Bishop Lowth was not a fool!

Bishop Robert Lowth, author of one of the most important grammars of the English language, was born in 1710, which makes 2010 the 300th anniversary of his birth. Ingrid Tieken, Professor of English Sociohistorical Linguistics, has just launched a website and is preparing a book about Lowth.

Robert Lowth, Lord Bishop of London. From a portrait by R.E. Pine.

Robert Lowth Year

Robert Lowth, author of one of the most important grammars of the English language, was born in 1710. To pay Lowth the honour he deserves as an influential 18th century linguistic scholar, and to commemorate the 300-year anniversary of his birth, 2010 has been designated the Robert Lowth Year. Ingrid Tieken and her Vici research research group (on ‘The Codifiers and the English Language’) have this month launched a new website with information about Lowth and about the forthcoming commemorative events: . Ingrid Tieken is also currently working on a book about Lowth, The Bishop’s Grammar, will is due to appear on 27 November, published by Oxford University Press.

Prescriptivism or descriptivism

Lowth’s Short Introduction to the English Language (1762) earned him the name of ‘icon of prescriptivism.’ The Oxford English Dictionary gives the definition of prescriptivism as: ‘the belief that the grammar of a language should lay down rules to which usage must conform.’ Today, linguists are more likely to practise descriptivism, where the rules for language use are derived from the users of the language, rather than forced upon them. Lowth is often thought of as having imposed a norm of language use – his own norm – on language users, and he has acquired a reputation as a strict and unbending prescriptivist. There is even a website set up by Scott E. Kapel, an American lecturer in English, entitled ‘Bishop Lowth was a fool’, blaming Lowth for many of the ills of prescriptivist judgments inherited from the period.

Title page of Robert Lowth's grammar book.

Icon of prescriptivism loves Thomas

But does he really deserve this harsh reputation? Ingrid Tieken’s study of Lowth’s letters, of which she has managed to collect more than 300, tells a different story about how his grammar book came about and what his intentions were. ‘He actually wrote his grammar for his young son, Thomas,’ she explains. The Anglican Bishop Lowth was married and had seven childen. Lowth actually says in one of his letters, to his friend James Merrick, of his grammar book that he ‘drew [it] up for the use of my little Boy’. Touchingly, this can be seen in many of the sentences he uses as examples: ‘Thomas’s book; I love Thomas; Thomas is loved by me.

Social mobility

The grammar would probably not have gone any further, except that one of Lowth’s patrons, whose wife had recently given birth, wanted a copy for his own son. Lowth, of course, agreed and to meet his request contacted his printer Robert Dodsley, intending to have just a few copies printed. Fuelled by such developments as population growth, urbanization and incipient industrialisation, the late 1700s in England were a period of social change. Dodsley, an enterprising businessman who had an eye for the market, recognized in this atmosphere of social mobility a growing public demand for books on grammar and manners, and decided on a larger print run so he could offer copies for sale to the public at large. Since his book was to reach a wider audience, Lowth was keen to have the opinion of professional linguists on his work. Having started out as a guide for his young son, Lowth’s grammar book now had a dual purpose: it was intended both for linguists involved in describing the English language, and also for the general public keen to improve their own command of the language.


According to scholars of English, the most stigmatised error of usage in the English language is the use of double negatives, and Lowth is famed for having roundly condemned this usage. However, Lowth’s grammar, Rule XVI, does not sound at all prescriptive, merely stating: ‘Two negatives, in English, destroy one another, or are equivalent to an affirmative; as “Nor did they not perceive the evil plight in which they were.” In fact, the whole style of Lowth’s grammar is relatively mild, his comments on incorrect usage appear only in the footnotes, not in the body of the text. Again, his letters are revealing. Through her study of his letters, Tieken has been able to verify that Lowth was himself inconsistent in his use of grammar. He made sure that letters to his superiors in the Church were correct, but in his informal letters he often forgot himself and used the kind of constructions he commented on in his own grammar. This in itself points to an interesting sociolinguistic issue of differentiation in language usage according to the different social groups to which any one person may belong.

Societal relevance

‘We want to make our research as socially relevant as possible,’ comments Tieken. ‘This research on Lowth ties in nicely with current debates in the Netherlands on language use, a topical example being the very recent discussion between Helen de Hoop, Professor of Theoretical Linguistics at the Radboud University in Nijmegen, and Minister Plasterk on the stigmatised use in Dutch of ‘hun’ instead of ‘zij’. The discussion can be viewed online via the Plasterk, as chairman of the Dutch TaalUnie, adopts a prescriptive attitude and condemns this usage as non-standard. At one point in his argument he referred to the fact that English ‘hasn’t changed in the past 400 years.’ Now, this is something Tieken – along with other scholars - roundly denies. She invited him to come to Leiden to debate the issue! Unfortunately, with the resignation of the Cabinet, what promised to be a lively discussion is now unlikely to take place.

Lowth activities

Highlights of the planned activities include the Robert Lowth symposium to be held on 17 and 18 December in Leiden, an MA course to be given by Ingrid Tieken in the first semester of the coming academic year, and the Robert Lowth Day in Winchester on 27 November, Lowth's birth date. It is on this day that the Robert Lowth Award will be presented for the best MA thesis on a subject related to codification or prescriptivism, in any language.


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Last Modified: 11-03-2010