In 2014, a new edition came out of Sir Ernest Gowers’ Plain Words: A Guide to the Use of English, originally published in 1948. Gowers (1880–1966) was a civil servant, and the new edition was produced by his great-granddaughter, the novelist Rebecca Gowers. Plain Words is a usage guide, a manual on how to use language correctly. Originally written for civil servants like Gowers himself, Plain Words became hugely popular. But the work is neither the first of its kind nor unique in history: English usage guides originated during the second half of the eighteenth century, and their popularity has increased enormously, particularly during the end of the twentieth century and the beginning the twenty-first, despite the fact that there are already very many of them. There is clearly a market for usage guides.
Such a market was already growing in England during the second half of the eighteenth century, though at first this new demand led to the publication of grammars, more than ever before. In some countries, grammars and usage guides, but also dictionaries, are published by an academy, an authoritative institution that is officially responsible for the regulation of the language. The best-known example is the Académie française, founded in 1635, but Spain has a language academy too, and so does the Netherlands, but it regulates Dutch spelling only. For English there has never been an academy, though at the beginning of the eighteenth century England came very close to having one. Instead of officially sanctioned publications, English grammars, dictionaries and usage guides came to be produced by individuals, writers from different backgrounds but all of them interested in language, often encouraged by publishers with an eye for the market.
Usage guides are neither grammars nor dictionaries because they deal with all aspects of language: pronunciation, spelling, vocabulary, grammar, and style. They originate from“normative grammars” like the one by the clergyman Robert Lowth (1710–1787), which presents a norm of correctness for those wishing to speak and write correctly. One of the reasons Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762) was so popular was that it had a chapter on syntaxwith numerous footnotes criticizing the grammatical mistakes of famous English writers.
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