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Review: A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by H.W. Fowler

When he ransacked Henry Watson Fowler's guide to English usage in 1996, under the guise of preparing its third edition, R.W. Burchfield referred to Fowler's work as a "fossil." While "Fowler's name remains on the title page," he wrote of his updating of the 1926 volume, which had been lightly revised by Ernest Gowers in 1965, the book "has been largely rewritten." He called it a mystery why "this schoolmasterly, quixotic, idiosyncratic, and somewhat vulnerable book" has "retained its hold on the imagination of all but professional linguistic scholars."

Then, having set himself as the fowler and Fowler as the fowl, Burchfield allowed himself a magnanimous gesture of questionable sincerity. "I hope that a way will be found to keep the 1926 masterpiece in print for at least another 70 years."

As it happens, Oxford has. Fowler's wise, witty and often deliciously phrased guide to English grammar, spelling and writing in general has been reissued in facsimile, occupying most of this book. David Crystal, a British linguist whose many books include The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language and Texting: The GR8 Deb8, provides an 18-page introduction and 40 pages of notes at the end. He points out many of the changes since Fowler's day, detects contradictions in Fowler's approach and remarks that "reading every word of Fowler is an enthralling if often exhausting experience."

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When his book was first printed, Fowler was 68. After teaching classics and English from 1882 to 1899, he went freelance. With his younger brother, Frank, he wrote The King's English (1906, a taste of the usage guide to come) and compiled The Concise Oxford Dictionary, published in 1911, 17 years before the arrival of The Oxford English Dictionary. After Frank died of tuberculosis in 1918, Henry forged on, producing The Pocket Oxford Dictionary in 1924, before completing his instantly popular usage guide (60,000 copies sold in the first year). He was no neophyte.

Fowler's book brims with inspired turns of phrase

Crystal acknowledges the long polarization between descriptivists, who observe the way language usage is changing, and prescriptivists, who often lament those changes and insist on rules that buck current trends. Fowler was largely a prescriptivist. Crystal, like Burchfield, is more of a descriptivist, but where Burchfield was unkind to Fowler, Crystal is of two minds: "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."

Fowler was aware of the tension. "What grammarians say should be," he writes, "has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes & dislikes. And yet the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible." Crystal comments: "I sense a linguist inside him crying to get out, but being held back by a prescriptive conscience."

Fowler was no friend of pedants. He said it was fine to use a split infinitive, or to end sentences with a preposition, or to begin sentences with "but." He loved Latin and Greek - in fact, he and his brother translated the Greek works of Lucian of Samosata - but he often (though not always) insisted that English has its own syntax and that Latin and Greek rules don't apply.

Crystal's biggest knock against Fowler is his inconsistency: for instance, holding that "really unique" and "absolutely unique" are fine while "very unique" is not. Fowler at times cited English idiom as the reason to write a certain way, but at other times urged readers to disregard the common idiom. "The problem in reading Fowler," Crystal says, "is that one never knows which way he is going to vote."

It might also be said that this is not a problem, but rather Fowler's charm. His is a human voice, not fettered to a slavish reckoning of how many articles in a database (manual in Fowler's day, electronic today) jump one way or another.

Fowler's book brims with inspired turns of phrase. The term "pedantry," he wrote, "is obviously a relative one; my pedantry is your scholarship, his reasonable accuracy, her irreducible minimum of education, & someone else's ignorance." The word "galore" is "chiefly resorted to by those who are reduced to relieving dullness of matter by oddity of expression."

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But Fowler could also mistake clumsy metaphors for wit. Commenting on an archaic synonym for "if," he wrote: "The goldfish an' cannot live in this sentence-bowl unless we put some water in with it, & gasps pathetically at us from the mere dry air of 'be in a position' [a reference to an earlier sentence]"

As Crystal says, the 1926 book frequently betrays its age. Fowler prefers "accompanyist" to "accompanist" and "pacificist" to "pacifist." Of "aggravate" and "aggravation," he writes: "The use of these in the sense annoy, vex, annoyance, vexation, should be left to the uneducated."

But his voice remains lively and engaging in 2009. His love of snappy section headings ("pairs and snares" is perhaps the most famous) deserved better than Burchfield's harrumph that the titles "have endeared the book to Fowler's devotees, but no longer have their interest or appeal and are not preserved in this new edition."

Ideally, someone today should give the 1965 edition of Fowler's work the sort of respectful dusting Gowers gave it then, bringing it into the new century without sacrificing Fowler's voice. In the meantime, the marriage of Fowler's "attractive frankness, passion and sincerity" (Crystal's words) and Crystal's thoughtful, informed critique is a happy antidote to Burchfield's 1996 decision that Fowler no longer deserved a central place in the book that still bears his name.

Warren Clements is co-author of The Globe and Mail Style Book and most recently editor of Portfoolio 23: The Year's Best Canadian Editorial Cartoons.

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