Mar 272019

Today is the birthday (1745) of Lindley Murray, a North American born Quaker who moved to England where he became a writer and grammarian. Once in a while I feel a need to salute grammarians who, although sometimes overly pedantic, keep us within reasonable bounds. I have far too many friends and former students who decry precision in writing, and mostly I simply grin and bear it. But sometimes I rebel.

I expect the world has always been filled with people whose writing is poor and shallow, just as there are people who cannot draw or compose music. All of these skills require patience and dedication to master, and many (perhaps most) people have neither. Not a problem. I am not going to look down on someone who has no interest in painting, nor on someone who has no interest in writing. I do object, however, when all too frequently I am told by a terrible writer that writing well is a waste of time and effort. If you want to be ignored, dismissed, ridiculed or misunderstood, then by all means write with bad grammar, punctuation, and spelling. Above all, do not blame the language for your own inabilities. It can perform wonders, but you have to know what you are doing. It is not fair to say, as I have heard way too often, “If it could be written, I would not have to dance/play/paint . . . etc.” Idle rubbish. It is not language that is inadequate; it is either your education, or your lack of attention to the skills and subtleties of writing that is at fault. Murray wanted people to do better.

Lindley Murray was born at Harper Tavern in Pennsylvania. His father, Robert Murray, a member of an old Quaker family, was one of the leading New York merchants. Murray was the eldest of twelve children, all of whom he survived, although he was puny and delicate in childhood. When six years old, he was sent to school in Philadelphia, but soon left to accompany his parents to North Carolina, where they lived until 1753. They then moved to New York, where Murray was sent to a good school, but was put down as a ‘heedless boy’. At 14 years old he was placed in his father’s counting-house. In spite of endeavors to foster in him the commercial spirit, Murray’s interests were mainly concentrated in science and literature. He escaped to Burlington, New Jersey, entered a boarding-school, and started to study French. His retreat was discovered, he was brought back to New York, and allowed a private tutor. His father still wanted him to apply himself to commerce, but he stated arguments in favor of a literary profession so ably in writing that his father’s lawyer advised him to let him study law.

Four years later Murray was called to the bar, and practiced as counsel and attorney in the province of New York. At the age of 22 he married, and in 1770 went to England, but returned in 1771 to New York. Here his practice became both large and lucrative, in spite of his conscientious care to ‘discourage litigation, and to recommend a peaceable settlement of differences.’ On the outbreak of hostilities in the colonies America, Murray went with his wife to Long Island, where he spent four years fishing, sailing, and shooting. On the declaration of independence he returned to New York, and was so successful that he retired in 1783 to a mansion on the Hudson.

Because Murray’s health was failing, he decided to try the English climate (yes, you read that right). In 1784, he left North America and never returned. For the remainder of his life he lived in Holgate, near York, and for the last sixteen years of his life, his physical condition, likely the result of Post-Polio Syndrome, confined him to his house.

His library became noted for its theological and philological treasures. He studied botany, and his garden was said to exceed in variety the Royal Gardens at Kew. The summer house in which he wrote his grammars still remains. Murray’s first published work, The Power of Religion on the Mind,  (1787) went to 20 editions by 1842, and was twice translated into French. To the 8th edition (1795) was added ‘Extracts from the Writings of divers Eminent Men representing the Evils of Stage Plays, &c.,’ published separately 1789 and 1799.

His attention was then drawn to the lack of suitable lesson-books for a Friends’ school for girls in York, and in 1795 he published his English Grammar. The manuscript petition from the teachers requesting him to prepare it has been preserved. The work became rapidly popular; it went through 50 editions, was edited, abridged, simplified, and enlarged in England and the US, and for a long time was used in schools to the exclusion of all other grammar-books. In 1816, an edition corrected by the author was issued in 2 vols.  An ‘Abridgment’ of this version by Murray, issued two years later, went through more than 120 editions of ten thousand each. It was printed at the New England Institution for the Blind in embossed characters, Boston, 1835. English Exercises followed (1797), with A Key (27th ed. London, 1847), and both works were in great demand. Murray’s English Reader, Sequel, and Introduction, issued respectively 1799, 1800, and 1801 (31st edit. 1836), were equally successful, as well as the Lecteur Francais, 1802, and Introduction to the Lecteur Francais, 1807. An English Spelling Book, 1804, reached 44 editions, and was translated into Spanish (Cadiz, 1841). The 150,000th First Book for Children, with portrait and woodcuts, was issued in 1859. He died on 16 January 1826, aged 80.

You can find, The English Reader: or, Pieces in Prose and Poetry, Selected from the Best Writers Designed to Assist Young Persons to Read with Propriety and Effect; to Improve Their Language and Sentiments; and to Inculcate Some of the Most Important Principles of Piety and Virtue. : With a Few Preliminary Observations on the Principles of Good Reading. (1799) here if you are interested: .

Mrs Beeton’s prose style would pass muster with Murray, and this segment speaks of another transplant from New York to England:

THE APPLE.—The most useful of all the British fruits is the apple, which is a native of Britain, and may be found in woods and hedges, in the form of the common wild crab, of which all our best apples are merely seminal varieties, produced by culture or particular circumstances. In most temperate climates it is very extensively cultivated, and in England, both as regards variety and quantity, it is excellent and abundant. Immense supplies are also imported from the United States and from France. The apples grown in the vicinity of New York are universally admitted to be the finest of any; but unless selected and packed with great care, they are apt to spoil before reaching England.


  1. INGREDIENTS.—6 apples, 3/4 lb. of suet-crust No. 1215, sugar to taste.

Mode.—Pare and take out the cores of the apples without dividing them; sweeten, and roll each apple in a piece of crust, made by recipe No. 1211; be particular that the paste is nicely joined; put the dumplings into floured cloths, tie them securely, and put them into boiling water. Keep them boiling from 1/2 to 3/4 hour; remove the cloths, and send them hot and quickly to table. Dumplings boiled in knitted cloths have a very pretty appearance when they come to table. The cloths should be made square, just large enough to hold one dumpling, and should be knitted in plain knitting, with very coarse cotton.

Time.—3/4 to 1 hour, or longer should the dumplings be very large.

Average cost, 11/2d. each.

Sufficient for 4 persons.

Seasonable from August to March, but flavourless after the end of January.

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