This article investigates the development of two groups of strong verbs, clustering around sing/sang/sung and sling/slung/slung, in written American English over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Especially during the nineteenth century, there is a massive reduction in variability in past-tense forms; typically, in the first group of verbs, past-tense a-forms come to predominate, resulting in the present-day standard sang, drank, or shrank. In the second group of verbs, past-tense u-forms are already established at the beginning of the nineteenth century and are not subject to variation. Contrary to expectation, prescriptive grammars were not instrumental in bringing about this reduction in variability. A quantitative analysis of 256 prescriptive grammars from the nineteenth century shows that, as a rule, (1) grammars allowed more variability than the written data actually showed, (2) American grammars were more tolerant of variation than British grammars, and (3) the development in grammar books actually followed, rather than preceded, developments in the written data. Combining historical corpus analysis and quantitative historical grammaticography in the analysis of processes of language change allows one to relativize an overly general assessment of the influence of prescriptive grammar writing in the nineteenth century.

You do not currently have access to this content.