Female grammarians of the eighteenth century(1)
Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade
(University of Leiden)
Published: 28 August 2000 (HSL/SHL
As far as I know, the first woman to write a grammar of English was
(1719-1778). According to Alston, the first edition of her grammar has not come
down to us (1965:25), and it is for this reason that the second edition,
published in 1750, has been reprinted in his facsimile series English
linguistics 1500-1800.(2) In the introduction to the facsimile reprint, Alston notes
that on 29 June 1745 an advertisement for the book appeared in the Newcastle
Journal, so it must have been in existence by that time at the very least.
Furthermore, the grammar appears to have been plagiarised by John Kirkby for his
own grammar published in 1746 (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 1992:166-167), which
confirms its earlier existence. That Fisher might have plagiarised Kirkby’s
grammar instead of Kirkby hers is ruled out by the corrections made by Kirkby to
the manuscript of the published work; in its unedited form, its original text is
in many places identical to that in Fisher's grammar. The first edition of the
grammar is therefore now generally dated at 1745 (cf. Michael 1987:457). Fisher
is described by Michael as the “wife of Thomas Slack, printer, of
Newcastle-upon-Tyne” (1970:562). As a schoolmistress (Lexicon grammaticorum,
s.v. “Fisher”), it seems likely that she set up her own method for the
teaching of English grammar; there were not many grammars available at the time,
and those that were may not have been easy to come by in Newcastle, let alone
the fact that they would probably have been unsuitable for the teaching of
schoolchildren. In another book Fisher wrote, The pleasing instructor
(1756), she notes that “Most of our English Grammars are so dependent
on the Latin, that they appear only translations of them, introducing
many needless perplexities; as superfluous cases, genders, moods, tenses, &c.
peculiarities which our language is exempt from” (1756:vi) (see below).(3)
It may be that one of the grammars she is referring to here was the one by
Greenwood (1711), which was reprinted several times during the first half of the
eighteenth century. Greenwood is indeed to a large extent an acknowledged
translation of Wallis’s Grammatica linguae Anglicanae (1653) (Tieken-Boon
van Ostade 1987:212 and 1990:494n2). Through her husband’s profession Ann
Fisher may have had enough connections among the Newcastle printers and
publishers of the day to find someone willing to bring out her book. The
printing history of the grammar as presented by Alston (1965:25-30, 109)
suggests that upon the successful reception of the grammar in Newcastle -
already in 1751 a third edition came out - Fisher tried to find a market for it
in London. In 1753 a reprint of the third edition of the grammar came out there,
published by “the Author”. Eventually, Fisher does seem to have managed to
find a London publisher, and under the revised title A practical new grammar
Alston records eleven London editions after 1762, while during the same time the
book was reprinted fifteen times in Newcastle (until 1780 by Thomas Slack, her
husband). One edition of the grammar came out in Leeds ([1780?]), published by
John Binns, a Yorkshire schoolmaster (Michael 1970:552) who also published an
edition of Lowth’s grammar (1794) as well as a grammar by Carter (1773) and
one written by himself (1788) (Alston 1965, s.v. “Lowth”, “Carter” and
Fisher’s grammar is
important, not only because it was popular - Alston lists 31 numbered editions -
but also because it was the first to contain exercises of false grammar. The
idea to confront the pupil with examples of bad English, as Fisher called them,
was taken from Latin grammars, and she was well aware of the novelty of her
innovation: “As this contains a larger Syntax, with
Exercises of Bad English, and some other Praxises and
Peculiarities entirely new ... never any Thing of the same Nature appearing
in an English Grammar before, I run the Risk of Singularity”
The exercises consist of examples under a particular rule of syntax that must be
corrected, such as:
Two Relatives, or a Name and a Relative, require a Verb
My Brother and I was at Church yesterday.
John and thou is very abusive. She and he are going abroad. Thou and I is
to pay a Visit. ( 1789:135)
Presumably to test the
reader even further, she notes at the outset that “Some of these Examples are
set right, lest the Learner, expecting them always wrong, should alter them by
guess” ( 1789:133n). This suggests experience in teaching and a clear
pedagogical concern in her grammar. In addition, there are “Promiscuous
Exercises” ( 1789:137-147), which are not linked to any syntactical rule.
Some of these contain sentences apparently made up for the purpose (“He is
mindful of his Master Commands”); others appear to have been taken from
existing texts. The latter must have been intended for the more advanced
As a Bee in a Bottle labours for his Enlargement to little
purpose; so the Mind of Man, intent on Things vain or contrary to its Nature, is
full of Disquietude, and never gains his End. ( 1789:142)
According to Michael
(1970:196, 473), such exercises proved extremely popular, and they are found
throughout the period. Murray even took them out of the grammar proper and
published them under the title of English exercises (1797); he was,
however, more forthcoming than Fisher to a teacher who might have been puzzled
by sentences such as the one above, as he also published a Key to the
exercises (1797) (Austin 1996).
Another reason why
Fisher’s grammar is of interest is that she seems to have been the first to
formulate the controversial rule for the use of sex-indefinite he (Tieken-Boon
van Ostade 1992:167). Bodine (1975:135) attributes this rule to Kirkby, but as
he plagiarised the first edition of her grammar he is evidently accused wrongly
here. The formulation of the rules is identical in both grammars:
The Masculine Person answers to the general
Name, which comprehends both Male and Female; as, any
Person who knows what he says. (Fisher  1750:117n)
The Masculine Person answers to the general Name, which
comprehends both Male and Female; as Any Person, who knows what he says.
Why Fisher would have
formulated the rule to begin with is not easy to explain. From a modern feminist
perspective, it seems strange that it should be a female grammarian who was
responsible for the rule which ignored gender in constituting pronoun reference.
Grammatically speaking, according to Bodine (1975:133), it would have been just
as incorrect to ignore the factor gender by preferring he as the
indefinite pronoun as to ignore the factor number by preferring singular they.
And yet suggestions to redress the balance in this respect have met with an
enormous amount of criticism. For all that, Bodine has shown that singular they
is in common use today, as it was at the time, when it might just as well have
been selected as sex-indefinite he. It must be remembered that
standards of grammar at the time were primarily male-dominated (cf. Tieken-Boon
van Ostade 1994:219-223). The fact that a woman took a male perspective in this
respect as well highlights this.
Like many other grammars
of the time (e.g. Greenwood 1711, Priestley
1761, Buchanan 1762, Fenning 1771, Webster 1784),(5) the material in Fisher's grammar is presented in the form
of question and answer:
Q. What is Gender?
A. Gender is a Distinction of Sex.
Q. How many Sorts are there?
A. Two; the Male and the Female.
Q. Have we any more Genders in English? etc. (Fisher
Fisher’s discussion of
the category mood is of interest in that it shows that she aimed at describing
English for its own sake, rather than in terms of the grammar of Latin (cf. her
complaint about the nature of earlier grammars referred to above).
She also adopted a native metalanguage, such as the word time for tense
and helping Verb for auxiliary:
Q. Has the English Tongue any Moods?
Q. The English Tongue having but two Times expressed by
the Verb itself, and no Moods, how do we express other times of the Verb?
A. By the following Words called helping Verbs etc. (Fisher  1789:
In thus emphatically
denying the existence of mood in English, Fisher was part of a minority of
grammarians at the time - less than twenty percent, by Michael’s calculations
(1970:426). According to Percy (1994:123]), Fisher’s grammar “was in fact
associated with a repudiation of Latin”. Though she was only continuing in a
direction begun by Wallis (1653) and passed on through the works influenced by
him, such as Greenwood (1711) and later Johnson (1755), Fisher’s attitude in
the matter may have been determined by the fact that she was a woman writing for
a reading public which must have been to a considerable extent female. At the
time, a knowledge of Latin was still a male prerogative: Lady Mary Wortley
Montagu, for example, had taught herself Latin by hiding in her father’s study
with her brother’s Latin grammar (Halsband 1969:36-37), and in 1781 Fanny
Burney’s father disapproved of Dr Johnson teaching his daughter Latin, as it
was considered, according to Mrs Thrale, “too Masculine for Misses” (ed.
Troide and Cooke 1994:452n).
Percy (1994:123) suggests
that “Elizabeth Elstob wrote her grammar of Old English (1715) in English
rather than Latin specifically for the benefit of her own sex’, and she notes
that Loughton’s grammar (1734) was “calculated chiefly for the fair sex”.
Loughton, however, was not the first to specifically include women among his
intended readership. Greenwood writes in his preface that the third aim in
writing his grammar was “to oblige the Fair Sex whose Education
perhaps, is too much neglected in this Particular”. He adds: “I have
therefore endeavour’d to render every Thing easy and familiar to them, by
explaining every Word that might hinder their learning these Matters with
Pleasure” (1711:A3v-A4r). Gough (1754) aimed his grammar
at anyone without a knowledge of Latin, hence also women:
But for the Use of Youth, designed for mechanick and
mercantile Arts, who have no Occasion for Latin, ... for the sake of such as
have not capacities to acquire a Mastery therein; and lastly for the Service of
young Women, I thought it might be no useless Labour, to endeavour to point out
a rational Method of Education purely English (1754:xiii).
Ussher’s grammar (1785)
was, according to Alston in the introduction to the facsimile reprint, the first
grammar to be “Designed particularly for the use of ladies’ boarding
schools”. Ussher argues that “a grammatical knowledge of English is becoming
essentially necessary in the education of ladies” (1785:vi). The education of
women was thus becoming a matter of general concern in the course of the
As a female grammarian,
Fisher must have started a new trend, for Percy (1994:122) lists as many as six
women who wrote grammars during the last decades of the century: Ellin Devis
(1775), Mrs M.C. Edwards (1796), Lady Eleanor Fenn (1798, 1799), Jane Gardiner
(1799), Blanch Mercy (1799) and Mrs Eves (1800). The most popular of these was
undoubtedly Ellin Devis’s grammar, of which Alston has recorded at least
eighteen numbered editions (1965:60-61). Only the first edition had been
published anonymously “By a Lady”, and the first four editions appear to
have been privately published. With the third edition coming out as early as two
years after the first (the second edition has not come down to us), the author
may have felt encouraged to acknowledge authorship. Eventually, a publisher was
found as well, i.e. Bedwell Law, whose name appears on all editions down to the
year 1800 from the fourth one onwards. Of the other grammars, only those by Fenn
were published anonymously. Her grammars were frequently reprinted down to the
early 1820s (Alston 1965:104-105).(6)
There may well have been
more female grammarians writing after Fisher and perhaps following her example.
Though her name appears on the title-page from the third London edition onwards
(Alston 1965:26), Fisher at first published her grammar anonymously, and one
wonders how many of the anonymous grammars listed by Alston, such as the
Short and easy introduction to English grammar ... for the use of Miss Davies’
boarding school (1786), or those for which only initials appear on the
title-page may have been written by women. That more women contributed to the
grammars published at the time is suggested by the fact that Mackintosh (1797)
signed his preface “Duncan Mackintosh and his two daughters”.
The titles of some of the
works by the six female grammarians listed above give us a clear indication of
what their intended reading public must have been. Fenn, for example, published
the following works (Alston 1965:104-105; 109):
[1798?] The mother’s grammar. Being a continuation of
the child’s grammar.
1798 Parsing lessons for young children: resolved into
their elements, for the assistance of parents and teachers.
1798 Parsing lessons for elder pupils.
1798? Grammatical amusements in a box.
1799 The child’s grammar. Designed to enable ladies
who may not have attended to the subject themselves to instruct their children.
1799 The friend of mothers; designed to assist them in
their attempts to instil the rudiments of language.
Gardiner’s grammar is
called The young ladies’ English grammar; adapted to the different classes
of learners, while the one by Mrs Eves bears the title The grammatical
play-thing, or, winter evening’s recreation, for young ladies from four to
twelve years old. The introduction of children to the subject of English
grammar was therefore left to their mothers, though it is acknowledged that
these might not have had much grammatical education themselves. Furthermore, the
words “play-thing” and “winter evening’s recreation” of Eves’s title
suggest that the study of grammar by girls was regarded as a less serious matter
than in the case of boys. It is also interesting to see at what age children
were expected to begin to study the subject of grammar.
Fenn’s grammars were
extremely popular: Alston records 21 numbered editions of The mother’s
grammar and 26 numbered editions of The child’s grammar until
1820. The latter booklet was intended for girls only, as appears from example
sentences like the following “John is the boy who learns Latin; Mary
is the girl whom I teach grammar” (1799 [n.d.]:6) and from the piece
of advice given regarding the treatment of the subjunctive: “It is much better
to refrain from farther explanation, till the pupil is perfectly mistress of the
whole of the first part of the Child’s Grammar” (1799 [n.d.]:26n). Percy
(1994:127]) observes that Fenn’s grammars are “conventional in content”,
and this is indeed true for The child’s grammar (1799): it presents
eight parts of speech - nouns, adjectives, pronouns, verbs, adverbs,
conjunctions, prepositions and interjections - though not according to any of
the systems discussed in Michael (1970). In presenting her material, Fenn
proceeds along the same lines as those discussed by Ussher in the introduction
to his grammar. In writing a grammar for the use of women, Ussher argues, it is
a desirable object to render that study as easy and as
useful to them as possible. For this reason, in a treatise of grammar intended
for their use, all abstract terms that could be dispensed with, should be
rejected; all references to the learned language omitted; and the rules
delivered in the plainest manner possible, and so divided, that each may not
form too large an object for the comprehension of a young beginner (1785:vi-vii).
Fenn’s wording of her
definitions of the parts of speech is remarkably similar to that in Murray
A Pronoun is a word used instead of a noun, to avoid the
too frequent repetition of the same word (1795:29)
A verb is a word which signifies to be, to do, or to suffer
A Conjunction is a part of speech that joins words and
sentences together, and shews the manner of their dependence on one another
A Pronoun is a word used instead of a noun;
to avoid the too frequent repetition of the same word (1799 [n.d.]:4)
A Verb is a word that signifies to do, to suffer or to be
Conjunction is a part of speech that joins words
or sentences together (1799 [n.d.]:18).
In view of Murray’s
heavy reliance on many of his predecessors - for which see Vorlat (1957) - it
would be hard to prove that Fenn depended on him rather than on any other
grammar in writing her own. Even so, because of the simplified definitions and
the adaptation to her female audience of the examples and the general treatment
of grammar it might be argued that her grammar served the same purpose as the
one by Ash before her when he reissued his grammar of 1760 first as “an easy
introduction to Dr. Lowth’s English grammar” (1763) and later as “The
easiest introduction to Dr. Lowth’s English grammar, designed for the use of
children under ten years of age” (1766) (Alston 1965:33): to provide an easy
introduction to the grammar currently most popular. The same is true for Jane
Gardiner’s grammar (1799): though I have not myself seen it, the title The
young ladies’ English grammar; adapted to the different classes of learners
indicates that she appears to have wished to make Lindley Murray’s grammar
available particularly for girls. According to Percy (1994:133), many of the
rules of syntax do indeed derive from Murray. In this connection it is striking
that the book was published by two of Murray’s publisher’s, Thomas Wilson
and Robert Spence (Alston 1965:105). Mercy’s grammar (1799), too, bears the
same title as Lowth’s, published more than thirty years previously, while
according to Smith (1999:212) Mrs Edwards' grammar (1796) is "an elementary
version of the popular eclectic Murray (1795)". A detailed
analysis of these grammars is called for to try and show further light on their
Fisher only barely made it into the Lexicon grammaticorum: her name was
not included in the original list of English grammarians. Needless to say, none
of the other female grammarians discussed here is included either. The reason
for excluding Fisher given by the editors was lack of space, and that, because
“Fisher is said to have been the first to introduce into English textbooks the
idea of teaching by mistake ... it would not be particularly flattering to women
linguists to have her remembered as the person who introduced such a pernicious
method of language-teaching!”. An opening was, however, offered on the
condition that the editors could be persuaded “that they erred in omitting her
name” (personal communication). The arguments which I then put forward were
largely similar to those presented in the present article. Fisher’s grammar is
important for a number of reasons apart from the introduction of exercises of
false grammar: for one thing, Fisher was the one, not Kirkby, who first
fomulated the rule for the use of sex-indefinite he, a rule which was
officially sanctioned in an Act of Parliament in 1850 (Bodine 1975:136); and
also because she was concerned with the pedagogical aspects of teaching English
grammar, inventing a native metalanguage for those who did not already have and
were very likely not going to have a knowledge of Latin. Furthermore, as I have
argued above, the publication history of the grammar is of interest in that
Fisher appears to have sought - and found - a market for her grammar in London,
still at that time the centre of publishing. Fisher was eventually squeezed into
the Lexicon grammaticorum, occupying just over half a column. Compared to
the two columns on Kirkby, whose grammar was largely based on hers and did not
see any further reprints apart from the first edition, this seems rather
unbalanced. The same amount of space, two columns, was allotted to the entries
on Lowth and Murray, despite the fact that Murray’s grammar, by his own
admission, was not very original, being to a large extent based on Lowth. It
must have seemed that the amount of space given to Murray was determined by his
enormous popularity. In the present article I have shown that Fenn’s works,
like Murray’s, were also not original and reached large numbers of reprints.
The general editor of the Lexicon grammaticorum, Harro Stammerjohann,
ends his preface as follows:
A work like this can never be final, nor will it ever seem
sufficiently balanced to all readers. Any suggestions that would contribute
towards updating and complementing the lexicon
would be most welcome and greatly appreciated (1996:v).
In this article I have
presented two suggestions for a future second edition of the Lexicon,
firstly to allow a more balanced treatment of Fisher and her work, her grammar
as well as her other books, and to include an entry on Fenn. Even if Fenn’s
work was hardly original, her grammars are significant of a development taking
place in England at the latter end of the eighteenth century, to teach little
girls the basics of English grammar, and to involve their mothers in the process.
In the context of Who's who in the history of world linguistics it might
be worthwhile to investigate whether similar developments were taking place
elsewhere, and whether, if not as a person, then at least as part of a general
movement, she deserves to be given a place among her colleagues in grammar.
article represents a rather more elaborate version of the section
“Grammars by and for women” which is part of my contribution to HSK,
Sprachwissenscahft (forthc.), called “Normative Studies in England”.
the catalogue of the series, see Alston (1974).
- I owe this reference to David Reibel.
- This edition,
a copy of which is in my private possession, is not listed in Alston (1965).
It was printed in London for A. Millar, W. Law and R. Cater and in York for
Wilson and Spence. Wilson and Spence were also the publishers of Lindley
Murray’s English grammar (1795) (Alston 1965:92).
- Ussher (1785),
however, expressed himself against this teaching method, arguing that it is
“desultory and ill calculated for imparting a systematic knowledge of
sciences, and which seems to succeed only in the Socratic mode of reasoning”
- Alston lists a first edition of The child’s
grammar dated 1799 and published in London, noting that “This is the
earliest dated edition of this popular little grammar located”. I have in
my possession a copy of the grammar, which appears to have been published
before the year 1800 as it still has long s. It is also anonymous,
but it was published in London by John Marshall who also published the next
edition ([1800?]). It contains slightly more pages than the Dublin edition
of 1799 (66 pages) listed by Alston as its first edition. The pages of
London edition, which has been provisionally dated 1800 by Alston, run from
9-77. Both editions are printed in sedecimo. There
is a possibility that my own copy is an instance of the first edition
proper, for according to Feather (1994:71), it appears to have been common
practice at the time to reprint books “in Holland or Ireland, where they
could legally be reprinted without the permission of the copy owners”. I
have identified the same practice in connection with the Dublin reprints of
Lowth's grammar (Tieken-Boon van Ostade forthc.). Because Fenn’s The
mother’s grammar of 1798(?) carries the subtitle “Being a
continuation of the child’s grammar” (Alston 1965:104), it seems likely
that the first edition of The child’s grammar, and possibly my own
copy of it as well, must be dated somewhat earlier than 1798.
a. primary sources
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British grammar. London. Repr. in facs. by R.C. Alston (1974), EL 97.
Devis, Ellin (1775), The
accidence; or first rudiments of English grammar. London.
Edwards, Mrs M.C. (1796), A
short compendium of English grammar. Brentford.
Eves, Mrs (1800), The
grammatical play-thing, or, winter evening’s recreation, for young ladies from
four to twelve years old. Birmingham.
Fenn, Lady Eleanor (1798), The
mother’s grammar. Being a continuation of the child’s grammar. With lessons
for parsing. London.
Fenn, Lady Eleanor (1799), The
child’s grammar. Designed to enable ladies who may not have attended to the
subject themselves to instruct their children. Dublin.
Fenn, Lady Eleanor (1799), The
friend of mothers; designed to assist them in their attempts to instil the
rudiments of language.
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Alston (1974), EL 130. Repr. 1789: London and York.
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