Robert Lowth

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Robert Lowth, D. D. Lord Bishop of London

Robert Lowth (November 27, 1710November 3, 1787) was a Bishop of the Church of England, a professor of poetry at Oxford University and the author of one of the most influential textbooks of English grammar.

Lowth was born in Hampshire, England, the son of Dr William Lowth. He was educated at Winchester College and entered New College, Oxford in 1729 on a scholarship. Lowth obtained his BA in 1733 and his Master of Arts degree in 1737. In 1735, while still at Oxford, Lowth entered the Anglican Church and was appointed vicar of Overton, Hampshire, a position he retained until 1741, when he was appointed professor of poetry at Oxford.

In 1750 he was appointed archdeacon of Winchester. In 1752 he resigned the professorship at Oxford and married Mary Jackson. Shortly afterwards, in 1753, Lowth was appointed rector of East Woodhay. In 1754 he was awarded a Doctorate of Divinity by Oxford, for his treatise on Hebrew poetry entitled Praelectiones Academicae de Sacra Poesi Hebraeorum.

Lowth is no doubt best remembered for his publication in 1762 of A Short Introduction to English Grammar. Prompted by the absence of simple and pedagogical grammar textbooks in his day, Lowth set out to remedy the situation. Lowth's grammar is the source of many of the prescriptive shibboleths that are studied in schools, and established him as the first of a long line of usage commentators who judge the English language in addition to describing it. An example of both is one of his footnotes: "Whose is by some authors made the Possessive Case of which, and applied to things as well as persons; I think, improperly." His most famous (or infamous) contribution to the study of grammar was his prescription that sentences ending with a preposition—such as "what did you ask for?"—are inappropriate in formal writing.2

Lowth's method included criticising "false syntax"; his examples of false syntax were culled from Shakespeare, the King James Bible, John Donne, John Milton, Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, and other famous writers; all of which raises the question, by what authority did Lowth aspire to judge these writers' syntax? His approach was based largely on Latin grammar, and a number of his judgments were arrived at by applying Latin grammar to English, a misapplication according to critics of a later generation (and his own stated principles; he condemned "forcing the English under the rules of a foreign Language"1). Thus Lowth condemns Addison's sentence "Who should I meet the other night, but my old friend?" on the grounds that the thing acted upon should be in the "Objective Case" (corresponding, as he says earlier, to an oblique case in Latin), rather than taking this example and others as evidence from noted writers that "who" can refer to direct objects.

Lowth's ipse dixits appealed to those who wished for certainty and authority in their language. Lowth's grammar was not written for children; however, within a decade after it appeared, versions of it adapted for the use of schools had appeared, and Lowth's stylistic opinions acquired the force of law in the schoolroom. The textbook remained in standard usage throughout educational institutions until the early 20th century.

Lowth was appointed a fellow of the Royal Societies of London and Göttingen in 1765. He was consecrated bishop of St. David's in 1766; however, before the end of the year he was transferred to the see of Oxford. He remained Bishop of Oxford until 1777 when he was appointed Bishop of London as well as dean of the chapel royal and privy councillor. In 1783 he was offered the chance to become Archbishop of Canterbury, but declined due to failing health.

Notes

1 A Short Introduction to English Grammar, p. 107, condemning Richard Bentley's "corrections" of some of Milton's constructions.

2In what may have been intentional self-reference, Lowth used that very construction in discussing it. "This is an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to; it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style in writing; but the placing of the Preposition before the Relative is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated Style." Ibid., pp. 127–128.

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