John Ash: descriptive or prescriptive grammarian?
According to Leonard, “[t]he notion is abroad that the eighteenth century wrote grammar entirely, as it were, in the imperative mood” (1929:239). However, these eighteenth-century grammars should be interpreted as products of the times in which they were written. The ambitions of middle-class parents for the education of their sons and daughters created a market for grammars in eighteenth-century Britain (Beal 2004:105). In his Grammatical institutes: or grammar, adapted to the genius of the English tongue, John Ash (1724–1779) noted that
THE Importance of an English Education is now pretty well understood; and ’tis generally acknowledged, that not only for Ladies, but for young Gentlemen design’d merely for Trade, an intimate Acquaintance with the Proprieties, and Beauties of the English Tongue, wou’d be a very desirable, and necessary Attainment (1760: iii).
Grammars like that of Ash were aimed at those ladies and gentlemen who did not want to be confused with their social inferiors (Beal 2004:94). Since Ash’s grammar was written in the eighteenth-century we expect it to be prescriptive rather than descriptive. In this paper I will show that neither term is appropriate in characterising his method.
Ash, John (1760). Grammatical institutes: or grammar, adapted to the genius of the English tongue. Worcester: R. Lewis.
Beal, Joan C. (2004). English in modern times. London: Arnold.
Leonard, S[terling] A[ndrus] (1929). The doctrine of correctness in English usage, 1700-1800. Madison: University of Wisconsin (Repr., New York: Russell & Russell, 1962).