Is it ever acceptable to split an infinitive? Can a conjunction begin a sentence or a preposition end one? Is alliteration to be desired or avoided? Should we write long sentences, short sentences, or long and short sentences in alternation? How can language—its lexicon and grammar—be shaped by the demands of style? More generally, how should the sundry registers of language be shaped to serve the varied rhetorical contexts of its expression, whether written or spoken, professional or personal, literary or scientific? Around 19 bc, Horace was already advising in his Ars Poetica that the answers to such questions will change “if usage wills it,” determining “the law and norm of speech.”
For speakers of English in 2021, such questions are less numerous than they once were. The beneficiaries of hundreds of years of (often contentious and politicized) standardization, Anglophones largely agree—in principle, if not in practice—about how to spell the words of the English language. Present-day uniformity notwithstanding, the standardization of English was achieved piecemeal, reflecting no central authority or state-sponsored arbiter of linguistic correctness. While the French, Spanish, and Italian languages are each nominally regulated by a national academy of writers, academics, and civil servants, there is, of course, no English Academy.
Long before English writers grew confident in the rules of their shared language and national academies were created elsewhere, the usage of European vernaculars was a much murkier affair, developing gradually as the continent’s peoples struggled to define borders and identities. Anyone who has ever glanced at a facsimile edition of even the most canonical writers of the English language—say Milton or Shakespeare—will be familiar with the wilder gardens of early modern usage.
The European vernaculars each evolved alongside considerations of rhetoric and style; what could be said—with what words—was defined according to principles of how to express oneself. Since perhaps the Carolingian revival, and certainly during the Renaissance, Cicero had reigned supreme as the model and arbiter of good speech in Europe. Characteristically, Cicero’s sentences unfold slowly, building steam through a series of subordinate clauses toward a central idea. A sense of the extreme side of the Ciceronian style can be gleaned from one of its most fervent practitioners, the celebrated sixteenth-century Anglican theologian Richard Hooker, who asked rhetorically in his comically prolix Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity:
Now if nature should intermit her course, and leave altogether though it were but for a while the observation of her own laws; if those principal and mother elements of the world, whereof all things in this lower world are made, should lose the qualities which now they have; if the frame of that heavenly arch erected over our heads should loosen and dissolve itself; if celestial spheres should forget their wonted motions, and by irregular volubility turn themselves any way as it might happen; if the prince of the lights of heaven, which now as a giant doth run his unwearied course, should as it were through a languishing faintness begin to stand and to rest himself; if the moon should wander from her beaten way, the times and seasons of the year blend themselves by disordered and confused mixture, the winds breathe out their last gasp, the clouds yield no rain, the earth be defeated of heavenly influence, the fruits of the earth pine away as children at the withered breasts of their mother no longer able to yield them relief: what would become of man himself, whom these things now do all serve?
The leading humanists of the sixteenth century—among them Guillaume Budé and Erasmus—continued to regard Cicero’s elaborate sentences as supreme models for the development of modern prose. But by that century’s end, something had changed. On the continent, Michel de Montaigne, Justus Lipsius, and the unjustly forgotten Marc-Antoine de Muret advocated the recovery of another usage—clearer, briefer, more pointed—exemplified in antiquity by Tacitus, Plutarch, and above all the Stoic philosopher Seneca. With the 1605 publication of his Advancement of Learning, Francis Bacon led the charge of this anti-Ciceronian movement in England. While respectful toward Cicero, Bacon is scathing on the subject of his early modern imitators, who “began to hunt more after words than matter; and more after the choiceness of the phrase, and the round and clean composition of the sentence, and the sweet falling of the clauses, and the varying and illustration of their works with tropes and figures, than after the weight of matter, worth of subject, soundness of argument, life of invention, or depth of judgment.” The sentence itself is a satirical pastiche of the Ciceronian style—many clauses, same idea. Heralding the new century’s turn toward experimental science (still called “natural philosophy”), Bacon urged writers of English “to clothe and adorn the obscurity even of philosophy itself with sensible and plausible elocution.” Clear prose became identified with the experimental method itself, laying out arguments and evidence in neutral, undisguised language susceptible to objective public scrutiny.
If the consolidation of modern European nation states coincided with the standardization of their respective vernaculars, the great shift in the written expression of the seventeenth century equally evinced a second close companion: the rise of science. The anti-Ciceronian preoccupation with precision, brevity, and plainness traces a thread from Bacon’s polemic through the most spectacular achievements of seventeenth-century English science and learning. In Thomas Browne’s widely read 1646 Pseudodoxia Epidemica (Epidemic of false opinions)—a popularized, almost journalistic compendium of contemporary scientific knowledge—the polymath insisted similarly “that strict and definitive expressions are always required in philosophy.” (Not every early modern writer was prepared to abandon classically ornamented diction. In the 1651 dedication of his De Cive, Thomas Hobbes still had occasion to complain about philosophers who “hath not made any progress in the knowledge of the truth...whilst by the successful rhetorications of their speech they have confirmed them in their rashly received opinions.”) Perhaps the deadliest enemy of flowery misinformation was the Royal Society of London, founded in 1660 under a charter from Charles II as a “College for the Promoting of Physico-Mathematical Experimental Learning” by a committee of twelve that included Robert Boyle, Christopher Wren, and John Wilkins. From 1703 until his death it would be presided over by Isaac Newton.
It should come as no surprise that the distortions of Ciceronian oratory were explicitly banned from the Royal Society, whose 1663 statutes declared, “In all reports of experiments to be brought into the Society, the matter of fact shall be barely stated, without any prefaces, apologies, or rhetorical flourishes.” For the society’s motto, the writer and naturalist John Evelyn chose the phrase Nullius in verba: take no one’s word for it. The preface to Evelyn’s 1664 Pomona reprises the theme of plain, accurate speech against expressive deception:
Nor is it the design of the Royal Society to accumulate Repetitions when they can be avoided…such rude, and imperfect draughts being far better in their esteem (and according to my Lord Bacon’s) than such as are adorn’d with more pomp, and ostentous circumstances, for a pretence to Perfection.”
Suspicion of polished speech may suit science, but what about literature? Three decades before the Royal Society’s founding in England, Cardinal Richelieu (chief minister to Louis XIII) initiated an academy in France not for the advancement of science but for the refinement, purification, and protection of language. Modeled on Florence’s Accademia della Crusca—which published its influential dictionary of the Italian language in 1612—the Académie Française was organized in 1634, receiving letters patent from Louis XIII the next year. According to the 1652 account of its first great historian, Paul Pellisson, the Académie’s explicit aim was to “bring the language that we speak to its last perfection, and to draw a path to reach its highest eloquence.” Where the Royal Society would come to banish the supposed deceptions of elegant expression from its proceedings in London, Richelieu’s Académie expressly sought to promote eloquence as an instrument of national prestige and political power in Paris. Its 1694 Dictionnaire circumscribed the French language around a lexicon of eighteen thousand words that, in the Académie’s judgment, could plausibly serve “good usage.” The first volume of the dictionary’s ninth edition appeared in 1986, still defining the scope of the French language 292 years later. Whereas the most comparable English reference dictionary—the Oxford English Dictionary, first published in 1884—sought to describe English usage as it was, the Académie’s Dictionnaire aimed to prescribe the French language in advance.
Given the Royal Society’s role as the institutional propagandist of Bacon’s experimental method, it may come as a surprise that plans for an English Academy actually came from a subcommittee of the Society. Mindful of the models of the Italian and French academies, on December 7, 1664, the Royal Society approved the creation of a “committee for improving the English language.” On January 16, 1665, John Wilkins was tasked with convening a “committee for improving the English tongue…viz. chiefly to improve the philosophy of the language.” The concatenation of “philosophy” with “language” is suggestive. As Thomas Sprat—the first spokesman of the Royal Society and a protégé of Wilkins—made clear in his 1667 History of the Royal Society of London, “English Genius is not so airy and discoursive, as that of some of our neighbors…we generally love to have Reason set out in plain, undeceiving expressions.” Though Sprat repeats what had by then become the commonplace conflation of rational discourse with plain style, he is not altogether insensitive to questions of style. He closely observed the activities of the Académie Française and greatly admired Pellison’s history of that body. In explaining the Royal Society’s motivation in attempting to found an English Academy, Sprat repeats (without attribution) exactly the rationale that Pellison gave for the founding of the Académie Française: “to bring [the English language] to its last perfection.” This is not to say, however, that Sprat was prepared to concede linguistic perfection to France, then England’s great rival. On the contrary, he cites precisely the superior scientific character of the English language as the source of its unrivaled supremacy: “I will venture to declare in general of the English Tongue, that [it] contains a greater Stock of natural and mechanical Discoveries…than ever any other Language could produce.” In Sprat’s nationalistic rhetoric, language is no longer an impediment to scientific progress but a beneficiary of it.
The members of the English Academy committee, including Sprat, Evelyn, and the poets Abraham Cowley and John Dryden, met on three or four occasions in the winter of 1665. The organization’s preliminary aims are recorded in a letter written by Evelyn to chair Peter Wyche in June of that year. Evelyn concedes a certain room for stylistic improvement in a national language oriented to scientific discovery, saying that among the “elegant words introduc’d by physitians chiefely and philosophers,” some were “well sounding and more harmonious,” while others “(like false stones) will never shine, in whatever light they be placed, but embase the rest.” If the committee hoped to birth a more polished language, it would certainly not be a less scientific one. Explicitly contrasting the committee’s plan with that of the Académie Française, Evelyn continues: “I conceive a very small matter would dispatch the art of rhetoric, which the French propos’d as one of the first things they reco’mended to their late academitians.” Eveyln’s supposed aversion to “the art of rhetoric” notwithstanding, clearly Richelieu’s Académie was never far from the committee’s deliberations. Nor were all of its members so critical. Just the previous year, Dryden had opined—rather more wistfully—in the dedication of his second play, Rival Ladies, “Only I am sorry, that (speaking so noble a language as we do) we have not a more certain measure of it, as they have in France, where they have an Academy erected for that purpose.”
Here the story of the English Academy ends, prematurely concluded for a reason almost as arbitrary as the haphazard unfolding of the English language itself: the chance outbreak of plague. The committee’s apparent dissolution after the winter of 1665 was almost certainly caused by the arrival of an epidemic in London earlier that spring. This is precisely the explanation suggested in a letter Evelyn sent to the diarist Samuel Pepys several years later: “By the death of the incomparable Mr. Cowley, distance & inconvenience of the place, the contagion, & circumstances intervening, it crumbled away & came to nothing.” Anyone who has lived through 2020 can readily imagine how quickly well-to-do Londoners fled the city for more pastoral removes at the outbreak of plague in June 1665. The would-be polishers of the English tongue, it seems, were no different.
Occasional calls for the standardization of English echoed into the next century. In his 1697 Essay Upon Projects, Daniel Defoe insisted on the continued need for an English Academy, asking, “And for a method, what greater can be set before us than the academy of Paris?” In 1712 Jonathan Swift evinced a similar sense of national humiliation, observing, “The French king bestows about half a dozen pensions to learned men…[who] have more contributed to the glory of that prince, than any million he hath otherwise employed.” By 1779 Samuel Johnson was more skeptical. “The edicts of an English academy would probably be read by many,” he wrote in his life of Roscommon, “only that they might be sure to disobey them.” In his own 1755 Dictionary, Johnson had sought not to constrain the English language but simply to take its measure. He wrote, “If an academy should be established for the cultivation of our style—which I, who can never wish to see dependence multiplied, hope the spirit of English liberty will hinder or destroy—let them, instead of compiling grammars and dictionaries, endeavor, with all their influence, to stop the license of translators, whose idleness and ignorance, if it be suffered to proceed, will reduce us to babble a dialect of France.”
Against Johnson’s nationalistic and ideological trope of a particularly English attachment to freedom, it is useful to recall that the descriptive approach of his Dictionary (as of the later Oxford English Dictionary) was made possible by the anti-Ciceronian tendency to frame language as a means of scientific expression. More than some supposed “spirit of English liberty,” it was the rhetorical tradition culminating in the Royal Society’s strictures on artificial eloquence that originated the now-commonplace view of language as a living instrument. Shaped more by the actual experience of its use than by central authorities, the English language thus appeared as a vehicle of discovery, experiment, and change—not of lifeless perfection.
Officially ungoverned, over several centuries English has gone from being one language of a modest European archipelago to the single most commonly spoken language in the world, with 1.3 billion speakers by one count. But it would be a mistake to suppose that English’s astonishing dissemination followed from purely linguistic properties. There can be no question that the near-universal expansion of the Anglosphere was a particularly brutal effect of colonial power: a product of force, not of science; a technique of control, not of liberty. While English pens were praising their freedom from the confining authority of an English Academy, English arms were imposing their language on unwilling populations in a cultural genocide that reverberates through these very sentences, written on a continent where they should never have been spoken. The accomplishments of English science may have brought a spirit of openness and free development to the English language, but its technologies rained only death and obliteration on those who sought to speak otherwise. In this way, the absence of an English Academy approaches one of the most violent contradictions at the center of the English language itself: free for some, compelled for others.