (1700-1900). The latter period starts with the Augustan Age – called after the reign Augustus (63 BC - AD 14), a period of peace and imperial grandeur – which begins after the Restoration period (1660-1690) and ends in the middle of the 18th century. Dates which can be mentioned for the end of the Augustan Age are the death of the poets Alexander Pope (1688-1744) and Jonathan Swift (1670-1745). The latter was particularly concerned with ‘ascertaining’ and ‘fixing’ the English language to prevent it from future change (a futile undertaking in the view of linguists).


Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope

Among other important authors of the Augustan Age are Joseph Addison (1672-1719), Richard Steele (1672-1729). The influential periodicals The Tatler (1709-11) and The Spectator (1711-12), which did much to establish the style of English in this period, are associated with these authors.


Joseph Addison and Robert Steele

The prescriptive tradition

The uncertainties of the 16th and 17th centuries about the suitability of English as a language of science and learning led to quite massive borrowing from classical languages. It also engendered a frame of mind where people thought English was deficient and this in its turn gave rise to many musings in print about just what constitutes correct English. With this one has the birth of the prescriptive tradition which has lasted to this very day. Much of this was well-meaning: scholars of the time misunderstood the nature of language variation and sought to bring order into what they saw as chaos. Frequently this merged with the view that regional varieties of English were deserving of disdain, a view found with many eminent writers such as Jonathan Swift who was quite conservative in his opinions. The difficulty which present-day linguists see in the prescriptive recommendations of such authors is that they are entirely arbitrary.

The eighteenth century is also a period when grammars of English were written – by men and women. This tradition of grammar writing goes back at least to the 17th century in England. The playwright Ben Jonson was the author of a grammar and John Wallis published an influential Grammatica linguae Anglicanae in 1653. This led to a series of works offering guidelines for what was then deemed correct English. The eighteenth century saw more grammars in this vein such as Joseph Priestley’s The rudiments of English grammar (1761). Bishop Robert Lowth (1710-1787) who published his Short introduction to English grammar in 1762. This work was influential in school education and enjoyed several editions and reprints. It is held responsible for a series of do’s and don’ts in English such as using whom as the direct object form of who or not ending a sentence with a preposition as in The woman he shared a room with. Lowth also formulated a rule for future tense shall and will in English which has been reiterated since but which does not hold for many speakers (the reduced form ’ll [l] is normal and the full form will [wɪl] is used for emphasis while shall is often neglected). Other influential authors of grammars are Lindley Murray (1745-1826) who produced an English grammar in 1794 and William Cobbett whose English grammar appeared in 1829.

Prescriptive authors are responsible for perennial issues in English prescriptive grammar. Apart from the disapproval of prepositional-final sentences mentioned above one has the prohibition on the split infinitive, as in to angrily reply to a question. The list with time grew longer and longer and today includes many elements which stem from current changes in English, for instance the indecisiveness about the preposition with the adjective different (from, as or to depending on speaker) and the condemnation of less for fewer with plural nouns as in prescribed He has fewer books than she rather than He has less books than she. Another evergreen is the demand for I as first person pronoun. English usage today is that I only occurs in immediately pre-verbal position; in all other instances me occurs: I came but It’s me, Who’s there? Me. Prescriptivists often insist that I be used on such occasions and even ask for it in phrases like between you and me, i.e. between you and I where it never occurred anyway as here the pronoun is in an oblique case whose form was never I.


The title page of Lowth’s grammar and a portrait of the author

One set of writers who most definitely were prescriptive in their condemnation of what they saw as ‘incorrect’ usage in their day are those who wrote pronouncing dictionaries and rhetorical grammars. Foremost among these are the Irishman Thomas Sheridan and the Londoner John Walker. The pronouncing dictionary of the latter was immensely popular and went through more than 100 editions, remaing in print until 1904.


The title page of Sheridan’s grammar and a portrait of the author


The title page of Walker’s dictionary and a portrait of the author

Sample entry from Walker’s Critical Pronouncing Dictionary (first edition 1791)

Eighteenth-century prescriptive writers were self-appointed guardians and defenders of what they regarded as good style. They established a tradition which was to have considerable influence in English society and was continued by such authors as Henry Watson Fowler (1858-1933) who saw it as their task to combat the signs of decay and decline in the English language.

ELOCUTION Apart from prescriptive grammar, another occupation of eighteenth-century and later authors was criticising regional speakers of English for their incorrect pronunciation. Elocution, the art of successful public speaking, was regarded as a desirable accomplishment and demanded a standard prounciation of English, even though it was not always certain what this consisted of. Both John Walker and Thomas Sheridan (mentioned above) published work with the title Rhetorical Grammar of the English Language and both had an appendix in which they voiced their criticism of vernacular London, Dublin, Welsh or Scottish English, for example.

The aftermath of Sheridan and Walker

Both were held in great esteem and their influence can be recognised in the revamping of the originals which occurred in the 50 years or so after their deaths, consider the following examples (one for each author):

Jones, Stephen 1798. Sheridan Improved. A General Pronouncing and Explanatory Dictionary of the English Language. 3rd edition. London: Vernor and Hood.

Smart, Benjamin H. 1836. Walker Remodelled. A New Critical Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language. London: T. Cadell.

The legacy of Sheridan and Walker

Did the strictures of Walker or Sheridan influence the later pronunciation of non-local British English? The answer to this question must be ‘no’. In some cases Walker, as opposed to Sheridan, favoured a form which was later to become default in English, e.g. merchant for marchant. But this did not happen because of Walker's opinion on the matter.

In many respects, Walker was swimming against the tide of language change. His insistence on maintaining regular patterns of pronunciation across the language (his ‘analogy’) and, above all, his view that the spoken word should be close to the written word, meant that he favoured archaic pronunciations. His view that syllable-final /r/ should be pronounced was already conservative in his day. In many of his statements he does, however, accept change although he might not have agreed with it.

The legacy of both Sheridan and Walker should be seen in more general terms. Even if their individual recommendations were not accepted by standard speakers of British English, both were responsible for furthering general notions of prescriptivism. And certainly both contributed in no small way to the perennial concern with pronunciation which characterises British society to this day.

Changes in grammar

The nominal area

MAXIMISING DISTINCTIONS The demise in English morphology which one observes in the history of the language should not be interpreted as an abandonment of grammatical distinctions. Quite the opposite is the case. The introduction of northern, originally Scandinavian forms they, their, them (to replace OE hi, hir, hem) and the development and acceptance of she (from OE hēo) as a distinct form from he documents the maximisation of distinctions, although many redundant inflections, such as verbal suffixes, were dropped. In this connection one should mention the rise of its as the possessive form of it in the early 17th century. Previously the form was his but this was homophonous with the form for the third person singular masculine so the change was semantically motivated.

DEICTIC TERMS There is just a two-way system in Modern English, but formerly a three-way system with a term for distant reference, yon(der) — of uncertain etymology — existed and is still found, in Scottish English for instance.

this (close at hand) that (over there) yon(der) (in the distance)

RELATIVE PRONOUNS In modern English there is an exclusive use of which and who, whereby the latter refers to inanimate things and the latter to animate beings. Up to early modern English, however which could be used for persons as well and dialectally this is still found in English today: The nurse which gave him the injection. Similarly that is generally employed with defining relative clauses today as in The car that was stolen turned up again. However, earlier that was common in non-defining relative clauses as well, e.g. The girl that (who) having failed her exam left college for good.

REFLEXIVE PRONOUNS English, like German, frequently used an oblique case form of the personal pronoun with reflexive verbs; the ending -self was found only in cases of emphasis. But later the emphatic element became obligatory in all reflexive uses, so that a sentence like I washed me quickly came to be expressed as I washed myself quickly.

ZERO SUBJECTS A characteristic of Modern English is that it does not require a relative pronoun when the reference is an object in the main clause, e.g. This is the man she saw yesterday. Now in early modern English it was common for this to apply in cases with a subject as main clause referent and this is still typical of popular London English (Cockney): This is the man —— went to town yesterday. It may well have been that the latter type was tabooed because it was present in popular London and not because of perceptual strategies; there is no greater difficulties in processing the second rather than the first of the following sentences.

    The woman —— he knows has come.
    The woman —— lives here has come.

The verbal area

AUXILIARY VERBS In present-day English the only auxiliary is have. But formerly English had be in this function with verbs expressing motion or change of state, much as does German to this day, e.g. He is come for He has come; She is turned back for She has turned back.

THE SUBJUNCTIVE MOOD Semantically the subjunctive is used to refer to a situation which is uncertain, unreal or conjectural. From the early modern period onwards there was no inflection for the subjunctive so that it is recognisable by a simple verb form without -s (in the third person singular). The verb be has a special form were which is still used in if-clauses in modern English: If it were necessary we would go.

UNSTRESSED ‘DO’ WITH LEXICAL VERBS One of the major changes of the later 16th and the 17th centuries concerns the disappeareance of unstressed do with full verbs in declarative sentences of the type I do like poetry (non-emphatic). This use has been retained for negative, interrogative and emphatic sentences but otherwise it has been lost. There are many views about the mechanics of the change. In general there is agreement that the unstressed do was afunctional and dropped out because of its superfluousness. It was retained longest in the west and south-west of England as is evidenced by writers like Shakespeare.
In many forms of English, particularly overseas, the unstressed do was re-functionalised, usually to express habitual aspect. In varieties as diverse as Irish English and Black English sentences like I do be working all the night have an habitual connotation.

DOUBLE NEGATION The use of two negators was common to heighten the negation. However with prescriptive notions in the 17th and 18th centuries this came to be frowned upon. The application of an inappropriate form of logic allowed only one negator because two were regarded as neutralising the negation, i.e. they represented a positive statement (He doesn't know nobody = He knows somebody). The same type of reasoning was used in German and led to the proscription of double negation here as well. However, many dialectal forms of English allow two or more negators, all of which serve to strengthen the negation, as in He don't take no money from nobody.

USE OF THE PERFECT AND THE PROGRESSIVE Throughout the entire early modern period up to the present-day the use of both the perfect tense (with have as auxiliary) and the progressive with the suffix -ing in the present became increasingly more common. For instance the simple past could be used with questions where nowadays only the perfect is permissible, e.g. Told you him the story? for Have you told him the story?
The perfect in declarative sentences gained more and more what is termed ‘relevance’ to the present, i.e. it signals an action or state which began in the past and either still continues or is still relevant to the present. I have been to Hamburg (recently) but I was in China (years ago as a child).

The progressive is used to express a continuing action. This essential durative character has meant that it is not used with verbs which express a state, hence *I am knowing is ungrammatical.

MULTI-WORD VERBS One of the consequences of the demise of inflections in English is that the system of verb prefixes also declined. There are only a handful left today, such as for- in forget, forbear; with- in withstand, withdraw; be- in beget. But in the course of the early modern period, English developed a system whereby semantic distinctions and extensions are expressed by the use of particles after the verb, often more than one. There may even be verbs which take more than one particle in such cases. These verbs are termed collectively multi-word verbs (rather than the less satisfactory term ‘phrasal verbs’).

put s.o. up ‘to offer accomodation’
put up with ‘to tolerate’
put off ‘to postpone’
put s.o. off ‘to dissuade’
put over ‘to convey’
put on ‘to pretend’
put down ‘to kill an animal’
put through ‘to connect’
put out ‘to inconvenience’
put in ‘to apply for’

USE OF PREPOSITIONS AS FULL VERBS This is in keeping with the typological profile of English which functionalised prepositions to indicate sentence relationships.

    to up the prices; to down a few beers

BACK FORMATION This is a process whereby a verb is derived from a noun, the reverse of the normal situation in English. The reason is nearly always because the noun appeared first in the language, usually through borrowing.

Verb Source noun
to opt option
to edit editor
to enthuse enthusiasm
to peddle peddlar

CONTRACTED FORMS IN THE HISTORY OF ENGLISH Spoken English has always shown contracted forms of auxiliary verbs with particles indicating negation or with pronouns found in verb phrases. In the Old English period these forms were written in the standard koiné, e.g. nis ‘not is’ nolde ‘not wanted’.

In Modern English there is a precarious balance between contracted and full forms which is maintained by the force of the standard, particularly in the orthography. Hence one has forms like won't, can't, don't but also the full forms will not, can not, do not, used above all in writing. Indeed in colloquial registers there can be even greater reduction as with I dunno [dʌnou] for ‘I do not know’. The restraining influence of the standard has meant, however, that such forms have not ousted the longer forms in the orthography.

Introductory books on Late Modern English