In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section American Grammars and Usage Guides

  • Introduction
  • Overviews and Histories
  • Cultural Background
  • Journals
  • Individual Grammarians
  • Analysis and Criticism
  • Research Tools

American Literature American Grammars and Usage Guides
Rosemarie Ostler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0235


Grammar books were the foundation of a good education in early America. A command of grammar was considered an essential first step toward higher learning for children and self-betterment for working-class adults. At a time when books were expensive and hard to come by, grammars were often the only textbooks found in schoolrooms and the only books found in many homes, aside from the family Bible. Grammars were an educational lifeline for those too old or too isolated to attend school. Abraham Lincoln famously began his progress toward a law career by mastering the contents of the most popular grammar books. Grammars began to be widely adopted in America during the 1770s. The first ones came from England, but soon Americans were producing their own. By the early decades of the nineteenth century, hundreds of titles were in circulation, with the most popular selling in the millions. Grammar books covered much more than grammar. Most followed a similar pattern. The first sections introduced the alphabet and simple words. Students then moved on to parts of speech, including noun declensions and verb conjugations based on the system in Latin grammars. These were followed by usage rules, usually including “false syntax” (examples of incorrect grammar, typically taken from the writings of famous authors). Many books also provided a final section of morally improving practice readings. Parsing exercises (identifying the part of speech and grammatical purpose of each word in a sentence) followed the text. Students were expected to memorize and recite the lessons, the usual teaching method of the time. Thus they learned reading, standard grammar, mental discipline, and good moral principles, all from the same textbook. Memorizing grammar rules was thought to prepare students to tackle more advanced subjects like rhetoric and the natural sciences. Although grammar books are no longer a part of a typical education, a number of usage rules first introduced in these books have survived into the twenty-first century, at least as an ideal standard. Americans are still deeply concerned with correct usage, as the many in-print usage guides and grammar advice websites show, and they still respect such rules as the ban on ending a sentence with a preposition and the use of nominative case after be, even if they don’t follow them. In recent decades, standard usage guides have started to base their advice more on actual usage, for example, accepting sentences like It’s me. Nonetheless, most guides still feel the need to warn their users that not everyone agrees with these changes.

Overviews and Histories

Discussions about American grammar books are usually part of a more general exploration of American attitudes toward standard grammar and usage, often focusing on the ongoing controversies between linguistic freethinkers, including Noah Webster and more recently, professional linguists, and those who remain committed to traditional usage rules. Drake 1977, Baron 1982, and Ostler 2015 all discuss grammar books as part of broader studies of American beliefs about grammar and usage. Finegan 1980 describes shifting trends in grammar teaching as one aspect of attitudes about language use in America. Lyman 1922 also discusses grammar teaching, but is more concerned with the details of early grammar books themselves, including sales numbers. Garner 2021 lists and describes a comprehensive collection of 18th- and 19th-century American and British grammar books. Tieken-Boon van Ostade 2020 uses techniques of corpus linguistics to compare the rules in usage guides with modern usage attitudes and actual usage.

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

    Examines issues of language planning and reform in the early United States, including Noah Webster’s push to establish a federal English standard. Reviews grammar teaching in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the advent of usage guides for adults. Reflects on Americans’ continued linguistic insecurity and reliance on grammar advice.

  • Drake, Glendon F. The Role of Prescriptivism in American Linguistics, 1820–1970. Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1977.

    DOI: 10.1075/sihols.13

    Explores the relationship between Americans’ commitment to prescriptive grammar rules and other typically American cultural attitudes (“the ecology of language”). Describes early-19th-century challenges to prescriptivism and its persistence into the twentieth century. Modern examples include controversies over Black English and Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, criticized for its descriptive treatment of usage.

  • Finegan, Edward. Attitudes toward English Usage: The History of a War of Words. New York: Teachers College Press, 1980.

    Surveys views on language use, beginning with 18th-century grammar writings and ending with Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, published in 1961. Follows the evolution of thought on how grammar should be understood and taught. Chapters cover early American grammarians, 19th-century usage critics like Richard Grant White, and early linguistics scholars including William Dwight Whitney.

  • Garner, Bryan A. Taming the Tongue: In the Heyday of English Grammar (1711–1851). New York: The Grolier Club, 2021.

    A companion volume to the Grolier Club exhibit of one hundred items from Garner’s grammar book collection. Covers many lesser-known grammars, as well as Dilworth, Lowth, Murray, and Webster. Each item features illustrations, a brief description of the grammar’s significance, biographical details of its author, and a note of how it classifies parts of speech. Includes a useful bibliography.

  • Lyman, Rollo Laverne. English Grammar in American Schools before 1850. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1922.

    A short history of trends in English grammar instruction, beginning with 16th-century England and covering the United States until 1850. Focuses on the rise of grammar books modeled on Latin grammars during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Chapter 2 includes statistics on the number of editions that popular grammars went through and how many books were in circulation.

  • Ostler, Rosemarie. Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War over Words Shaped Today’s Language. New York: St. Martin’s, 2015.

    Investigates the origins of American attitudes toward grammar, arguing that modern Americans are still influenced by the rules in 18th-century grammar books. Chapters discuss the most popular and influential early grammars, the grammatical theories of Noah Webster, the tension between Americans’ love of the vernacular and their belief in grammar rules, the impact of scientific linguistics, and recent battles over correct speech.

  • Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid. Describing Prescriptivism: Usage Guides and Usage Problems in British and American English. London: Routledge, 2020.

    A detailed study of past and present usage books, including a comparison of the advice in guides with examples of actual usage, using the Hyper Usage Guide of English (HUGE) database of usage guides and usage problems. Includes the results of online surveys that gauge public awareness of usage rules. Features a list of usage problems in the HUGE database. (See also HUGE (Hyper Usage Guide of English) under Research Tools.)

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.