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 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.
The First Grammarian
Modern English grammar can be traced back to William Bullokar, a printer from the 16th century. Back in 1586, Bullokar wrote the Pamphlet for Grammar, which we now know as the first English grammar resource. His grammar resource compared English to Latin. He also created a phonetic 40-letter English alphabet, addressing the 40 different phonetic sounds he identified. His goal was to increase literacy in England and make it easier for foreigners to learn the language.
Robert Lowth is one of the more notable grammarians who built upon Bullokar’s work. He wrote A Short Introduction to English Grammar in the late 18th century, and this book formed 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.
Creating a System
Lowth wasn’t the only one who tried to standardize grammar. Many others preceded him and many more followed. British schoolmistress Ann Fisher was 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 to detail modern grammar practices, many of which are still in use today.
Adapting Modern Grammar
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 we still don't have a truly uniform set of grammar rules. For example, there are differences between British English and North American English. Many modern publishers also create their own style guides that offer sometimes-conflicting rules regarding things such as capitalization and punctuation.
But when language changes, so do grammar rules. This characterizes 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 rules in the future?