Eighteenth-Century Grammars


Eighteenth-Century Grammars

An Eighteenth-Century Classroom

“For I am of Opinion, that it is better a Language should not be wholly perfect, that it should be perpetually changing.”-Jonathan Swift from A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue


Many students believe that eighteenth-century writing is more “difficult” to read and comprehend, and there are multiple explanations to support this difficulty.From the sixteenth century to the eighteenth century, English grammar began slowly developing into a separate entity than its Latin counterpart. And it was not until the early eighteenth century when scholars realized Latin could no longer be comprehensibly applied to English grammars. Then after an economic boom in the early-mid eighteenth century, the number of English textbooks skyrocketed and English grammars were established.

English grammars have changed significantly from the eighteenth century to the present. In eighteenth-century writing, sentence construction involved periodic and complex sentences, often diluting the subject, verb, object pattern to which we are so accustomed. Eighteenth-century writing also poses a fairly different orthography[the system of spelling and letters] than does present-day English. The unusual spelling construction in conjunction with–what we would call–“random” word capitalization is a distraction to those struggling through an eighteenth-century work like Joseph Andrews, for example. In addition to the spelling and capitalization comes the long s. This letter “s,” which appears as a lowercase f without the right hand part of its crossbar, is used alongside the “s” we use today (see the example below). The type difference is a barrier to readers who do not immediately recognize the “f” shaped letter as an “s.” These issues collectively amount to the “difficulty” complaint regarding eighteenth-century literature and also deter readers from attempting the works entirely. But if the differences are clearly understood, eighteenth-century literature is more enlightening and just as comprehensible as today’s newspaper.

Grammar in the Classroom

Since the sixteenth century, English textbooks have been integrated into the classroom. Not until the late eighteenth century, though, did they arrive in abundance.

4 Phases of Important Changes

1530-1700: First English textbook was published in 1532.
1701-1760: Latin could not be comprehensibly applied to English so literary reform was introduced. The first literary anthology was designed for school use.
1761-1830: Money was the reason for boost in number. Huge increase in published English textbooks, but they generally included the same content.
1831-1870: 1830s change in context of English textbooks. Production of English textbooks doubled.

The tables below show the increase n the number and types of textbooks from 1530-1870:

Number of Published English Textbooks

RSP: reading, spelling, pronunciation
RL: reading and literature

EX: expression and performance
G: grammar and language
(Michael, 5-7)

Grammar, Usage, and Readability

A number of elements can reduce the readability of a document: periodic sentences, prepositional phrases, passive verbs, and words per sentence. The best way to tangibly explain a difficult reading is to diagram one paragraph. The 20th and 21st centuries tend to read more readily with sentences formatted subject, verb, object. Also, simple sentences are much more prominent now than they were in the eighteenth century, allowing readers to move quickly through the text. Below is a paragraph from one of the first English novels, Joseph Andrews. It has been analyzed to show the reading level, sentence types, prepositional phrases and passive voice percentage. Then the original paragraph has been rewritten to show the present writing style of most college students. It was also analyzed to show reading level, sentence types, prepositional phrases, and passive voice percentage. In each paragraph, the sentence types are in
(red) and the prepositional phrases are underlined. The reading level, passive voice, prepositional phrases and number of sentences are listed underneath the paragraph, along with the total number of sentences in the paragraph. I have also taken time to analyze sentence construction of the two examples. They are also described below.

But before reading the two paragraphs, it is important to understand the topics analyzed within these paragraphs:

Reading Level

The reading level is formulated by The Flesch-Kincaid grade level test. It is a formula used by Microsoft Word to determine how the written document is understood by students in the United States. The number correlates with the grade level that can understand the document. [1] Microsoft suggests that writers aim for a grade level somewhere between 7.0 and 8.0.

Sentence Types

There are four sentence types commonly used in English: simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex. Simple sentences include one independent clause. An independent clause has one subject and verb relationship (although the subject and verb can be compound) and expresses a complete thought. Compound sentences consist of two or more independent clauses combined by using a coordinating conjunction (words like and or but). Complex sentences contain one independent clause with one or more dependent clauses. A dependent clause contains both subject and verb but cannot stand alone or express a complete thought. Compound-Complex sentences are constructed using at least one dependent clause and two or more independent clauses. The difficulty with Compound-Complex sentences is that the number of clauses increases the length of the sentence, which not only forces the necessity of concentration, but also gives more room for the overuse of phrases.

Prepositional Phrases

A prepositional phrase is a phrase that begins with a preposition and ends with a noun, pronoun, gerund or clause. Weaver states that excessive use of prepositional phrases significantly reduces readability.

Periodic Sentences

Periodic sentences, where the essential information is held until the end, are more difficult for readers to understand. Over the last hundred or so years, these sentences have slowly dissipated from formal English writing. Rarely used in casual speech, this more formal sentence structure is often used to persuade the reader. It removes bias because he or she is forced to read the sentence in its entirety before reaching the conclusion. “Periodic sentences are like exclamatory sentences: used once or twice in a piece of writing, they can be very effective; used any more than that, they can make you sound dull and pompous” (Megginson).

Passive Voice

A passive sentence occurs when the subject in the sentence is receiving the action rather than doing it. For example: The active sentence, “The boy hit the ball” versus the passive sentence, “The ball was hit.” The use of passive voice sometimes creates awkward sentences. And when overused, passive sentences make writing dull and uninteresting.

Original Paragraph

(Complex) No sooner had Joseph left the Room in the Manner we have before related than the lady, enraged at her Disappointment, began to reflect with Severity on her Conduct. (Complex) Her Love was now changed to Disdain, which Pride assisted to torment her. (Simple) She despised herself for the Meanness of her Passion, and Joseph for its ill Success. (Simple) However, she had now got the better of it in her own Opinion, and determined immediately to dismiss the Object. (Compound Complex) After much tossing and turning in her Bed, and many Soliloquies, which if we had no better Matter for our Reader we would give him, she at last rung the Bell as above mentioned, and was presently attended by Mrs. Slipslop, who was not much better pleased with Joseph than the Lady herself (Fielding, 28).

Flesch-Kincaid Reading level: 11.9
Passive sentences: 20%
Prepositional phrases: 14
Total number of sentences: 5

There are 14 prepositional phrases within five sentences. This breaks down to roughly three phrases per sentence. That is an overuse of prepositional phrases, which reduces the readability of the paragraph. The reading level is almost four full grades above the suggested grade level for writing samples. That in itself can account for the difficulty students encounter when reading Joseph Andrews or other eighteenth-century literature.

In the Joseph Andrews original paragraph, the subjects often appear toward the end of the sentences, especially in the lengthy sentences. These are the periodic sentences. The last sentence in the Joseph Andrews sample is 53 words long and a Comp0und-Complex sentence. Because of its length, this one sentence is able to contain five prepositional phrases that radically reduce readability. These factors dilute the presented information within this sample of the novel.

Rewritten Paragraph

(Complex) The lady was enraged at her disappointment and began to reflect on her conduct immediately after Joseph left the room. (Compound) Her love was now changed to disdain, and pride assisted to torment her. (Simple) She despised herself for her meanness. (Simple) She also despised Joseph for not falling into her passion. (Simple) However, she decided to dismiss the object. (Compound) After tossing and turning in bed, she finally rung the bell. (Simple) Mrs. Slipslop answered the door. (Simple) She was not pleased with Joseph either.

Flesch-Kincaid Reading level: 5.6
Passive sentences: 12%
Prepositional phrases: 7
Total number of sentences: 7

As you can see, the passive voice, number of prepositional phrases, and reading level decreased significantly from the original to the rewrite. It may seem as if over time, readers have gotten progressively “dumber.” That is not necessarily the case. There are, however, those who believe the less we need to read (as a result of media, radio, internet, etc.), the less we are able to comprehend in writing. But for now, I attribute the change in reading level to a growing and changing aesthetic for grammar and sentence construction. Just as grammar changed from the sixteenth-century to the eighteenth-century, it also changed from the eighteenth-century to the present.

1792 and 1987 Facsimiles of Joseph Andrews

Below are the eighteenth-century (left) and present-day (right) facsimiles of Joseph Andrews. It is important to notice the difference in type or text between the two samples. The unusual appearance of the original, eighteenth-century written work adds to the challenge of reading eighteenth-century literature. The capitalization is explained below under the “Capitalization” heading, and the uncharacteristic type font is further explained under the heading, “The Long S.”


Joseph Andrews Eighteenth-Century Facsimile



1987 Joseph Andrews Facsimile



Eighteenth-Century Spelling, Capitalization, and Type

The visual nature of a literary work plays an integral part in its readability. Eighteenth-century literature often poses difficulty for students before the work is even read. Upon first glance, it is obvious that the spelling, capitalization, and font or type differ from that which we see in modern literature. These reasons for these differences are not all conclusively defined; nor are the differences entirely logical or scientific in nature. They just further prove the changing nature of grammars throughout the English language.


I think spelling is best described by Richard Mulcaster, a sixteenth-century teacher. Attempts to make English spelling phonetic in any scientific sense is futile. One reason is that pronunciations are always evolving. Another reason is the inevitability that the same letter must be used for different sounds, which is not at all different from using the same word in different circumstances (Baugh, 207). Even though Mulcaster’s statements were made prior to the eighteenth century, they accurately sum up the anomalies of English spelling. As Mulcaster said, it is best to make common sense judgments about the existing system rather than to attempt to create a new one, which is exactly what Johnson did in A Dictionary for the English Language.

Excerpt from the ‘Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language’ (Sp Coll Mu51-c.25, pp 4-5)


Letter ‘O’ from the Grammar of the English Language (a1v)


Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, attempts to define words and to explain their orthography and usage as well. Johnson begins his orthographic study by trying to pinpoint the exact rules of usage for each letter in the English alphabet. It is interesting to see that, even though Johnson’s attempts are accurate, the English language has “very little shape or consistent practice” (Hanning), and the first phonetic alphabet would not be in production until the late 1800s. This may explain why eighteenth-century spelling is seemingly so haphazard.

Noah Webster also had a profound effect on English and American spelling. Originally, Webster disagreed entirely with the practice of altering the spelling of words. He did not agree with omitting the “e” in judgment, for example. But, after some time and pressure, Webster’s opinion started to coincide with Benjamin Franklin’s. And in An Essay on the Necessity, Advantages and Practicability of Reforming the Mode of Spelling, and of Rendering the Orthography of Words Correspondent to the Pronunciation, Webster began to urge the “omission of all superfluous or silent letters, such as the a in bread and the e in give” (Baugh, 364). The changes he proposed, however, were met with so much opposition that he thought it necessary to write a much more moderate proposal. In 1806 Webster published his first small dictionary. And in this dictionary it appeared as if his opinion reverted back to what it was prior to the influence of Franklin. Webster realized “it would be useless to attempt any change, even if practicable, in those anomalies, which form whole classes of words, and in which, change would rather perplex than ease the learner” (Baugh, 364). This opinion is one that many, if not all, hold for the simple fact that, even though there are tangible difficulties in the English language, trying to change everything about the basics of spelling would be nearly impossible and ultimately ineffective.


Daniel Fenning, the author of the highly successful spelling book of 1756, instructed that both schoolmasters and pupils are to write substantives with a “Capital Letter.” It was custom, then, to begin every noun with a capital letter, which is the same practice the German language still holds today. However, by 1795, the discussion of capitals was dropped by Fenning and the practice of the capitalization of all nouns soon became a thing of the past. Noun capitalization, in the manner that it was originally practiced, gave printing and writing a crowded appearance and was difficult for readers to clearly follow (Osselton, 49).

What is interesting to note is that noun capitalization was not around since the birth of the English language. In fact, the seventeenth and early seventeenth centuries did not capitalize every noun. It seems to be a trend in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And even in the eighteenth century, no rigid mechanical system for capitalization was ever developed (Osselton, 49).

Even without a rigid system, the eighteenth century had a generalized method for the capitalization of words. Generally, the most prominent words–or more specifically, nouns–in the sentence were capitalized. This seems like a fairly vague methodology because these “prominent” words were largely subjective. Noun capitalization was based primarily on the writer’s choice. It is likely that when writing, pupils were taught to capitalize nouns that they would stress in the sentence. If this is the case, then we also get an idea of how certain works would generally be read aloud in the eighteenth century (Osselton, 54).

Aside from prominent nouns, categorical nouns were also capitalized: animate nouns, areas of study or disciplines, and concrete objects. It is only nouns of a general sense which occur without a capital. But it is important to note that none of these categories are entirely restrictive.

In the early decades of the eighteenth century, we get some sense that printers found this abundant capitalization unnecessary. Thomas Dyche, in A guide to the English tongue, writes, “‘Tis grown Customary in Printing to begin every Substantive with a Capital, but in my Opinion ’tis unnecessary, and hinders that remarkable Dinstinction intended by the Capitals” (Osselton, 59). And Thomas Tuite agrees with his claim that “[substantive capitalization] hinders that expressive beauty… intended by a capital” (Osselton, 59). With opinions changing and printers altering type font on their on accord, it was only a matter of time before lower-case nouns appeared more frequently in literature and other forms of writing.

The Long S

Throughout eighteenth-century literature, it is common to see two forms of the letter “s.” One form, which we use today, is called the short s, and gets its appearance from the capital letter S in Roman inscriptions. The other form is called the long s. The long s appears as a lowercase f without the right hand part of its crossbar (seen below in Latin text), and it originates in the “straggling form given to this letter in Roman cursive script” (Typefounder). Printers using what was called the Carolingian hand employed the use of the long s throughout text. However, when printers began using humanistic scripts, the convention was adopted of using a long s at the beginning and middle of words, and the short s at the end. The use of the two letter s’s, which we see in the 1792 version of Joseph Andrews, continued until the end of the eighteenth century with very few exceptions.
external image moz-screenshot-1.jpg

“The Blind Beggar of Bethnal Green” in Robert Dodsley’s Triffles (London, 1745)


Baugh. Albert C., and Cable, Thomas. A History of the English Language. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1993.

Caslon, William. “Pica No. 2 in William Caslon.” Specimen of Printing Types. London, 1766. Image gathered from Typefoundry: Documents for the History of Type and Letterforms. http://typefoundry.blogspot.com/2008/01/long-s.html 4 December 2008.

Eighteenth-Century Classroom. Image from Český Krumlov: Unesco World Heritage. “Zlatá Koruna School.”Germany. http://www.encyklopedie.ckrumlov.cz/php/netcards/index.php?lang=en&pic=1945 1 December 2008.

Fielding, Henry. The adventures of Joseph Andrews, and his friend Mr Abraham Adams. … By Henry Fielding, Esq. With prints by T. Rowlandson. [London], 1792. 357pp. Literature and Language 1December 2008.

Fielding, Henry. Joseph Andrews with Shamela and Related Writings. “The Text of Joseph Andrews.” p. 28. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1987.

Hanning, Toby. “Book of the Month: A Dictionary of the English Language.” University of Glascow Library Special Collections. Scotland, UK: 2007. http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/apr2007.html 4 December 2008.

Johnson, Samuel. The Plan of a Dictionary of the English Language, 1746: Sp Coll Mu51-c.25 pp. 4-5. Image gathered from “Book of the Month: A Dictionary of the English Language.” University of Glascow Library Special Collections.http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/apr2007.html 4 December 2008.

Johnson, Samuel. A Dictionary of the English Language, 1755: Letter ‘O’ from the Grammar of the English Language (a1v). Image gathered from “Book of the Month: A Dictionary of the English Language.” University of Glascow Library Special Collections.http://special.lib.gla.ac.uk/exhibns/month/apr2007.html 17 December 2008.

Megginson, David. “The Periodic Sentence.” The Order of a Sentence. The University of Ottawa. http://www.arts.uottawa.ca/writcent/hypergrammar/sntorder.html 9 December 2008.

Michael, Ian. Early Textbooks of English: a Guide. Colloquium on Textbooks, Schools and Society,1993.

Osselton, N.E. Historical and Editorial Studies in Medieval and Early Modern English. Eds. Mary-Jo Arn and Hanneke Wirtjes with
Hans Jansen. “Spelling-Book Rules and the Capitalization of Nouns in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries.” The Netherlands: Wolters-Noordhoff Groningen, 1985.

Typefounder. “Long S.” Typefoundry: Documents for the History of Type and Letterforms. 2008. http://typefoundry.blogspot.com/2008/01/long-s.html 4 December 2008.

Weaver, Constance. Grammar for Teachers: Perspectives and Definitions. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1979.

West. Andrew. Babelstone. 12 June 2006. Retrieved on 23 May 2009 from http://babelstone.blogspot.com/2006/06/rules-for-long-s.html.

Contributors: Kathryn Kummer

  1. ^ The formula for the Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level score is: (.39 x ASL) + (11.8 x ASW) – 15.59 where: ASL = average sentence length (the number of words divided by the number of sentences) ASW = average number of syllables per word (the number of syllables divided by the number of words)