A Corpus-Based Analysis of 18th-Century American Grammars

The practice of writing grammars of English in the United States of America commenced much later than in its British ancestor. Considering a grammar to be American, when it was originally published in the United States, the first American grammar is Samuel Johnson’s First Easy Rudiments of Grammar from 1765 (Lyman 1922, Nietz 1961, Alston 1965).

This study of 18th-century American grammars therefore aims to trace the origins of the practice of English grammar writing in the United States and the relations of American grammarians to their British ancestry. For this purpose, a corpus of five American grammars from the 18th century (ca. 87.000 tokens) was compiled.

Making use of the project-specific annotations in the corpus, onomastic references made to other persons are automatically extracted using a custom Python-based script. The resulting concordances are manually investigated and split into actual references and mentions within example sentences. Both categories are then further analyzed for the types of persons referenced using a system of person categories originally established for an analysis of 16th-century references in British grammars (Busse et al. 2021). The non-example references are further assigned categories initially developed for references in 19th-century British grammars (Busse et al. 2020). The results are displayed in a citation network (see White 2012), enabling a qualitative evaluation of references made. The observations are further enhanced by frequency analyses.

The investigations show that the majority of name-based references occur within the context of examples (59%), demonstrating the high value that is placed on demonstration by means of example sentences. Within these, religious and political figures are frequently mentioned, implying that not only religious texts (cf. Baron 1982, 126), but also political speeches were considered to be valuable moral guidance for the students.

Furthermore, although a sentiment of patriotism and independence passes through the country in the late 18th century, this sentiment has not yet reached early American grammarians in terms of their language ideologies. They predominantly reference British authors, implying a British dominance at the time in terms of authority on language matters, and confirming that the association of language and the American nation only culminated in the 19th century (Andresen 1990, 29-41).


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Baron, Dennis E. 1982. Grammar and Good Taste: Reforming the American Language. New Haven, London: Yale University Press.

Busse, Beatrix, Ingo Kleiber, Nina Dumrukcic, Sophie Du Bois. 2021. “A corpus-based network analysis of 16th-century British grammar writing.” CL2021, Limerick, Ireland, 2021.

Busse, Beatrix, Kirsten Gather, and Ingo Kleiber. 2020. “A Corpus-Based Analysis of Grammarians’ References in 19th-Century British Grammars.” In Variation in Time and Space: Observing the World Through Corpora, edited by Anna Cermakova and Markéta Malá. Diskursmuster - Discourse Patterns 20. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Johnson, Samuel. 1765. First Easy Rudiments of Grammar, Applied to the English Tongue. New York: J. Holt.

Lyman, R. L. V. 1922. English Grammar in American Schools Before 1850. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago.

Nietz, John Alfred. 1961. Old Textbooks: Spelling, Grammar, Reading, Arithmetic, Geography, American History, Civil Government, Physiology, Penmanship, Art, Music, as Taught in the Common Schools from Colonial Days to 1900. Pittsburgh: American Book-Stratford Press, Inc.