Within this project, we take Robert Baker’s Reflections on the English Language (1770) to be the first English usage guide. But was it?
In the introduction to the Merriam Webster Dictionary of English Usage (1989: 8a) we are able to read that Baker may have been preceded by the anonymous Observations upon the English Language, published in London for Edward Withers, probably in 1752. The 25-page pamphlet, which can be found in ECCO, was written by a certain George Harris, and is addressed to “a Friend” (title-page). Harris has an entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, where he is described as a lawyer, who was born around 1721 and died in 1796, leaving an enormous amount of money. The title of the pamphlet is mentioned, though nothing more about it is said.
S.A. Leonard, in the Doctrine of Correctness (1929:313), claims that the pamphlet was “the source or first record of many objections and prescriptions by Lowth and others”. But was it? The pamphlet makes another plea for an English Academy, though mainly to fix spelling. Apart from spelling it deals with pronunciation, and as for other linguistic aspects that usage guides tend to express their views the author writes:
but lest you should think that I would indeavor to force Men by Law to write with Propriety and Correctness of Style, I must declare, that I mean only to force them to spell with Uniformity according to certain given Patterns, and without Elisions (p. 13)
The pamphlet ends with seven pages on “some few Words and Phrases in the English Language which I think ought to be avoided by every correct Writer” (p. 19):
- that for who
- like to have
- Constituents referring to persons
- now a days, as how, withal, whereof, hereof, wherewith, howsoever, whatsoever
- Relation, Council to refer to persons
- a few
- genitival s spelled as his (the longest section)
- as for which or such as
- exprest, opprest (and others) for expressed and oppressed
- knowed, falled, teached, writed, spelled, keeped, rised
- French words are to be avoided
- mistaken for misapprehended
- of after a participle (e.g. becoming of)
- as … so
… and “many more very exceptionable Words and Expressions [which] might still be enumerated, such as, never a one, many a Time, methinks, every five years, whilst the Stream was a running, whilst the Book was a printing — but I grow tired of my Task”(p. 25).
Some of these do indeed occur in Lowth’s grammar, but I think Leonard is rather overstating the case. What I particularly like about the pamphlet is that it was written by a lawyer, not a linguist (even avant la lettre). In this respect it neatly fits into the category. But is this an early usage guide?