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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