Evolution of English Grammar Rules: From Old to Modern English Period 

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Evolution of English Grammar Rules

Did you know that the evolution of English grammar rules has preceded mainly in two ways, first through the addition of new elements and second, through the loss of existing elements? Although significant changes have occurred, a fundamental system of grammatical rules and principles has remained consistent over the centuries. Interestingly, the changes in grammar did not proceed as dramatically as the changes in sound and spelling. So, in this blog, we will attempt to trace those changes in English grammar that have taken place since Old English times for a better understanding of the language. 

Must Read: 7 Reasons Why English is the Most Spoken Language

Evolution of English Grammar Rules- History and Origin 

As discussed above, the evolution of English grammar rules can be witnessed in two ways, that is, the addition of new elements and/or loss of existing elements. Its fascinating journey began with the Germanic dialects of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes who arrived in Britain around the 5th century AD. This Old English evolved with Viking and French influences, becoming Middle English. The Great Vowel Shift around 1500 further reshaped pronunciation. Modern English emerged as Britain’s colonial power grew, absorbing words from across the globe. Unlike Old English, today, English grammar is less reliant on inflexions (synthetic and analytic language) and continues to adapt in our ever-connected world.

Must Read: History of English Grammar

Changes in Old English Grammar

If you go through the difference between Old English and Modern English based on analytic and synthetic distinction, you will observe the absence of inflexions from nouns, pronouns, verbs, and adjectives. Per se, let us take a closer look at the synthetic language of Old English very briefly to note the evolution of grammar rules in this period. 

The Noun

The inflexions of nouns in Old English show distinctions of number and case. There are four cases in the Old English period, nominative, genitive, dative, and accusative. The ending of each case varies with different nouns, but they fall into certain broad categories. 

For example, take a look a the table below to observe the nature of inflexion in words like stan (stone), giefu (gift), and hunta (hunter) in the singular form.


Adjectives in Old English

An important characteristic of Old English is the dual declension of adjectives. One is the strong declension, which is used with nouns that are not accompanied by a definite article or similar words such as demonstrative or possessive pronouns. The other is the weak declension, which is used when the noun is preceded by such words. Thus we have in Old English go’d mann (good man) but se go’da mann (the good man)


Old English distinguished only two simple tenses through inflexion: present and past. It recognised the indicative, subjunctive, and imperative moods, and had the usual two numbers and three persons. A distinctive feature of the Germanic languages was the classification of verbs into two groups: weak and strong, also known in Modern English as regular and irregular verbs. Strong verbs, such as sing-sang-sung, change tense through a modification of their root vowel. In weak verbs, like walk-walked-walked, the change is achieved by adding an extra (dental) syllable.

The Adverb

Adverbs are another element borrowed from the Scandinavians. In Old English, the most common suffix for turning an adjective into an adverb was ‘e-’. For example, “wrāþ” (angry) became “wrāþe” (angrily). However, by the fourteenth century, during the transition from Middle to Modern English, the final -e was lost. As a result, the adjective and adverb forms became identical, as seen in the word “hard”:

  • A bat is hard.
  • He swung hard at the ball.

The most common suffix today for distinguishing an adverb from an adjective is -ly. For example:

  • deep – deeply
  • wide – widely
  • loud – loudly
  • clear – clearly

Interstingly, this -ly suffix originated from the Old English suffix -lic:

  • lufu + lic = luflic (lovely)
  • frēond + lic = frēondlic (friendly)

Gender in Grammar

One major difference between Old English and Modern English is that Old English nouns were differentiated by gender. However, the gender of Old English nouns was not based on biological sex. Nouns referring to males are often masculine and those referring to females are often feminine, but nouns for neuter objects are not necessarily neuter. 

For instance,stān” (stone) is masculine, “mōna” (moon) is masculine, but “sunne” (sun) is feminine, as it is in German. The gender in Old English can often be quite illogical. Words like “mǣden” (girl), “wīf” (wife), and “bearn” (child, son), which we might expect to be masculine or feminine, are actually neuter. Meanwhile, “wīfmann” (woman) is masculine because the second element of the compound is masculine.

Articles and Demonstratives

Although the usual meaning of “se, sēo, þæt” is “the,” in Old English it functions as a demonstrative pronoun and has evolved into the modern English demonstrative “that.” Its pronominal nature is evident from its frequent use in Middle English as a relative pronoun (who, which, that) and as a personal pronoun (he, she, it).


The present-day interrogatives who, whose, whom, what and why stem from various

Old English interrogative pronouns: 

Hwā (> who)Hwæt (> what)
Hwæs (> whose)hwæs
Hwām, hwǣm (> whom)hwām, hwǣm
Hwī (> why)hwī, hwȳ

The Indefinite Pronouns

The wide-ranging Old English interrogative pronouns—hwā, hwæt, hwilc, hwæþer—were also used as indefinite pronouns, often with prefixes or combining forms. These indefinites have since disappeared. In Old English, compounds were created with “thing” (anything, everything, something, nothing), initially spelt as two words. Indefinites were also based on hwā, hwæt, and hwilc, and compounds with “body” and “one” developed in Middle or late Modern English, resulting in words like anyone, anybody, everyone, and everybody.

Present Day Pronouns

The present-day pronouns have the tabulated eight forms:

My, MineOur, Ours

Old English Pronouns

The Old-day pronouns clearly indicate where the above-mentioned forms came from:

Genitivemīnuncerūser, ūre
Accusativemec, mēuncit, uncūsic, ūs

Also Read: 5+ Challenges in Learning English as a Second Language 

Source: Modern Thoughts

Evolution of Middle English Grammar Rules

The Middle English era (1150-1500) witnessed profound transformations in the language, marked by extensive and fundamental changes. Influenced by the Norman Conquest and ongoing linguistic shifts, Middle English evolved from a highly inflected to a more analytic language. These changes affected both Engish vocabulary and grammar, marking a transition towards modernity and the gradual loss of intrinsic elements from the Old English period.

Let us explore the evolution of English grammar rules now!!

The Pronoun

The most significant losses among pronouns occurred in the demonstratives. While forms like “se,” “seo,” “þæt,” and “þes,” “þeos,” “þis” survived into Modern English, other forms indicating different genders, numbers, and cases disappeared early in Middle English. In early Middle English, the neuter form “þæt” came to be used for all singular genders and cases, while plural forms like “þā” and “þās” extended to all plural cases in Modern English as “those” and “these.” Personal pronouns retained most Old English distinctions, though the dative and accusative cases merged into a single form (“him,” “her”). The dual number (“wit,” “git”) was lost.


The endings of the present participle varied across dialects: -and(e) in the North, -ende, -ing(e) in the Midlands, and, -inde, -ing(e) in the South. 

  • The -ing ending, which has become standard in Modern English, derives from the Old English noun ending -ung, as seen in words like “leornung” (learning) and “bodung” (reaching). 
  • The past participle may or may not have retained the initial inflection “i-” (y-) from Old English “ge-“. 
  • While present in Chaucer’s time, this form later fell out of use in many regions of England, including the East Midlands.

Decay of Inflectional Endings

Endings on nouns, verbs, and adjectives that once marked distinctions of number, case, and often gender underwent significant pronunciation changes, causing them to lose their distinct forms and practical utility. An early and notable alteration was the shift from the final ‘-m’ to ‘-n’, as seen in the dative plural forms like “godum” becoming “godun.” Subsequently, these -n inflectional endings were gradually dropped, and vowels (a, o, u, e) in inflectional endings were uniformly obscured to ‘-e’. Consequently, originally diverse endings such as ‘-a, -u, -e, -an, -um’ were simplified to a single ‘-e’, leading to the loss of their former grammatical distinctions.

The Loss of Grammatical Gender

As inflexions declined, grammatical gender in Old English nouns, often unrelated to meaning, became inconsistent. For example, “woman” was masculine while “wife” was neuter. In Middle English, the universal adoption of the masculine plural ending “-es” and the replacement of gender-specific articles erased grammatical gender distinctions, leaving biological sex as the sole determinant for noun gender.

Evolution of Modern English Grammar Rules

Grammatical changes in the Modern English period, while important, are less dramatic than changes in the sound system. Early Modern English grammar is characterised more by the retention of certain forms and usages, which have since disappeared, rather than by any fundamental developments. The most important evolution in English grammar rules is reviewed below for your reference. 

The Noun 

The only inflectional endings retained in nouns are those indicating the plural and the possessive singular. The -s plural has become so prevalent that, aside from a few nouns like “sheep” and “fish,” or those with mutated vowels like “mice” and “feet,” we are hardly aware of any other forms.

Adjectives and Adverbs

Since adjectives had already lost all their endings, the primary focus in the Modern Period is on the comparative and superlative forms. The common methods for forming these degrees are the endings -er and -est, and the use of the adverbs more and most. 

Double comparatives and superlatives, such as “more fairer” and “most unkindest,” were fairly common until early Modern English. Over time, usage has settled so that one-syllable adjectives typically take -er and -est, while most adjectives with two or more syllables use more and most (e.g., frugal, learned, careful, famous).

The Pronoun

The sixteenth century saw the establishment of the personal pronoun in its current form, involving three key changes mentioned below. These changes are essential fragments in the evolution of English Grammar rules

  • Disuse of thou, thy, thee: In the thirteenth century, these singular forms were used for familiar or inferior addresses, while the plural forms ye, your, you were used as marks of respect. By the sixteenth century, the singular forms had nearly vanished, and ye, you, your became the standard forms of direct address regardless of rank or familiarity.
  • Substitution of you for ye as a nominative case: Initially, ye was the nominative case and you the accusative. However, due to frequent unstressed usage, both were often pronounced [yə], leading to confusion. From the fourteenth century onwards, the two forms were used interchangeably until ye eventually disappeared.
  • Introduction of its as the possessive form of it: The development of the neuter possessive its was significant. In Old English, the neuter pronoun was hit, his, him, which became hit, his, hit in Middle English. By the early Modern period, the hit had weakened to it in unstressed positions. By the seventeenth century, it had become the usual neuter possessive form, replacing his and it.


Many Middle English strong verbs were lost or became weak, with those remaining undergoing significant changes in their past tense and past participle forms. Verbs like “bid,” “crow,” “flay,” “dread,” and “sprout” developed weak forms. Early Modern English lacked progressive forms and compound participles, which emerged in the sixteenth century (e.g., “having spoken,” “having decided”). 

The eighteenth century saw a notable increase in the use of progressive verb forms, which indicate ongoing actions (e.g., “I am singing”). The expanded passive form, known as the progressive passive (e.g., “the house is being built”), developed at the end of the eighteenth century, marking an important development in Modern English verbs.


With the loss of distinctive inflectional endings during the Middle English period, prepositions became more crucial than ever before. They were necessary to clearly indicate grammatical relations that had previously been conveyed by inflexions in earlier stages of the language.

Source: @GrammarUpdates
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Who invented the English grammar rules?

English grammar rules were not invented by a single person, but rather developed over time. Here’s a breakdown:
No single inventor: Unlike some languages with formal grammar established by scholars (e.g., Latin), English grammar evolved organically through usage.
First English Grammar Book:  The first documented effort to codify English grammar is credited to William Bullokar in 1586 with his “Pamphlet for Grammar.” However, it heavily borrowed from Latin grammar structures.
Gradual Development:  Over centuries, grammarians like Robert Lowth (18th century) built upon these foundations, creating a more prescriptive approach to English grammar (how it “should” be used).
Continuous Change:  Even today, English grammar adapts to new influences and usage patterns.

Which is the first English grammar book?

The first English grammar book is credited to be William Bullokar’s “Pamphlet for Grammar,” published in 1586. It’s important to note that:
It wasn’t the first attempt to describe the English language, but the first focused solely on grammar.
It heavily borrowed its structure from existing Latin grammar, reflecting a desire to establish English as a legitimate language.

Who are the famous English grammarians throughout history?

There are more than a few famous English grammarians throughout history like – 
William Bullokar (16th century): Credited with writing the first English grammar book, “Pamphlet for Grammar” (1586).
Ben Jonson (16th-17th century): A famous playwright and poet who also wrote influential works on English grammar and pronunciation.
John Locke (17th century): A renowned philosopher who also contributed to the understanding of language  and wrote about grammar and rhetoric.
Robert Lowth (18th century):  A bishop and scholar who wrote “A Short Introduction to English Grammar” (1762), a highly influential work that established a more prescriptive approach to English grammar.
Lindley Murray (18th-19th century): An American grammarian whose grammar books, like “English Grammar Adapted to the Different Classes of Learners” (1795), were widely used in both the US and England for many years.
Henry Sweet (19th century): A prominent philologist who studied the historical development of the English language and its grammar.

This was all about the evolution of English grammar rules along with a few notable examples. Hope you understand the concept and know how to proceed. You can also follow the Learn English page of Leverage Edu for more exciting and informative blogs related to grammar.

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