Monday, December 7, 2009

Henry Fowler's divided legacy

My copy of Fowler is the 1965 edition, lightly revised by Sir Ernest Gowers, but now it is possible to lay hands on a reprint of the original 1926 Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Oxford University Press, 784 pages, $29.95), with an introduction by the distinguished linguist David Crystal.

Why, you may ask, bother? Did not R.W. Burchfield say in his third edition of Fowler in 1996 that the original is a “schoolmasterly, quixotic, idiosyncratic, and somewhat vulnerable book” and “an enduring 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”?*

One reason is that there is a fair amount of good sense in the original — and good sense written entertainingly.

Take, for example, his description of those who want to insist that the placement of only in a sentence is crucial to meaning: “those friends from whom the English language may well pray to be saved ... the modern precisians who have more zeal than discretion.” Their goal is “to force us all, whenever we use the adverb only, to spend time in considering which is the precise part of the sentence strictly qualified by it, & then put it there—this whether there is any danger or none of the meaning’s being false or ambiguous.” A current linguist writing at Language Log would say much the same.

The entry on superstitions (the enduring belief that it is wrong to end a sentence with a preposition, etc.) reminds us of “the havoc that is wrought by unintelligent applications of an unintelligent dogma.”

Professor Crystal takes a more generous view of Fowler’s accomplishment than the late Mr. Burchfield, pointing out that Fowler made extensive use of the available linguistic information in the Oxford English Dictionary and his own extensive observations. He places Fowler in historic context, in an age when prescriptivism was beginning to lose its dominance in education and linguists were developing and analyzing findings about how people – both the uneducated and the educated — actually use the language. “His solid educational background in English grammar, Latin, and Greek was pulling him in one direction; his considerable observational linguistic alertness was pulling him in another, urging him to recognize the huge changes in usage that were taking place. ...”

Thus, “although the book is full of his personal likes and dislikes, his prescriptivism — unlike that practised by many of his disciples — is usually intelligent and reasoned. He readily condemns rules which he considers to be absurdly artificial — something which later pedants tend to ignore.”

But, Professor Crystal points out, “the trouble with private judgement, as opposed to judgement based on sound linguistic principles, is that it leads inevitably to a lack of consistency.” Thus “[d]ifferent entries give different answers,” and “the difficulty of using his book in a principled and systematic way led to his influence on subsequent usage and attitudes being very mixed.”

Someone approaching Modern English Usage as a guide to standard written English, with advice to be measured against one’s own sense of the direction of the language — that is, a reasonable prescriptivist — can find it highly useful within its limits. And the author’s occasional crankiness can be a source of mild amusement.

But there are two serious hazards.

The first is the attractiveness of Fowler’s private judgments trenchantly expressed. They seem to give leave to the great tribe of peevologists and the tinpot grammarians found throughout journalism to similarly trumpet their private preferences.

The second lies in the psychological need among some people — some of whom, unfortunately, are copy editors — for The Rules. Everything must be right or wrong, and any recommendation or guideline can be warped into a Rule.

Both hazards lead inevitably to “unintelligent applications of an unintelligent dogma.”

First Fowler is at once a** historic document, an expression of an engagingly quirky personality, and a source of still-useful advice — if you use it cautiously. But then, you should use any manual of usage cautiously.

*To be sure, there is a good deal of dated material in a book of usage more than eighty years old. Six and a half columns on shall are of little purpose in an age and a country in which the word has largely fallen out of use. The entries on received pronunciation are likewise of small utility to an American reader of this century. It is no longer necessary to address the “lingering hyphen” in today, tomorrow, and tonight. Neither does it help us to differentiate between tricky (playful) and tricksy (dishonest).

**The first entry says: “A is used before all consonants except the silent h (a history, an hour); an was formerly usual before an unaccented syllable beginning with h (an historical work), but now that the h in such words is pronounced the distinction has become pedantic. ...”


I received a review copy of Fowler from the publisher. In addition, if a reader of this blog should order a copy from by clicking on the link, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.


  1. Historic versions of texts are priceless. When a dictionary for children excluded the word "ethic", I realized the value of my copy of Webster's Dictionary. The Entire work, Unabridged, In One Volume, Crown Quarto, 0f 1452 Pages, dated 1856. It is a beautiful book found in the basement of my grandparents home.

    Thank you for reminding us of the beauty and value of our language.

  2. Thank you for an enjoyable review: I like Fowler a lot. I don't always believe him; I don't always trust him or agree with him; but I do like him.

  3. Everybody says that nobody in America uses shall any more, but what do they say to offer to do something for people? I've said Shall I get you some coffee? my whole life.

  4. As a shall-user, I detect that many non-users employ it in questions. Shall I get you some more coffee? Shall we dance? Even if they wouldn't say I shall get you some coffee, or We shall dance.

  5. "I have heard in this country, in the senate, at the bar and from the pulpit, and see daily in dissertations from the press, errors in grammar..."
    John Witherspoon 1781

    And the debate continues.

  6. In the case of "Shall we Dance?" the Future Interrogative serves very nicely. Otherwise, Heads Shall Roll.

  7. True, we don't use "shall" conversationally anymore (although I must say the Presbyterian Book of Order is rife with "shalls"), but knowing that it was used -- and how it was used -- would help any writer whose historical novel is set in the relevant period. One criticism some writers come up against is the accusation that "people didn't talk that way then."

    What style manual did Jane Austen use?