You can thank an 18th-century scholar for many of the grammar lessons that are still in use today. Lindley Murray (1745-1826) was an American-born Quaker who had a successful career as a lawyer and businessman before he retired to England. There he would write his most famous book, English Grammar, and the many subsequent books and revisions that would be used as school books for years to come.
Up to the point where Murray wrote his guide there was “controversy” surrounding linguistic issues and how they were taught in schools. It was therefore important to Murray that his books be written clearly for the use of the learner. He tried to make things easier and simpler for students. In the introduction to English Grammar he wrote:
“When the number and variety of English Grammars already published, and the ability with which some of them are written, are considered, little can be expected from a new compilation, besides a careful selection of the most useful matter, and some degree of improvement in the mode of adapting it to the understanding, and the gradual process of learners.”
Murray’s book was adopted by schools in England, the newly formed America, and even translated into many different languages. Thanks to this translation, English continued to spread throughout the world.
Murray subscribed to the school of “prescriptivism” or “an approach to grammar that is concerned with establishing norms of correct and incorrect usage and formulating rules based on these norms to be followed by users of the language.” One philosophy presented by Murray is that general or popular usage shouldn’t be standardized, but instead the best writers should be considered the standard of the English language. He analyzed the logic behind grammar rules and the nature of the English language to create his rules.
Modern grammar lessons are still based on Murray’s original rules, and an examination of the table of contents of English Grammar reflects that. Murray devoted the first part of the book to Orthography (or what you know as spelling) with sections titled “Of the letters of language, and a perfect alphabet” and “Of words in general, and the rules for spelling them.” He went on to address Etymology in Part II, with chapters dedicated to parts of speech, articles, substantives, adjectives, pronouns, verbs, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, interjections, derivation and number and variety of words. Do these chapters look familiar to your grade school grammar lessons?
Going on, Murray addressed Syntax in Part III, and the grammar rules got more complicated, but it’s useful to learn how to put together all the parts of speech into coherent and accurate thoughts.
Part IV revealed Murray’s perspective that pronunciation is just as important as written thoughts. He took note of accent, quantity, emphasis, pauses and tones – his guide on pronunciation can “serve as a concise guide to changing patterns of sensitization with reference to a range of linguistic phenomena such as the 'dropped h' in words such as hand or the 'dropped g' in words such as walking."
This section went on to address the rules of punctuation, valuable to any writer. The book discussed the comma, semicolon, colon, period, dash, “notes of interrogation and exclamation,” the parenthesis, the apostrophe and rules of capital letters and paragraphs.
Do Lindley Murray’s rules of grammar, pronunciation and punctuation look familiar? They should! This historical school book still serves as the basis for grammar lessons today, and we have Mr. Murray to thank for our rules of proper English speaking and writing.