Lane’s Key to the Art of Letters

Last year, a very interesting article came out by Robert Rix, dealing with a grammar that has not received a lot of attention within English linguistics: A. Lane’s Key to the Art of Letters, first published in 1700 and reprinted twice down to 1706. The grammar must therefore have enjoyed a certain amount of popularity, and it may not have been reprinted after that date because the author appears to have been no longer alive by that time. As Rix notes, the final edition of the grammar contains his obituary. (Lane’s lifedates in Koerner’s Index of Biographical Names can thus be pushed slightly forward: fl.1695-c.1706.)

Rix also notes that the grammar must have circulated first in manuscript before it was published, and that, in trying to have it published (and for the proposal for reform which he presented in the grammar to be accepted), the author sought royal backing. All this, along with the matter of plagiarism of the grammar by V.J. Peyton in 1771 (further testimony to Lane’s popularity), brings to mind the case of Kirkby and his grammar, the history of which I described in an article published in 1992. Of Kirkby’s grammar (1746), a manuscript has come down to us, which similarly allows us to assess the importance of dedicating one’s work to the right person. Kirkby sought aristocratic (not royal, as in Lane’s case) backing, but had to change the object of the original dedication, the Earl of Rockingham, as Rockingham had died of smallpox before the grammar could go to press. In its printed version the grammar is dedicated to Edward Gibbon’s father, from whose service Kirkby had been dismissed a little while previously. Kirkby’s new dedication can therefore be interpreted as an attempt to be reinstated in Gibbon Sr.’s favour, something at which he was apparently unsuccessful. Kirkby’s grammar is largely a plagiarism of Ann Fisher’s New grammar (Newcastle, 1745, 2nd ed. 1750; no copy of the first ed. located). Plagiarism among eighteenth-century grammarians was very common at the time, but the extent of it in this case is another illustration of the dire straits Kirkby was in at the time. Unsuccessful at making a further career for himself, Kirkby must have died a frustrated man.

ECCO, starting only from the year 1701, unfortunately has no copy of the first edition of Lane’s grammar, nor indeed of Kirkby’s grammar or the second edition of the one by Fisher (the first edition of her grammar that has come down to us). It is to be hoped that these grammars can be added to the database. But looking up Lane’s grammar in Alston gives us the subtitle of the book in his bibliography (1965): "or, English a learned language, full of art, elegancy and variety". And to bring this about was, as Rix has shown in his article, the prime aim behind the publication of Lane’s grammar.


Alston, R.C. 1965. A Bibliography of the English Language. Vol. I. English Grammars written in English. Leeds: E.J. Arnold & Son.

Koerner, E.F.K. 2008. Universal Index of Biographical Names in the Language Sciences. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: Benjamins.

Rix, Robert W. 2008. "A Key to the Art of Letters: An English grammar for the eighteenth century". Neophilologus 92:545-557.

Tieken-Boon van Ostade, Ingrid. 1992. "John Kirkby and The Practice if Speaking and Writing English: The identification of a manuscript". Leeds Studies in English 23, 157-179.

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