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Paradigm Shifts in 19th-Century British Grammar Writing - A Network of Texts and Authors

Beatrix Busse, Kirsten Gather, Ingo Kleiber


In contrast to grammar books published in other centuries, 19th-century grammars have received little attention so far. Given that the vast majority of them are school grammars, this comes as no surprise. For several reasons, however, the 19th century can be seen as a turning point in English grammar writing. While moral and social aspects become more and more relevant in teaching grammars, grammar books in general also illustrate the rather late introduction of comparative historical linguistics around 1830 (Linn 2006: 79) and the emergence of phonetics/phonology as a separate topic towards the end of the century (e.g. Sweet 1892/1898). Furthermore, new movements within linguistics, such as the works of the New Philological Society and the Early English Text Society, lead to a paradigm shift in grammar writing from highly prescriptive works to predominantly descriptive grammars (Finegan 1998: 559ff).

But how do the major changes in 19th-century grammars happen? Do they occur all of a sudden? If so, how do other grammar writers react to bold and innovative ideas of contemporaries? If new developments build up by and by, do authors address and discuss them in their grammars?

The aim of our study is to make connections between grammar books visible so that mechanisms behind changing approaches to grammar become apparent. With the help of an annotated corpus of British grammars, which is currently being compiled at Heidelberg University, we will show that developments in 19th-century grammar writing can be visualised as a network of grammars and grammar authors. XML-markup of the corpus texts includes all kinds of references and judgemental statements addressing other authors and grammars. The network, as well as wordlists of grammar books in comparison reveal the authors' attitudes towards language use and language change, and give evidence of the innovative or conservative character of their grammar books.


Finegan, Edward. 1998. “English Grammar and Usage”. In: Romaine, Suzanne (ed.). The Cambridge History of the English Language Vol. IV: 1776-1997. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Linn, Andrew. 2006. “English Grammar Writing”. In: Aarts, Bas; McMahon, April (eds.). Handbook of English Linguistics. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 72–92.

Sweet, Henry. 1892/1898. A New English Grammar: Logical and Historical. Oxford.

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