Reference > Cambridge History > The Victorian Age, Part Two > Education > Study of English
  Priestley Thomas Sheridan  

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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XIV. Education.

§ 12. Study of English.


No subject had greater interest for the reformers than the mother-tongue, whose educational value had been persistently asserted in England for more than a century past. But, while its indispensable place in a satisfactory curriculum might be granted, considerable doubt existed as to the best manner of teaching the vernacular, when admitted. Locke (Some Thoughts concerning Education) had formulated an excellent method of rudimentary instruction in English; but the difficulty of systematising the language for the purpose of tuition had not disappeared. The fluctuation of spelling and of idiom and the absence of any generally accepted manual of grammar were the points to which reformers addressed themselves. Swift (A Letter to the Lord High Treasurer) 18  had expressed the belief that it was desirable and possible to “ascertain,” and then “fix” the language for ever, the standard being sought in the English of Elizabeth, James and Charles; his pamphlet long survived in the memory of would-be innovators though the standard itself was shifted. A serious attempt to grapple with the asserted instability of the mother-tongue may be dated from the publication of Johnson’s Dictionary (1755), 19  which was followed by other works intended to attain similar ends. Joseph Priestley’s Rudiments of English Grammar (1761), originally intended as a school-book, is marked by a common-sense parsimony of technical terms very unusual in writers on the subject, and by a deference to customary usage which would shock the pedant. Robert Lowth, in his anonymously published A Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762), asserted that the ungrammatical English of “polite” conversation, and of such of “our most approved authors” as Dryden, Addison, Pope and Swift himself, was due to sheer carelessness and not to any inherent defect in the language. The method of Lowth’s book was adopted and its terminology further elaborated in the English Grammar (1795) of Lindley Murray, who may be regarded as the originator of that formal, logic-chopping treatment of its subject which long made English grammar the least profitable of school studies. This celebrated text-book had no claim to novelty beyond a careful selection of what was thought most useful, and its presentation in different sizes of printer’s types in order to indicate degrees of importance. Its success was immediate and extraordinary. In the year of its author’s death (1826), it had reached its fortieth edition, and, in spite of abridgments in many editions and innumerable imitations in Great Britain and America, it was still being printed in 1877. Its immediate success testifies to the great and increasing number of schools, chiefly private boarding schools, which, at the opening of the nineteenth century, made an “English education” their avowed aim.   27

Note 18. “A proposal for correcting, improving and ascertaining the English Tongue in a letter to the … Earl of Oxford” (1712). [ back ]
Note 19. See, ante, Vol. X, pp. 195 ff. [ back ]

CONTENTS · VOLUME CONTENTS · INDEX OF ALL CHAPTERS · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
  Priestley Thomas Sheridan  
 
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