The Grammar Battle That Followed the American Revolution


When America achieved independence from England, it threw off many of its inherited English ways in order to form a new identity. But there was one way it was still very much tied to the old country—language. Certainly, by 1776, Americans had developed a new idiom with its own accent and vocabulary, but people still looked to England for proper linguistic guidance. When John Adams suggested forming an academy “for correcting, improving, and fixing the English language,” he thought it should follow British custom, explaining “We have not made war against the English language any more than against the old English character.”

As Rosemarie Ostler recounts in her new book Founding Grammars: How Early America’s War Over Words Shaped Today’s Language, Noah Webster, who went on the create America’s first dictionary, wanted America to look to itself for linguistic guidance. He thought, “America must be as independent in literature as she is in politics—as famous for arts as for arms,” and he began a lively battle for linguistic independence.

Before the Revolution, people learned grammar through classic British primers that were based in fusty Latin rules that didn’t really fit English. They enshrined Latin-inspired rules that weren’t much in popular use, such as saying “It is I” instead of “It is me” and “I am taller than he” instead of "I am taller than him." They forbid the stranding of prepositions and the use of who and whose for inanimate objects (so, “This is the book the pages of which are badly stained” instead of “This is the book whose pages are badly stained”).

Webster wanted to show the “true state” of English. Starting with his 1783 A Grammatical Institute of the English Language and culminating with his American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828, he sought to eliminate moldy, unsensible rules and spellings and replace them with vigorous American ones. 

Some of his suggestions stuck—we replaced Ouisconsin with Wisconsin, colour with color, and musick with music. But his grammar suggestions fared less well. His pleas to sanction “It’s me” and “Who do you speak to” were rejected as more popular, British-leaning, grammar books became widespread in schools. His dictionary was attacked as vulgar and degenerate.

But it survived and became an accepted authority (now Merriam-Webster), and there are few style guides or grammar books these days that outright reject “it’s me.” And while we never came anywhere close to accepting "Was you there when the gun was fired?" other suggestions from Webster have slowly become standard. In the beginning his mission was revolutionary and rebellious, but in the end, language change will have its way.

Read more about the history of grammar rules in America in Rosmarie Ostler's Founding Grammars.