If you’ve ever written a term paper, started your own blog, or even attempted poetry, you’ve likely spent several hours of your life cursing English grammar. Maybe you're even looking for someone to shake your fist at and curse when you're stuck revising your essay for the fifth time.
Yes, grammar was created by real people, and not just to make us suffer with its rules. It was actually meant to make our linguistic lives easier, if you can believe that.
With all the grammatical patterns, rules and exceptions we have today, it’s impossible to attribute everything to one person. Over the last few centuries, many people have contributed to the evolution of English and its confusing ways. Let’s start at the beginning.
English grammar can be traced back to William Bullokar, a printer from the 16th century. Bullokar wrote the “Pamphlet for Grammar” back in 1586, which we now know as the first English grammar resource. He also created a phonetic 40-letter English alphabet—no big deal, right?
Bullokar wanted to create a resource that compared English to Latin—at least when it came to organizing the grammar rules. Bullokar wrote other works explaining and defending English grammar, too, such as “The Amendment of Orthographie for English Speech.”
English grammar has evolved since Bullokar. Almost immediately after he published his first grammar resource, others chimed in with new ones. Many of them called themselves the “new,” “modern,” or “improved” grammar resource — even if they were published just five years after the last.
Robert Lowth is one of the more notable grammarians who built from Bullokar’s work. He wrote “A Short Introduction to English Grammar” in the late 18th century, and this book laid the groundwork for many other grammarians as they standardized English grammar.
Lowth’s book became known as one of the first examples of prescriptive grammar, or one establishing the rules for how grammar should be used. By contrast, descriptive grammar simply explains how people actually use grammar.
Lowth wasn’t the only one who tried to standardize grammar. Many others preceded him and many more followed. British schoolmistress Ann Fisher is the first published female grammarian and an early user of an all-purpose pronoun. She wrote “A New Grammar” in 1745, shortly before Lowth’s work came on the scene, and her book was released in 30 editions over 50 years.
Fisher’s work was one of the first that detailed modern grammar practices. However, you simply can’t name every person who’s studied, written about, or affected today’s grammatical rules. If you look at a timeline for English grammar, you’ll see that just about anyone who studies it has something new to say.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that grammar really developed into a standardized system. Before then, writers and printers used whatever rules they wanted. Even spelling wasn’t uniform and was most often phonetic. As more people across the world learned English, a more organized set of rules developed into the Standard English we know today.
But even today we don't have a truly uniform set of grammar rules. Modern grammarians and publishers, like Oxford, Chicago and others, publish their own style guides that offer sometimes-conflicting rules regarding things such as capitalization and punctuation.
English grammar is constantly evolving and adapting. When language changes, so do grammar rules. This is descriptive grammar. That means modern grammarians and publishers end up adjusting rules to adapt to popular usage.
English is as weird as it gets. Look at all the new words that get added to the dictionary each year! Sometimes nouns become verbs, and sometimes you come across new internet lingo that no one can really figure out how to classify. Who knows what will happen to grammar in the future?