Just out today!

Two more articles on Robert Lowth – on two Robert Lowths actually – have been published today, following my research visit at New College, Oxford, this summer. You will find them here.

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Ownership marks in Lowth’s grammar

By his own estimate, Lowth’s grammar appeared in some 34,000 copies down to the end of his life. I happen to possess one of them, published in 1772. Interestingly, it includes references to various owners over the years, four in this case.

My own copy (1772) – the image shows only two of the earlier owners

Some early owners can be identified, but many others cannot. Still, I’m taking up the challenge to try and find – and identify – as many of the grammar’s early owners as I can.

I myself possess only a single copy, but readers of this blog may do so so, or they may even possess multiple copies. If you do, please have a look and let me know if one or more of its original owners inscribed their name on the title page. I realise I will never be able to find all 33,000 earlier owners, but I’d like at least to find as many as possible, and I can only do so with your help!

(Additionally, if anyone could help me identify Vincent Golder, I’d be most grateful, too.)

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Lowth at New College, Oxford

If you think you spotted a familiar hand in this LinkedIn message by Christopher Skelton-Foord, you’re right! This is a letter by Robert Lowth, and part of a wonderful batch of letters that recently surfaced and that was acquired by New College, Oxford. Read all about it in the New College Record 2020.

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Lowth on the cover

Congratulations, Bryan Garner, on this newly published book! What a great collection you possess, and what a wonderful idea to share it with the general public.


(Source of the image: https://twitter.com/BryanAGarner/status/1344016547782733824/photo/1).

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Letters by Lowth auctioned at Sotheby’s

Occasionally, it seems, new letters by Lowth still come to light. This is a great find: 32 letters altogether. Wonder who bought them.

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Lowth in the OED

One of the ways I adopted in my Introduction to Late Modern English (Edinburgh University Press, 2009) to see to what extent people had left their mark on English vocabulary was by looking for their first usages in the OED. The most prolific writer in this respect was the novelist and printer Samuel Richardson, with 245 words. With only 8 words, Lowth came disappointingly low on my list.

The OED has been under revision for a while, so I decided to check how much of these words were still attributed to him. Only six, it turned out: atrociously, bacchiac, commentatorship, distichal, intolerance and suffix (interestingly, Word only approves of three of these). Small though this set is, it can be neatly divided into two categories: technical words and words from his polemical correspondence with William Warburton. The following quotation illustrates this best:

1765   R. Lowth Let. to Warburton 62   You, my Lord, is it You of all men living, that stand forth to accuse another of Intolerance of Opinions!

With only six words left to his name, Lowth was no linguistic innovator. But would he have coined the word intolerance? A Google n-gram search suggests not. Perhaps even Warburton had used it before him. In any case, Lowth was merely an early adopter of this word, but it was to spread very quickly after him.


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Just out: another paper on Lowth

Yesterday, Robin Straaijer tweeted: It’s taken a while, but it’s finally been published in . I

In the article, he discusses “possible sources for Priestley’s norm of correctness in his grammar book, The Rudiments of English Grammar, from a socio-historical perspective. I will show that Priestley’s norms of correctness were informed by the usage of the well-educated middle class, the language of science, Robert Lowth’s grammar and the discourse community of eighteenth-century grammarians, and a contemporary canon of good and bad usage.”

Congratulations, Robin! I look forward to reading it.

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Lowth an Archbishop?

In my book The Bishop’s Grammar (OUP, 2011), I tried to put an end to the myth that it was as a bishop that Lowth wrote his Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762). While he was indeed a clergyman when he wrote his grammar, he did not do so because he was one, but because he had the interests of his son at heart. He wanted Thomas Henry to have the best educational opportunities life could offer.

Just now, I found Lowth the grammarian being referred not as a bishop, which I’m quite used to, but as an archbishop: a post which had indeed been offered to him, but which he had to refuse for reasons of health (see chapter 2 of my book). A grammatical promotion in other words! The reference occurs in the book Forbidden Words: Taboo and the Censoring of Language by Keith Allan and Kate Burridge (CUP, 2006).

Allan and Burridge (2006)

I can hardly blame Allan and Burridge for not having seen my book, but it does show sloppy research: Lowth is not described as an archbishop in the ODNB online or in his wikipedia entry, simply because he never was.

But I do blame Allan and Burridge for saying that in his private letters Lowth “constantly flouted” the grammatical rule that strong verbs like write and ride have different past tense and participle forms. I blame them for the historical inaccuracy of what they write, because the strong verb system was still highly variable at the time, with variation in private writings like informal letters and diaries being greater (and accepted as such) than in published texts. But also for quoting me for making this generalising statement: in my article on the strong verb system (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 2002) I only mention the fact that there are eleven (11!) instances in which the modern strong verb forms are not attested. In a corpus of ca. 30,000 words this hardly warrants the conclusion (theirs, not mine) that he “constantly flouted” the rules of his own grammar. The facts are far more subtle than the authors suggest.


Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid. 2002. Robert Lowth and the strong verb system.
Language Sciences 24: 459–70.

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A new letter by Lowth

A new letter by Robert Lowth has come to light:

new letter by Lowth

It is advertised on the website Modern First Editions (from which I took this image). This is very interesting news, but I have a lot of questions:

  • the information on the website says that the letter is signed, but it lacks a signature, so what made the sellers identify it as a letter from Lowth? (And why do they claim it is signed?)
  • if there is no date or place, on what grounds is it dated 1767? It is said to have been sent from Oxford, but this cannot be seen in the letter itself.
  • how did they get hold of it?
  • why would someone wish to sell the letter?
  • who is it addressed to?

But most importantly of all, why do they ask so much for it? Three hundred pounds is a great deal of money for a letter that isn’t really very informative and that is in far from perfect condition.

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A scrap of a letter from Lowth

I’m very pleased to have become the owner of a scrap of a letter by Lowth, which basically contains his signature only. I was in two minds about bidding for it on ebay, because I’m appalled at the idea that autograph hunters cut up original letters just for the sake of the signature, but the original owner let me know that this had already been done in the nineteenth century.

Here it is (the image was taken from ebay):

Lowth's signature

I think I have a pretty good idea as to who the addressee may have been, and will argue my case as soon as I have the document in my possession.

Thanks to Samuli Kaislaniemi for bringing the scrap to my attention.

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