Ben Jonson's The English Grammar


Ben Jonson’s works range from the down-to-earth drama Bartholomew Fair with its witty observations of London life, to refined translations of Greek and Roman poetry. Less well known is The English Grammar, written in 1623 and lost in a fire, but rewritten and published after Jonson’s death.

Jonson’s Grammar gives us a snapshot of English in the early 17th century. He considers syntax and spelling, and is one of the first writers to leave us a clear indication of the pronunciation of English. Here Jonson tells us that the letter ‘r’ at the end of a word would be heard clearly, because it is ‘the Dogs Letter’ – directing us to think of the sound a dog makes – it ‘hurreth in the sound; the tongue striking the inner palate, with a trembling about the teeth’.

It is notable that the book is printed in both Latin and English, as Jonson used Latin examples both for pronunciation and spelling. The book was intended ‘for the benefit of all strangers [foreigners]’, for whom Latin would be a generally known language.

Full title:
The English Grammar made by B. Johnson, ... out of his observation of the English Language now spoken, and in use.
1640, London
Ben Jonson
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Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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Ben Jonson went from a classically educated schoolboy to an apprentice bricklayer and solider, before becoming one of the 17th-century's most eminent playwrights and poets. Andrew Dickson recounts Jonson's eventful life, and how his success was often marred by a difficult relationship with alcohol, with fellow playwrights and actors, and with theatre itself.

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