In the preface to a small but impressively lucid book on punctuation written in 1939 and entitled Mind the Stop, the author, an Englishman named G. V. Carey, reserved his last sentences for “a spasm of self-consciousness” in which, given the year of publication, he felt he ought to register the fact that “the mind of one who happens to have an eye for a comma is not necessarily incapable of comprehending larger issues or embracing wider interests.” Yet perhaps no disclaimer, however mild, needed to be entered. One of the reasons that nations go to war is so that men like G.V. Carey, in immaculately setting out the subtleties of the semi-colon, can carry on the work of civilization. Today, nearly fifty years later, when the art of careful punctuation threatens among the young to become as widespread as that of intaglio, a book such as Carey’s seems rather more significant. But then those who have taken it upon themselves to be guardians of the language must alternate hourly in their feeling about their work between certainty of its fundamental importance and an at least equal certainty of its utter hopelessness.
All guardians of the language resemble a little the village idiot in the shtetl of Frampol who was given the job of standing at the village gates in wait for the coming of the Messiah. The pay is not high, he was told, but he didn’t have to worry about running out of work. The guardians of the language need similarly never worry about running out of work. Like Heraclitus’s famous river—“Upon those who step into the same river different and ever different waters flow down"—the river of language continues to flow along, never remaining the same, changing every foot of the way. Heraclitus spoke of his river being in perpetual flux but never of its muddying, whereas in the river of language flux frequently does issue in mud, garbage, and other detritus. To change classical references, the task of the guardian of language can be likened to cleaning out the Augean stables with the horses still in them. This, for reasons needing no explanation, is not everybody’s idea of a good time.
What may need explanation is the motivation of those who go in for it. As a university teacher, I find myself, among my students, from time to time wielding a small Augean broom. Why do I bother? It won’t do to say, à la John Wayne in the role of federal marshal, “Cause it’s my job, ma’am.” It is closer to the truth to say that woolly circumlocutions, psychobabblous phrasing and sentiments, and language used as if it were a game of horseshoes (in which one expects points for being close) offends me. What it offends is my sense of decorum. When a student, asked about the quality of the character of Verloc’s relationship with his wife Winnie in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, answers, “At this point in time, a caring person would not consider it meaningful, at least hopefully not,” I find I cannot let it pass—especially at these prices. It offends me that such wobbly language is being tossed around by a high-IQ kid in a hall of learning where the cover charge is roughly fifteen thousand dollars a head. Such language also makes it impossible, of course, to talk about literature or anything else above the level of yogurt.
I go directly into my gentle crank act. “Meaningful, Miss Goldstein?” I ask. “What can ‘meaningful’ possibly mean? And ‘caring’—caring for or about what, exactly? Does time, I must inquire, truly have ‘points’? I note, too, that you say ‘hopefully.’ Who precisely is doing the hoping in that sentence?” An amusing old guy, they must think, as I rocket off on one of these brief tirades, but with kinda a short fuse. I recall, too, an occasion on which one of my students asked me why I spoke so slowly. I hadn’t been aware that I did. Then it occurred to me that, in my speech, at least before a classroom, I take pains to form complete sentences. For the majority of my students, most of whom come from homes where their parents attended university, and even though they themselves are enrolled in an elite (a word they do not take kindly to) school, hearing someone speak in complete sentences is a real novelty.
People who take pains with their language are not just now in danger, through their vast number, of bringing about a population explosion. They are instead a bit difficult to find; you won’t, certainly, find them concentrated in any one place. You won’t find many of them among the professoriat; in fact, much of the dreariest abstract language we now have was first put into circulation by social scientists, though nowadays historians, philosophers, and literary scholars are hot on the social scientists’ gummy heels. But today no social class is notable for correct or interesting speech. It used to be said that the working class provided pungent and solidly concrete additions to the language and the upper-class provided standards of correctness. No longer.
Once upon a time, though not so recently as all that, careful English was part of the patrimony of the well-born. Edith Wharton, in her memoir A Backward Glance, noted that a strong element in her upbringing was “a reverence for the English language as spoken according to the best usage,” and this despite the fact that her parents read little and had scarcely any intellectual interests. “Usage, in my childhood, was as authoritative an element in speaking English as tradition was in social conduct,” she writes. The kind of English Edith Wharton was taught to speak was “easy, idiomatic English, neither pedantic nor ‘literary’”; and while her parents’ sensitivity to careful English remained a mystery to her, they always wanted their children’s English to be better, “that is, easier, more flexible and idiomatic.” English like that ain’t spoke here no more.
English is still spoke, of course, but it is rarely bespoke, as one imagines it was in Edith Wharton’s New York, or at Henry Adams’s Harvard. Language today seems chiefly to come off the rack, no matter what social class is speaking or writing it. Not that there aren’t people who make very deliberate efforts to say precisely what they mean; or that there aren’t writers—novelists and critics, essayists and poets, historians and philosophers, the occasional scientist— who command styles of true power, real elegance, and general felicity. There are, but their number and social provenance are not—probably cannot be—known. They have determined to take pains. But why do they bother? Why, now that the way one uses language has scarcely any effect on one’s financial fate or social standing, does anyone any longer bother?
Although the honors list of those who have taken up the cause of good linguistic hygiene has over the centuries included Confucius, Cervantes, Swift, Samuel Johnson, William Hazlitt, and George Orwell, the same cause, it must be allowed, has attracted prigs, pedants, intellectual bullies, and snobs. “She is, I am sorry to have to say,” a woman I know reported to me of another woman, “one of those people who is always misusing ‘hopefully.’” More recently, I met a man who told me that, in the middle of delivering a wedding toast, he was corrected for incorrectly using the word “fulsome.” No doubt there were people in fifth-century B. C. Athens who discovered solecisms in Pericles’s funeral oration as there were those in twentieth-century London who discovered solecisms in Winston Churchill’s World War II broadcasts. Purists have always existed who write and speak with the linguistic equivalent of their little fingers crooked above the cup of language, people—they, I suspect, would prefer the word “persons”— of whom H. W. Fowler once remarked, “There speaks one of those friends from whom the English language may well pray to be saved, one of the modern precisians who have more zeal than discretion.” In the lengthy saga that one thinks of as the perpetual decline of the English language—it has been going on for nearly a thousand years—the current villains are well known: the perpetrators of the hopelessly abstract, the devotees of the too precise, the schoolmasters who invent unnecessary rules, the populists who decry the need for any rules whatsoever.
The heroes of this saga are those extraordinary writers who in every age demonstrate that more can be done with the language than might hitherto have been thought. Some among them, viewing the world in ways no one before them has done, forge new styles to give expression to their new views; others work within traditional styles, but through their individuality develop them to a higher power. Avant-garde or traditional, together such writers, whose unshakable assumption is that everything in the world can be rendered in words, freshen and regularly refreshen the language, saving it from ossification and from rot.
On occasion such writers have themselves complained of the spoliation of the language. Jonathan Swift, writing to his prime minister, held that “daily improvements [in English] are by no means in proportion to its daily corruptions; that pretenders to polish and refine it have chiefly multiplied abuses and absurdities; and that in many instances it offends against every part of grammar.” In his now famous essay “Politics and The English Language,” George Orwell, in plain Orwellian fashion, set out the possibilities for deep corruption when politicians go to work on language. Evelyn Waugh, the most elegant and efficient of twentieth-century prose writers, used to fume against the horrendous lapses in English usage he claimed to find all around him—further evidence, of course, of the general degradation of the modern world that seemed so to please him. Edmund Wilson was not shy about returning certain of his correspondents’ letters with his corrections of their grammar, syntax, and semantics indelicately scrawled in the margins.
Apart from demonstrating how language ought to be used through their own writing and sending up occasional wails about its debasement by politicians, social scientists, advertising men, and other linguistical thugs, writers have not generally been much interested in fighting the trench warfare of language. This has been left to such foot soldiers as lexicographers and linguists, many of them academics but perhaps the most impressive among them not. The English have been particularly strong in this line, a line that begins with James Murray (1837-1915), who personally edited roughly half the great Oxford English Dictionary; Henry Watson Fowler (1858-1933), who with his brother Frank edited the Concise Oxford Dictionary and alone wrote A Dictionary of Modern English Usage; Eric Partridge (1894-1979), Whose many lexicographical works include the Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English, Usage and Abusage, and Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English; and Sir Ernest Gowers (1880-1966), who revised Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage and produced two remarkable brief books of his own entitled Plain Words and The ABC of Plain Words, which, taken together, have appeared in various editions as The Complete Plain Words.
All four men were born while Queen Victoria ruled, all had what one has come to think of as nineteenth-century energy, all had the quite sensible Victorian belief in self-improvement. K. M. Elisabeth Murray, in Caught in the Web of Words, has chronicled her grandfather’s, James Murray’s, prodigious efforts in the composition of the OED. Of Eric Partridge, who was born a New Zealander and whose death occurred fewer than ten years ago, nowhere near so much is known, or at any rate has been revealed. Rather more is known of H.W. Fowler, who was in so many ways an extraordinary character, and I shall get to some of it presently. Sir Ernest Gowers is a man about whom very little is known, and this by design, for he was an English civil servant— a “public servant,” in the older and better phrase—and as such felt altogether content with anonymity. His, as we shall see, was a quieter but no less impressive contribution.
Although Henry Fowler was born twenty-two years before Ernest Gowers and Gowers died thirty-three years after Fowler, and although the two men never met, one tends to think of them as a tandem. Gowers, of course, performed a singular service in revising Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, tactfully bringing it up to date without allowing any serious loss in its idiosyncratic character. Gowers, in “H.W. Fowler: The Man and His Teaching,” has written the most intelligent essay on Fowler. But above and beyond these services that the younger man performed for the older, Gowers seems to complement Fowler as Fowler felt the word “meticulous” should have complemented the word “punctilious,” “the two covering between them the positive accuracy that omits no detail and the negative accuracy that admits no error.”
As befits a man who took it upon himself to shape up the English language, H.W. Fowler kept himself in top physical trim. Until nearly the end of his life, he was a runner and a swimmer; he ran to his swim, swam, and then home he ran. A photograph of Fowler that appears in The Oxford University Press: An Informal History shows him outside his cottage in Guernsey, bald, goateed, in shorts that fall just below the knees and in an English football jersey, holding a towel that he will doubtless use after his swim. He is a shortish man, well set-up physically—neither muscle-bound nor thin but without any trace of softness or fat, compact—with a confident smile that seems to come easily to him. Short, solid, humorous, H.W. Fowler may be said to resemble nothing quite so much as one of his own entries in A Dictionary of Modem English Usage.
How does one happen to set oneself up as arbiter of the entire English language? In H. W. Fowler’s case the answer is that he had first to fail at a number of much smaller tasks. The son of a schoolmaster, Fowler, after winning a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford, failed to get a first and had to settle for a second-class degree in Moderations and in Litterae Humaniores. Upon leaving Oxford, the master of Balliol, Benjamin Jowett (“There’s no knowledge, but I know it”), gave him the following characteristically curt recommendation:
I have a very high opinion of Mr. H.W. Fowler. While at Balliol College he has made himself respected. He is quite a gentleman in manner and feeling and has good sense and good taste. He is a very fair scholar and has, I think, a natural aptitude for the profession of Schoolmaster.
A schoolmaster Fowler became, first teaching at a school in Scotland and then settling in at a quite good public school called Sedbergh in the northwest corner of Yorkshire, where he remained for seventeen years. Shy and fastidious as a young man, he had not the gift of easy intimacy, and consequently was a teacher of the kind that his students did not adore but came eventually—sometimes even in later life—to admire. Fowler left Sedbergh over a religious dispute with the headmaster, who asked that his housemasters put their students through confirmation, which Fowler, who was up for a housemastership, felt himself unprepared and unwilling to do. When the headmaster remained adamant on the point, Fowler wrote to him: “the choice is between acquiescence and resigning my post, and the latter is what I now feel compelled to do ... . It is better to recognize that we have a perfectly friendly, but irreconcilable difference of opinion, and to regard the matter as settled.” Along with keeping himself in physical trim, Fowler, as this incident reveals, liked to keep himself in moral trim.
Fowler was forty-one years old when his teaching career was finished. He next turned to journalism. He moved to London and attempted to write for the British weeklies. He did publish in the Spectator, though not frequently enough to be thought a regular contributor. According to G. G. Coulton, upon whose lengthy memoiristic account of H. W. Fowler I have been drawing, he put together two volumes in typescript of essays he had written, but no publisher was interested in them. He did bring out one of these volumes, which he entitled More Popular Fallacies, at his own expense. Of this volume, Coulton remarks: “It fell flat: being neither good enough nor bad enough for popular success.” Doubtless the difficulty was in part owing to Fowler’s style. Gowers, in his essay on Fowler, notes that “Fowler’s style is mathematical rather than literary,” adding: “His first concern was precision not elegance, and, as we all know, it is not easy to combine the two.”
When Fowler was attempting to make his way as a journalist, the Spectator accepted one of his essays, but, having long delayed its publication, informed him that it would no longer be able to run it, though its editors enclosed a check for full payment. Fowler, with no spite but only his customary moral scrupulousness intended, returned the check. In 1915, with England at war, Fowler, at age fifty-seven, enlisted, claiming to be forty-four. (His brother Frank, at forty-five, also enlisted.) Given his own program of physical fitness, Fowler apparently found military training no hardship. What he did find a hardship was that, when his battalion was sent to France, he and his brother were not permitted to fight but instead were given various dogswork—dishwashing, coal-heaving, porterage—which caused him to write a formal letter owning up to his true age and requesting that he either be permitted to do real soldiering or be discharged. In the event, he and his brother were discharged, but the incident once again illustrates H. W. Fowler’s scrupulosity, his moral fastidiousness.
Much earlier, in 1903 in fact, Fowler departed London to live in Guernsey. There he built a cottage fifty yards’ distance from his brother Frank’s cottage and roughly a mile from the sea, which made possible a daily swim and a two-mile run. It also made possible editorial collaboration with Frank, whose training in classics was quite as good as Henry’s and whose intellectual interests were congruent with his older brother’s. Their first combined enterprise was a translation, in four volumes, of the Greek writer Lucian (c. 117-180 A.D.) which appeared under the authoritative imprint of the Clarendon Press, of the Oxford University Press. Before the Lucian appeared, Henry Fowler inquired of his editor at the Oxford University Press about his interest in his and his brother’s next project:
We have just begun to collect materials for a little book which we think might serve a useful purpose, but which would perhaps not be in your line. This is a sort of English composition manual, from the negative point of view, for journalists and amateur writers. There is a vast number of writers nowadays who have something to say and know how to make it lively or picturesque, but being uneducated cannot write a page without a blunder or cacophony or piece of verbiage or false pathos or clumsiness or avoidable dulness .... It might possibly, we think, be mildly entertaining as well as serviceable.
Charles Cannan, the editor of the Oxford University Press, replied that “we in the office would welcome an antibarbarus,” and went on to explain that there were two possible publics for such a book: “one is the schools which desire something in the nature of a Rhetoric (in the old sense). The other is that which you have in mind: the editor of the Spectator and the people who write in the Times.” The book was eventually published, in 1906, under the title The King’s English by H.W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler. Peter Sutcliffe, the author of the informal history of the Oxford University Press, writes, correctly, that the Fowlers’ book “was never really suitable for schools, and it was taking a narrow view to suppose that it would serve as a guide for journalists.” Nor did the book receive a hardy critical welcome. Desmond MacCarthy, whom one tends to think a generous critic, wrote of The King’s English that “it is clear that such rules must often involve the consideration of barely perceptible subtleties which waste the writer’s time.” The greater significance of The King’s English, however, is that it formed the base on which Henry Fowler, after his younger brother’s death, would write A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.
A Dictionary of Modern English Usage is one of a shelf of fifty or so great books written in English in this century. It is immensely helpful, happily memorable, and endlessly re-readable; it stands in a splendidly synecdochic relation to the culture that produced it: from the part that is this book one can infer the entire tradition of correctness, lucidity, and wit that once seemed emblematic of English intellectual life at its best. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage is also clearly the book that all Fowler’s previous experience led him to write. As for how the book came into being, after working on The Concise Oxford Dictionary and The Pocket Oxford Dictionary, both bearing the names of the two Fowler brothers (Frank died in 1918), Henry Fowler announced that he had grown tired of straightforward lexicography. He thought about turning to a dictionary that would leave out the obvious words and concentrate instead on idioms and other aspects of language that exist in a state of jumbled inexactitude in the minds of even the most highly intelligent people. Fowler thought of it as his “Idiom Dictionary,” though at Oxford University Press one of the principal editors referred to it, in a letter to Fowler, as “A Utopian dictionary [that] would sell very well—in Utopia.” But Fowler, as Englishmen of his own day might have said, pressed on, finishing the work, which was given the title A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, in 1925. It was reprinted four times the year of publication, 1926, along with a special impression for the United States of fifty thousand copies.
Whenever a serious book becomes a best-seller, even a modest best-seller, an explanation is required. The most cogent explanation for the success of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage is to be found in the character of its author. Pedagogue, lexicographer, essayist, late Victorian—all the elements in Fowler’s character conjoined to make this remarkable book, a product of his intellectual maturity, the capstone to his career. Sir Ernest Gowers felt that the appeal of Modern English Usage “lies partly in the way the author reveals his idiosyncrasy to the reader,” taking his definition of “idiosyncrasy” from Fowler’s own entry on the word in Modern English Usage:
Its meaning is peculiar mixture, & the point of it is best shown in the words that describe Brutus: His life was gentle & the elements So mixed in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, “This was a man.”
No supposed reference work has ever been more suffused by the spirit of a single man than H. W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modem English Usage, including Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary. In this wondrous work, Fowler, freed from the stringent demands of straight and strict lexicography, let fly, never restraining his wit or whimsy or opinionation. Every writer seeks his true form, and Fowler’s was evidently the dictionary article, which one scarcely considers a literary form at all, though he was able to turn it into one. Even in Fowler’s hands, an odd form it is; it is a form with a beginning, which usually formulates the problem; a middle, which provides illustrations of error occasioned by ignorance of the problem; and generally no end whatsoever, for the article frequently trails off after the final illustration with no summarizing statement from the author. The wit and whimsy, the point and pique, are found at the front, as in this opening for the article “Sturdy Indefensibles,” which sounds the characteristic Fowlerian note:
Many idioms are seen, if they are tested by grammar or logic, to express badly, even sometimes to express the reverse of, what they are nevertheless well understood to mean. Good people point out the sin, & bad people, who are more numerous, take little notice & go on committing it; then the good people, if they are foolish, get excited & talk of ignorance and solecisms, & are laughed at as purists; or, if they are wise, say no more about it & wait. The indefensibles, sturdy as they may be, prove one after another to be not immortal.
No one, I more than suspect, would ever think to look up such material in an entry with the title of “Sturdy Indefensibles,” or look to “Elegant Variation” to deal with the problem of repetitions, or expect to find abbreviations under “Curtailed Words.” Many items in Modern English Usage, to be sure, are precisely where one would expect to find them—“Split infinitive,” “Participles,” “Subjunctives”—as are entries on specific words that are not always used with sufficient distinctiveness: “barbarian,” “barbaric,” “barbarous,” for example. But who would have thought to look up the vaguely archaic language of certain nineteenth-century novels under “Novelese,” or would search out the wish to avoid perfectly useful common words under “Novelty Hunting”? The entry “Superiority” turns out to be about apologizing for using slang in one’s prose, and has the following extraordinary beginning:
Surprise a person of the class that is supposed to keep servants cleaning his own boots, & either he will go on with the job while he talks to you, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, or else he will explain that the bootboy or scullery-maid is ill & give you to understand that he is, despite appearances, superior to boot-cleaning. If he takes the second course, you conclude that he is not superior to it; if the first, that perhaps he is.
Owing to this often slightly bizarre arrangement, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage is a book best approached serendipitously (see the Fowler entry “Love of The Long Word”). It is a particularly fine volume to wander around in. When not going to the book for help with a particular problem—I looked a while back to see if Fowler had anything to say about the word “pique,” which I used a few paragraphs before; apart from brief advice on pronunciation, he didn’t—I tend to roam around in its pages, usually stopping at an entry on a word I have myself used but never with full confidence. Such a word I recently looked up in Fowler is “palpable,” which he says provides a useful illustration “of the need of caution in handling dead metaphors.” He then tells exactly what the word does mean, even in a generous definition, and closes with the admonition that “P. is one of the words that are liable to clumsy treatment of this sort because they have never become vernacular English, & yet are occasionally borrowed by those who have no scholarly knowledge of them.”
I enjoy Fowler when he is dispensing not merely instruction but advice, particularly of a moralizing kind. I enjoy the Fowler who begins his entry “French Words” by remarking, “Display of superior knowledge is as great a vulgarity as display of superior wealth —greater, indeed, inasmuch as knowledge should tend more definitely than wealth towards discretion & good manners .... To use French words that your reader or hearer does not know or does not fully understand, to pronounce them as if you were one of the select few to whom French is second nature when he is not one of those few (& it is ten thousand to one that neither you nor he will be so), is inconsiderate & rude.” Modern English Usage is a chest filled with such didactic gems. “Men, especially,” wrote Fowler in his entry “Didacticism,” “are as much possessed by the didactic impulse as women by the maternal instinct.” The Victorian schoolmaster in Fowler was never for long in abeyance. If his Modern English Usage is in effect a book of instruction in manners—in how to conduct oneself on the page—it is also a book of moral instruction. For the Victorians, as their historian Gertrude Himmelfarb has convincingly argued, the separation between manners and morals did not exist; manners were morals, morals created manners, and with impressively salubrious result.
In a dispute over the grammatical construction that Fowler termed the “fused participle,” Otto Jespersen, the Danish philologist, called H. W. Fowler an “instinctive grammatical moraliser.” Sir Ernest Gowers, in his essay on Fowler, tells us that Fowler resented the attack but not the epithet. Gowers nicely deals with the charge of “instinctive grammatical moralising” when he writes: “The prime mover of Fowler’s instinctive moralising was not grammatical grundyism; it was intellectual fastidiousness. He had the soul of a craftsman and could not bear slovenly work.” Fowler detested affectation and empty authority. He was ever the critic of the slipshod journalist, the pompous scholar, the precious aesthete. His hatred of humbug could on occasion take a moral turn, but he was inevitably moral on the side of good sense.
It may well be that the moral tone in Fowler, combined with the frequency with which he uses such words as “barbarous” and “vulgar,” have lent A Dictionary of Modern English Usage the reputation of a crotchety work composed by a heavy-breathing reactionary. Such a reputation, along with being unearned, couldn’t be wronger. Nor will it do to score Fowler off as an amiable pedant with a penchant for moralizing and an agile wit. In a way that Fowler himself would no doubt have found amusing, he has come to stand, in matters having to do with English usage, for the stodgy, the staid, the stuffy. In point of plain fact, H. W. Fowler was in his day a radical. “Here,” as Sir Ernest Gowers writes, “was an emancipator from the fetters of the grammatical pedants that had bound us for so long.”
It was Fowler who first held that it was better to split an infinitive than when not to do so was to lapse into a sentence that sounded barbarous. (His entry on “Split infinitive” 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.”) It was Fowler who held that the world knew greater crimes than ending a sentence on a preposition, that different need not always be followed by from, that it was permissible to use whose with an inanimate antecedent, that common words had an impressive dignity of their own. Everywhere Fowler worked to destroy the blind reverence for literary fetishes and to increase the respect for clear common sense. As Gowers rightly remarks: “Fowler’s true place is among the first of the rebels rather than among the last of the die-hards.”
Gowers ends his essay by asserting that “I do not see how in its essentials Fowler’s teaching can ever be out of date.” A brave assertion, but is it true? I think it is true while at the same rime I think the audience for Fowler’s teaching continues to diminish. Higher education was supposed to cause that audience to grow larger. “The spread of education,” Fowler began his entry “Illogicalities” by writing, “adds to the writer’s burdens by multiplying that pestilent fellow the critical reader.” Pestilential some readers may be, yet, despite the vast spread of not only education but so-called higher education, epidemic their numbers have failed to become. Fowler could not have been unaware of this prospect, or of the fact that his was a valiant yet all but lost cause. “In this era of democracy,” he wrote, “it can hardly be expected that the susceptibilities of so small a minority should be preferred to the comfort of the millions, and it is easier for the former to dissemble their dislike of barbarisms than for the latter to first find out what they are and then avoid them.”
The need for such a book as Sir Ernest Gowers’s The Complete Plain Words is in itself evidence sufficient to prove H.W. Fowler’s dour prophesy. It is a book originally written for civil servants by a civil servant. It was begun in the late 1940s at the invitation of the British Treasury, which was concerned about the quality of prose written by British officials. Now, the British civil service, at least in those days, was not like the American, where your Uncle Louie may have been able to get you a job because he had an in with a guy named Vito down at city hall. The British civil service, at any rate in its higher grades, was chiefly staffed by men who had gone to public schools, had had to pass extremely difficult examinations, and (certainly when the British empire was still a going concern) were often given immense responsibilities at an early age. It was for these men, as well as for military men, local government officials, and the staffs of public bodies (such as the railroad), that The Complete Plain Words was written. It was written because, it was felt, they badly needed it.
The man chosen to write it, Ernest Gowers, was himself a civil servant, and a high exemplar of the type. Gowers was especially exemplary in his propensity for self-effacement. “I know of no one in any walk of life who so dislikes and distrusts publicity as Sir Ernest Gowers,” wrote Ivor Nicholson in Pall Mall Magazine. Although ostensibly a profile of Gowers, Mr. Nicholson’s article does not tell much about him, apart from such facts as his having gone to Rugby, thence to Cambridge (earning a first in the classical tripos), thence into the civil service, where among other early jobs he served as principal private secretary to Lloyd George, who was then Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Dictionary of National Biography entry on Gowers—written by R.W. Burchfield, the current editor of the Oxford English Dictionary—notes: “Gowers may be regarded as one of the greatest civil servants of his day.” Certainly the résumé of his jobs is immensely impressive; it includes the chairmanship of the Inland Revenue Department (England’s IRS), London Regional Commissioner for Civil Defence (he was responsible for the defense of London during World War II), and the chairmanship of the Coal Mines Reorganization Commission (later known as the Coal Mines Commission). Gowers was, according to Lord Nugent, the chairman of more public enquiries and royal commissions than any other man of his day. “In fact,” Lord Nugent writes, “his political convictions were unshakeably conservative, but his reputation for impartiality and integrity, combined with a penetrating intellect, were such that any Report from a Royal Commission or Public Enquiry which he produced was certain to win public confidence.” R.W. Burchfield adds: “His courtesy, his fine sense of humour, and his unfailing clarity of expression explain why his services were so frequently sought.”
Gowers was 6’3”, blue-eyed, and a man of gentle but compelling charm. He had the enviable reputation of not suffering fools gladly yet of being a man of unstinting courtesy and unending patience. He had what sounds a happy home life. He was a good pianist and took great pleasure from music. His daughter, Mrs. Eileen Duveen, has recounted how, during the war, when Gowers was “Regional Commissioner for London, as an antidote to going round the bomb sites and dealing with the crises of a London at war, he would go to his local church where he had been given permission to play the organ, and for half an hour or so, relax with music.” He was penetrating about politics, in which his was an insider’s view, for he had known and worked with nearly all the great English political figures of the century. He kept up his reading in the classics and, Lord Nugent reports, “kept in touch with changing modern trends by reading the plays of modern playwrights—however awful he found some of them!”
Not least impressive of Gowers’s achievements was his revision of Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, which he began at seventy-five and completed at eighty-five, a year before his death. Since Gowers’s Plain Words is a book greatly respectful of Fowler, and one that strongly showed the influence upon it of Modern English Usage, it is scarcely surprising that the editors of the Oxford University Press chose Sir Ernest Gowers to revise it. Without divesting Fowler’s book of its original author’s strong character, Gowers streamlined the book, cutting out no longer relevant entries, trimming away references and illustrations that might make it seem antique, adding material that took account of such phenomena as the rise of sociology, which took place after Fowler’s death, modernizing generally. Where Gowers added an entry, it invariably seems sensible for him to have done so. Some of the additions are brilliant, such as “Worsened Words,” which takes up “changes in the meaning of words, and still more in their emotional content, [that] often reflect changes of opinion about the value of what they stand for,” and which accounts for the slippage in prestige of such words as “colonial,” “imperial,” “academic,” and “appeasement.” Even though Gowers was a more understated man than Fowler, he could turn out a more than fair imitation of the master in his best whiplash mode, as in this passage from an article he added entitled “Abstractitus”:
A writer uses abstract words because his thoughts are cloudy; the habit of using them clouds his thoughts still further; he may end by concealing his meaning not only from his readers but also from himself, and writing such sentences as The actualization of the motivation of the farces must to a great extent be a matter of personal angularity.
Usage does not change as rapidly as fashion in clothing, but over the long haul it does change as inexorably. To write a book on the subject is to court revision; or, more precisely, to hope that one has written something good enough to be found worthy of revision. But if your subject is usage, the need for revision is your fate. As Gowers revised Fowler, so now Gowers’s The Complete Plain Words has itself been twice revised. Gowers’s book is nowhere near so ambitious a book as Fowler’s; it began life, after all, as a pamphlet. Where Fowler took as his subject all that was in disarray in English usage, Gowers’s more modest aim was to aid officials to write with greater clarity. Fowler’s book is essential for all who take writing as their craft—writers, editors, teachers—as well as for those who, as Thomas Mann puts it in Doctor Faustus, find it “interesting to see how man can use words and what he gets out of them.” Gowers’s book addresses itself more directly to the questions of how to avoid awkward writing and how to evade lapsing into grammatical errors.
Gowers is less crackling and uncompromising, more measured and reasonable, than Fowler. He supplies therefore less fun but more perspective. He tells a reader what he needs to know, and tells it with an impressive sense of limitation. In the original Complete Plain Words, for example, Gowers allows that much has been written on the art of paragraphing, then adds: “But little of it helps the ordinary writer; the subject does not admit of precise guidance.” He then goes on to tell his reader what little can be usefully said on the subject: that paragraphs oughtn’t to be too long, that they should be unitary in subject matter and sequential in treatment, and so forth. In his Epilogue, he writes that his book runs the risk of making things look worse than they are, adding: “The true justification for such a book is not so much that official English is specially bad as that it is specially important for it to be good.”
Gowers’s good sense, reasonableness, and superior perspective can be a helpful brake on the runaway fanaticism that seems to set in among those of us who have decided to take a small part in that best of all lost causes, the battle for good usage. Gowers does not lead one to want to give up the battle, but only to be more judicious in picking one’s targets and more careful not to squander one’s ammo. The first point he reminds one of is that the English language is not cast in marble, per omnia saecula saeculorum. He writes:
English is not static—neither in vocabulary nor in grammar, nor yet in that elusive quality called style. The fashion in prose alternates between the ornate and the plain, the periodic and the colloquial. Grammar and punctuation defy all the efforts of grammarians to force them into the mould of a permanent code of rules. Old words drop out or change their meanings; new words are admitted. What was stigmatised by the purists of one generation as a corruption of the language may a few generations later be accepted as an enrichment, and what was then common currency may have become a pompous archaism or acquired a new significance.
It is salutary to remember that two such smart fellows as Joseph Addison and Jonathan Swift objected to the emergence of the useful word “mob” (which derives from “mobile"). No doubt others have looked down upon “gazebo,” “gismo,” and “go-go.” A new word is a fine thing when it is vivid and crisp and amusing and needed. New formations of old words, the most common mechanism of which derives from turning old nouns into new verbs (“finalize,” “prioritize”), has to be viewed with the gravest suspicion, but at the same time it is useful to recall, as The Complete Plain Words reminds us, that this is the way the words “diagnose” and “sterilize” entered the language. Mike Tyson, the current heavyweight champion, speaking of his wife’s initial distrust of boxers, not long ago remarked that this changed when she met him: “I took her off her feet,” he said. “I suaved her.” As a verb, “suave” is mildly amusing, but even now I see the word’s ruination in an advertising campaign: “Suave her with Soave Bolla.”
The problem is that it is difficult to object to most new words, or terms, or even trends, on principle. Usually there is no principle involved. One despises a new word because it sounds barbarous; yet once that word barbarous is past one’s lips, the game is up—the charge of snobbery has already been entered. I do not mind the charge all that much myself, but I prefer to argue from solider ground. Too often the ground in these matters slides away from under one. The argument from etymology, for example, is not usually convincing. I am someone who uses the word “presently” in the sense of “soon” or “by and by” and not, as it is nowadays more often used, as a synonym for “currently.” I have all along been doing so under the assumption that I had the authority of etymology on my side. Wrong. The Gowers-revised Fowler entry on “presently” has it that the word originally meant “instantly,” and so its etymology is really closer to “currently” than to my usage. I shall continue to use the word in the way I have, but henceforth with a slight suspicion that I may merely be suaving myself.
When I say that it is difficult to object to new words, terms, or trends on principle, what I mean, more precisely, is that it is difficult to object to them on general principles. One has, as in traffic and divorce courts, to take each case as it comes, arguing the demerits of every separate entry. I do not like the word “arguably,” for example, as it is used in the sentence, “Anthony Powell is arguably one of the great English novelists of the twentieth century.” I think that, in this usage—in which the word “arguably” means “a respectable argument for the case could be made"—it is a weasel-word, which allows one to get around answering the question of whether Powell is or isn’t one of the century’s great English novelists. I am not much for the word “intriguing” either, as in the sentence, “I find women of her kind intriguing.” I cannot see what advantage “intriguing” in this usage has over “interesting” or “fascinating,” except perhaps to make the person who uses it himself sound, you should pardon the expression, “intriguing.” Fowler says of the word used in this sense that “it is one of the Gallicisms, & Literary Critics’ Words, that have no merit whatever except that of unfamiliarity to the English reader, & at the same time the great demerit of being identical with & therefore confusing the sense of a good English word.” I would only add that, so often has the word come to be used in the way I have described it, it no longer has the merit of unfamiliarity.
In his day, Sir Ernest did not have to deal with the vexing problem of ethnic sensitivities, where even the nomenclature of groups is regularly changing, so that one cannot know if, say, a word such as “Chicano” is or is not in good form on a given day. He also escaped the earth before the most recent wave of feminists arrived with the demand that language be—get ready for a word that is going to look like a loose piece of barbed wire—“desexitized.” Not only do the more exacting feminists wish to eliminate feminine nouns such as actress and poetess, but they are none too pleased with masculine ones such as chairman and mankind. The current editors of The Complete Plain Words suggest writing one’s way around the problem. “You will avoid giving offence,” they write, “by using human accomplishments instead of man’s accomplishments and working hours instead of man hours.”
That is probably sound enough advice, though I do not myself think that the day of equality will be at hand when everybody uses “Ms.,” and heads of academic departments all refer to themselves as “chair,” and people who do not know the sex of their unseen audience address them in letters as “Dear Gentlepersons.” I myself do not like “Ms.” because you cannot say it without hissing; I do not like “chair” because it is patently ridiculous; and as for “gentlepersons,” the aroma of a bloodless vegetarianism clings to it, like horse manure to a football cleat, inescapably. No, in my view the problem of sex and language cuts much deeper than such superficialities. It is much better engaged at the level where one can no longer think of a man as “enraged,” while a woman at the same pitch of anger is declared “hysterical.” It is better engaged at the level where one no longer thinks of certain work, or subjects, or points of view as belonging exclusively to one or the other sex. Meanwhile, though my experience here may be unusual, I have yet to meet a man who has been eager to fall into line with the rules of the feminist thought-control police who I thought truly respected the intelligence of women.
Which brings me to another category of words I think fit for outlawing. These are words that once seemed quite all right, but have now to be turned in for over-use and ill-use. “Experience” used as a verb is such a word: “Kent,” the cigarette ad runs. “Experience it!” (Death, the surgeon general adds, risk it!) “No problem” is a phrase that has had it, especially with the ejaculatory “hey” before it; “no problem” is also coming, in the United States, to replace “you’re welcome.” “Special” as an adjective is now at the Hallmark greeting-card level of language, particularly when it is followed by “person.” A “special person” usually turns out to be a “caring person,” as one need scarcely add. Well, one could go on, and I doubtless shall, the flecks of foam forming at the corners of my mouth, but not here and not now.
Many have been the events and moments in recent history when one has wished that certain figures from the past had been alive to comment upon them. How fine to have had H. L. Mencken’s report on the creationism-evolutionism controversy, or A.J. Liebling on the gloating of the press around the time of Watergate, or Max Beerbohm on the Pop Art movement, or Edmund Wilson on any of the past ten years’ meetings of the Modern Language Association. As for H. W. Fowler and Sir Ernest Gowers, they, were they alive today, would find plenty to keep them busy. Fowler, after sampling some of the work of contemporary academics— feminists, structuralists, Marxists—would doubtless wish to begin his Dictionary of Modern English Usage over from scratch. Gowers would readily see the need for another Plain Words, this one written for literary critics. Funny business, language—like the man said, the pay may not be high, but you’re never out of work.
- “H.W. Fowler” by G.G. Coulton can be found in Society for Pure English Tract November XLIII, pp. 99-158; the Clarendon Press, 1934. Go back to the text.
- This book, originally published in 1954, is a composite of Plain Words (1948) and The ABC of Plain Words (1951). David R. Godinc is now bringing out this third edition, revised by Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut (320 pages, S17.95), for which this essay will serve as an introduction. Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 6 Number 10, on page 9
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