Modern English (c. 1700 to present)
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  • Most important development during this time was the growing interest in the English language
  • By the 18th century England was at the centre of a large and expanding Empire, London English was the global language
  • Social boundaries were now open to change, people could improve their standing in society through education, a large part being their understanding of improving their language
  • Academics became increasingly interested in looking at language from an intellectual standing

Early evidence of interest in language can be seen in the form of dictionaries

  • 1604, Robert Cawdrey, schoolteacher, published ‘Table Alphabeticall’, containing 3000 definitions for ‘usual English words’
  • Many more dictionaries followed due to the success, each new version having a greater vocabulary than the last
  • By 1736 in the 3rd edition of Bailey’s Universal Etymological English Dictionary the count had reached 60,000 words

Dr Samuel Johnson

  • In 1755 Johnson’s dictionary had a wider ranging and more practical she also et of words, around 40,000
  • Having more common everyday words and definitions were more complete and informative
  • Johnson used literary sources to support his definitions, from Shakespeare, Dryden, Milton, Addison, Bacon, Pope and the Bible
  • Johnsons thought these to be works of undefiled English, believing that “tongues like governments have a natural tendency to degeneration”
  • Johnson stated that his aim was simply to register the language, however, his attitude was prescriptive


  • The study of language with the intention of controlling it in some way, by dictating or prescribing how it should be used
  • This grew from the paranoia that the language was degrading and being corrupted by all the changes happening in the Early Modern period

The Prescriptive Grammarians

  • A group of 18th century academics who decided they knew best and published guides on grammar
  • Over 200 were published between 1750 and 1800, the most influential being ‘A short introduction to English Grammar’ by Bishop Robert Lowth, published in 1762
  • It had 200 pages of arbitrary idiosyncratic rules on which grammatical forms should e avoided and encouraged
  • He illustrated his rules with Shakespeare, Milton, Pope and others including Johnson
  • Many of his grammatical rules became widely accepted and many still so today

“two negatives in English destroy one another, or are equivalent to an affirmative”

This came from the widely held judgement that language should be logical, any construction not logical doesn’t make sense

“Never put a preposition at the end of a sentence”

This comes from the popular idea that English should follow the same grammatical rules as Latin and Greek

Why follow Latin

  • Was the historical language of the Bible, the law and courts, the classics and of educated society
  • It was seen as pure and authoritative as unlike English it was an unchanging language following strict rules for usage
  • This was mainly because it was a dead language and was no longer being used for common communication
  • Some grammarians wrote there English grammar books in Latin

Throughout history many people have attempted to stop language change, however, for a language to survive it must be adaptable to change as it is continuous and inevitable.

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