Liam Julian on A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler and edited by David Crystal
H.W. Fowler and David Crystal, ed. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. 832 Pages. $29.95
Henry watson Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage is an unabashedly prescriptivist tome, which is to say that it doesn’t waffle in describing the right way, and the wrong way, to use English words. The archetypal usage manual, commonly called just “Fowler’s,” was initially published in 1926. It has undergone two revisions since, the product of the first of which, a book judiciously and lightly edited by Sir Ernest Gowers, was released in 1965. F.W. Bateson, the English literary scholar, reflected the general feeling when he wrote that Gowers was “remarkably successful . . . in retaining Fowler’s ipsissima verba while making the minor corrections and qualifications that time has made necessary.”
Similar approbation did not greet the second revision of Fowler’s, published in 1996 and helmed by the late lexicographer and linguist Robert W. Burchfield. John Simon, reviewing that book for the New Criterion, wrote that Burchfield — who before editing Fowler’s had edited both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Cambridge History of the English Language — had “made himself a true citizen of Oxbridge.” “But an ox bridge,” Simon quipped, “can be no better than a pons asinorum.”
The trouble, simply put, was that Burchfield had expunged Fowler from Fowler’s. Gone were some of the original author’s beloved subheadings (“Pairs and Snares” was pared, “Unequal Yokefellows” unyoked) and gone, too, was his jaunty, slightly mischievous, scything-while-grinning tone. Most objectionable was that Burchfield had changed Fowler’s from a prescriptive book to a descriptive one. Usage was no longer to be judged but understood. Entries that had earlier attacked ambiguity, castigated the careless, and lowered the boom on barbarism were suddenly more interested in explaining the origins and development of the English language’s scofflaws than in pointing them out and locking up. The warden had become the prison psychologist.
William Safire wrote that the first Fowler’s was “a body-and-soul book, rambling through the byways of usage” and “written with a style all its own: certain, authoritative, unafraid to make decisions.” Burchfield’s edition is not at all that. It is a fine reference manual assembled by a first-rate scholar, to be sure, and anyone seeking edification about the historical iterations of words and phrases would do well to consult its pages. But it does not follow its predecessor on a merry march through the English language, nor does it do much for Henry Fowler’s originally intended reader, that “half-educated Englishman of literary proclivities” who just wants to know: “‘Can I say so-&-so?’”
Today’s half-educated supplicants, those less than obsessive about scouring used-book shops, have had to content themselves with Gowers’s interpretation of Fowler’s because the original version was long out of print. And young people growing up on Burchfield’s book no doubt find Fowler’s just another among the plodding reference manuals to be occasionally consulted and then quickly reshelved. Not a fine state of affairs. Thankfully, Oxford University Press has now swept to the rescue with the rerelease of the first edition, in effect putting Fowler back in charge of Fowler’s.
The author of Modern English Usage, Henry Watson Fowler, was, as one might expect of the author of a 700-plus-page English usage guide, idiosyncratic. He was not the cheerful fellow suggested by the wry sentences he wrote. Rather, he was awkward and reserved. Born in 1858, educated at Rugby and Balliol College, Oxford, he spent the first 17 years of his working life teaching English and Classics at a school in Yorkshire, where his reputation was for shyness, seriousness, and rectitude. One pupil called him “a cold, mechanical machine”; another said of Fowler, “He took some knowing.” He resigned his teaching position at age 41 because he felt his lack of religious faith left him unable to properly prepare his students for confirmation in the Church of England. He was also, it seems probable, a bit bored.
And so he decamped for London, where for four years he lived in three rooms in a Chelsea boarding house and wrote essays and articles for magazines like the Spectator and the Westminster Gazette. He tried to integrate himself into the city’s literary circles, but his social uneasiness proved a hopeless impediment, and so, in 1903, he left London for Guernsey, an island 100 miles south of the English coast, where his younger brother, Frank, lived and worked as a tomato farmer. The two occupied neighboring cottages and became collaborators. First, they put out a translation of Lucian, which was published in 1905 in the Oxford Library of Translations. The book garnered an unsigned review in the New York Times that managed to be at once adulatory and cutting:
Ordinarily a translator is but a name; but this translation of Lucian is so excellent that one wants more than the names of those who have made it. “H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler,” says the title page. But who are they? Are they Oxford men — or are they Oxford women? The translation has a femininity about it — is dainty as well as accurate and finished.
Their next work, The King’s English — “a sort of English composition manual . . . for journalists and amateur writers,” the brothers explained to Oxford Press — was released in 1906 and sold well, to Henry’s enduring surprise. Five years after that, the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, a Fowlers-edited abridgement of the 16,000-page original, was published. Then World War I erupted, and the brothers set aside writing to falsify their ages — Henry was 56 in reality — and enlist in the British armed forces. Though neither found himself in the trenches, the health of each was damaged by the experience, Frank’s health especially. He died in 1918, of tuberculosis. Henry had started Modern English Usage before the war’s onset. Fighting delayed the work, and after Frank’s death it was again waylaid. It was not until 1926 that Henry Fowler’s most important book was finally published.
Burchfield, in his preface to Fowler’s third edition, called the first edition “this extraordinary book, the Bible of presciptivists.” But in the early 20th century, when Fowler was writing the extraordinary book, the trend was away from prescriptivism and toward a descriptive, academic linguistics that, like Burchfield himself, observed rather than decreed.1 Burchfield stressed the extent of “the isolation of Fowler from the mainstream of the linguistic scholarship of his day” and highlighted “his heavy dependence” on English school textbooks and the classics of ancient Greece and Rome, the Renaissance, and post-Renaissance English literature. For Fowler, Burchfield wrote, these influences composed “a three-colored flag” that “was to be saluted and revered, and, as far as possible, everything it represented was to be preserved intact.”
Burchfield’s facts are not wrong, but he is wrong to decoct from them that Fowler was an uncritical, flag-saluting traditionalist. It’s true that Fowler was not a trained linguist, as Burchfield notes, and certainly he was removed from cutting-edge linguistics work (he did, after all, inhabit a tiny, out-of-the-way island). He also loved Latin and Greek, yes. But to represent Fowler as a sort-of linguistic reactionary, determined to fight any deviation from the textbooks of his youth, no matter how sensible or ineluctable, is to represent him in a way unsupported by evidence.
The evidence, in fact, shows Fowler to be of sensible and moderate prescriptive proclivities. Take his tack on the word none, for example, about which word Dorothy Parker wrote in the September, 1961, Esquire that “Any one who, as does [Henry] Miller, follows ‘none’ with a plural verb . . . should assuredly not be called a writer.” Here’s Fowler on the matter: “It is a mistake to suppose that the pronoun is sing. only & must at all costs be followed by sing. verbs &c.; the oed explicitly states that pl. construction is commoner.” This seems reasonable — and, of course, no respectable reactionary would embrace an approach just because the dictionary finds it “commoner.”
Another instance of Fowler’s reasonableness comes in his humorous and extended discussion of the split infinitive. He begins:
The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know & condemn; (4) those who know & approve; & (5) those who know and distinguish.
Many if not most textbook-authors and teachers of Fowler’s time, and ours, belong in the third group, the dire condemners. But Fowler sides with the fifth, a club, he writes, that believes “that a real s.i., though not desirable in itself, is preferable to either of two things, to real ambiguity, & to patent artificiality.” Writing should be clear and smooth, and if maintaining the contiguity between to and its verb occasions an unclear or jarring sentence, the infinitive in question should be split.2
Fowler also saw no problem in placing and or but at the start of a sentence, nor in plopping a preposition at its end. While he could get hooked by crotchets — objecting to amoral, for instance, on the grounds that it was an ungainly combination of a Greek prefix and a Latin derivative — he was generally practical in his rule-making and rule-breaking. His abiding hope was to promote production of precise and pleasurable sentences, and if old prejudices stood in the way of that goal, they were knocked aside. David Crystal, editor of the rereleased first edition, writes that Fowler “turns out to be far more sophisticated in his analysis of language than most people realize.” What’s more, “Several of his entries display a concern for descriptive accuracy which would do any modern linguist proud.”
Crystal, himself a linguist, contributes an introduction to the rereleased Fowler’s. It provides a passable overview, though it is flecked with the same condescension and pomposity that infuses Burchfield’s work and lacks the joy of the text it introduces. It contains far more criticisms than compliments. Crystal observes, for example, that Henry Fowler’s “own writing does not always live up to the high standard he sets himself”: Clarity is wanting, for instance, in the 56-word opening sentence of the Novelty-Hunting entry, and Fowler’s instruction that “Good English does consist in the main of short words” is undercut by his overall book, some 30 to 40 percent of the words of the entries of which are polysyllabic. Crystal also goes after the book’s inconsistency, both the discrepancies between one entry and the next (e.g., the definitional shift of oblivious is condemned while that of obnoxious is affirmed) and Fowler’s own obliviousness to his own rules.
“How can someone assert so many principles,” Crystal asks, “and then break them so often?” The short answer is that Fowler’s is a personal, aspirational book, the work of one man with a keenness for supporting clear English who did his best to make usage rules to that end. If he goes one way on oblivious, another way on obnoxious, it is his decision to make, and he has every right to codify it in his book. In other words, there is no requirement that Fowler justify his preferences through etymology or lexicography or anything else. Crystal is right that Fowler’s is no scientific manual. He is wrong, though, to judge the book as if it were.
When Crystal writes that Henry Fowler was “unable to detach himself completely from his own language upbringing,” one wonders why such a detachment would have been at all desirable. When Crystal writes of Fowler, “I sense a linguist inside him crying to get out, but being held back by a prescriptive conscience,” one recalls Fowler’s correspondence with Oxford Press, in which he never proposed to write a book on linguistics but a prescriptive guide to English usage. And then one wonders why Oxford hired yet another linguist, and not a prescriptivist, to write the new introduction to this most-famous of all prescriptivist tracts.
It is likely that Fowler, were he still with us, would scoff at the sentimentalists who wish to keep his book unaltered for all time. Fowler knew that language was protean; he would agree that a usage manual published in 1926 could stand some updating in the 21st century.
In the rereleased first edition, the updating comes in a useful appendix, in which Crystal addresses some 300 entries, offering here and there corrections and clarifications (and rebukes) and providing historical context. Readers can see where Henry Fowler’s judgments have proved durable and where they have not. They can also see where he made etymological and historical errors, and they can determine where it matters and where it doesn’t.
Burchfield called Fowler’s “a fossil.” He was right in one sense — the book surely is a well-preserved “monument to all that was linguistically acceptable in the standard English of the southern counties of England in the first quarter of the twentieth century.” But it’s much more than that, of course. More than a million copies of Fowler’s have been sold; it is simply, to recall Burchfield’s words, “the Bible of prescriptivists.” And, for all its early- 20th-century, southern English stuffiness, it remains today more than capable, when touched up by a few well-placed tweaks, of fulfilling its original purpose of telling us when and how we can say something and when and how we can’t.
While he could get hooked by crotchets — objecting to amoral, for instance, on the grounds that it was an ungainly combination of a Greek prefix and a Latin derivative — he was generally practical in his rule-making and rule-breaking.
The books of descriptivists have their place as chronicles of language as it is actually used. The books of prescriptivists — books like The Careful Writer by Theodore Bernstein or Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage, or any of the collections of William Safire’s “On Language” writings, and especially Fowler’s — give instruction in how language should be used, and they have their place, too. Clifton Fadiman once said, “I refer to Fowler often . . . I refer to it for spiritual sustenance. It shows me how bad a writer I am, and encourages me to do better.” Fadiman was nothing near a bad writer, but the point is well taken. It is excellent that the original Fowler’s is now back on the shelves, helping us all to be clearer and more correct, still encouraging us to do better.
Liam Julian is managing editor of Policy Review.
1. The mood was detectable, for instance, in the English government’s 1921 Newbolt Report, officially titled The Teaching of English in England, which maintained that because grammar was ever-changing it could not be taught in schools.
2. William Safire, another prudent prescriptivist, also belonged to Fowler’s fifth group. In his New York Times language column Safire disagreed with Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s uncompromising hostility to the split infinitive (“Sotomayoralities,” June 15, 2009): Though typically reluctant to divide an infinitive, “occasionally I choose to ‘break the rule’ when it helps the reader to better understand my point. (To understand better my point? No; that sounds awkward. To understand my point better? Not bad, but not as strong as having the better ahead of the understand.)”