The third edition of the work of the brilliant and cantankerous Englishman H. W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, published in 1996, signaled the triumph of the descriptivist view of language—the view, that is, that the lexicographer’s duty is merely to describe the language as it’s used, not to make pronouncements about how it ought to be used. It also signaled the triumph of tedium over enjoyment, and of abstract truth over utility. Edited by the late R. W. Burchfield, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, as the third edition was titled, addressed all the significant questions about English grammar and usage and explained with sufficient clarity the ways in which those questions have been addressed in the past.

But it only gave unambiguous counsel if there were some practical reason for it, and then only in the mildest terms: “this use should probably be eschewed.” If you wanted to know whether “their” may refer to singular antecedents, for example (If someone isn’t doing their job, they should be fired), Burchfield told you that “the issue is unresolved, but it begins to look as if the use . . . is now passing unnoticed.” Maybe the issue is “unresolved,” one thought, but could you please resolve it and tell me whether I should write “they” or “he” or “he or she” and so avoid sounding like an ignoramus to an educated audience? For his part, Fowler—the original Fowler—had called this use of the plural pronoun a “mistake.” He acknowledged rare instances of the use in Fielding and Thackeray, but suggested that “few good writers” could get away with it.

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage first appeared in 1926. What made the Dictionary so successful was, above all, its exhaustiveness: it contained upwards of a thousand entries, many of them tightly argued essays, and seemed to cover every conceivable question of language faced by a writer—a remarkable achievement for its time. Equally important, though, was the way in which Fowler made his judgments. Even when he inveighs against what he regards as a poor usage, he does so with a kind of winsome authority.

Here, for instance, is the first paragraph of Fowler’s 1926 entry for the phrase if and when:

Any writer who uses this formula lays himself open to entirely reasonable suspicions on the part of his readers. There is the suspicion that he is a mere parrot, who cannot say part of what he has often heard without saying the rest also; there is the suspicion that he likes verbiage for its own sake; there is the suspicion that he is a timid swordsman who thinks he will be safer with a second sword in his left hand; there is the suspicion that he has merely been too lazy to make up his mind between if & when.

Or take Fowler’s dismissal of the word orotund (originally a “portmanteau word,” like “blog” or “telegenic,” in this case combining the Latin ore rotundo, “with a round mouth”):

The odd thing about the word is that its only currency, at least in its non-technical sense, is among those who should most abhor it, the people of sufficient education to realize its bad formation; it is at once a monstrosity in its form & a pedantry in its use. If the elocutionists & experts in voice-production like it as a technical term, they are welcome to it; the rest of us should certainly leave it to them & not regard it as a good substitute for magniloquent, highflown, inflated, pompous, imposing, & the like.

Modern linguists and descriptivist grammarians can’t abide edicts like this. If a word is in use at all, they insist, it must be useful to those who use it. The job of somebody compiling a dictionary of English usage, in their view, is to tell us what most people say, not to exercise a fictional authority over the language by inventing reasons why this or that usage is “pedantic” or “monstrous.” Burchfield only calls the word “highly irregular” and leaves it to the reader to figure out the advisability of using it.

Surely, though, it would be useful to know that even in the late twentieth century there was something faintly ridiculous about the word orotund. But that’s the sort of usefulness descriptivists have no use for. It presupposes that some people have an intrinsic right to judge the correctness of others’ word choices, which, in a certain mindset, is a short step away from believing that some people are better than others.

It came as a surprise, then, when Oxford published a facsimile reprint of Fowler’s first edition last year. Fowler’s approach to language and grammar is considered passé, indeed almost bigoted, by modern linguists, and the second edition, edited by Sir Ernest Gowers in 1965 and retaining much of Fowler’s original material, is also still in print. Even so, Oxford has now made the first edition available in an inexpensive paperback edition in its World’s Classics series, a decision for which the publisher deserves much credit.[1]

The book does come, however, with a warning label in the form of David Crystal’s introduction. Crystal, a highly regarded linguist and an able popularizer of his field, concedes the book’s “classic” status. “No [other] book,” he writes, “had more influence on twentieth-century attitudes to the English language in Britain.” But he is clearly nervous about putting Fowler into the hands of people who might treat it as inerrant. Fowler, writes Crystal, was writing at a time when the “prescriptive approach to language,” an approach presupposing there are right and wrong ways of using words, was “losing its pedagogical dominance and yet was attracting fresh levels of support from the literary elite.” That’s an academic linguist’s polite way of saying that the philosophical assumptions underpinning Fowler’s attitude to language had been exploded by the academic discipline of linguistics, but that self-consciously “literary” people loved his Dictionary because it gave them a sense of importance or power or righteousness.

The real problem in reading Fowler, Crystal says, “is that one never knows which way he is going to vote. Is he going to allow a usage because it is widespread, or is he going to condemn it for the same reason?” Leave aside the fact that nowhere does Fowler condemn a usage “because it is widespread.” What Crystal means, as he goes on to explain, is that Fowler based his opinions on “private judgment, as opposed to a judgment based on sound linguistic principles” and so was led “inevitably to a lack of consistency.”

Crystal’s problem with Fowler, then, is that Fowler’s rules came from Fowler, and that his reliance on “private judgment” led him into inconsistencies. On the one hand, Fowler defines purism as “a needless & irritating insistence on purity or correctness of speech,” and, on the other, at shall & will, he says that “no formal grammar or dictionary can be held to have done its duty if it has not laid down the necessary rules.” Or again: Fowler can observe, regarding the choice between first and firstly, “[This is] one of the harmless pedantries in which those who like oddities because they are odd are free to indulge, provided that they abstain from censuring those who do not share the liking.” “But censure,” Crystal splutters, “albeit often expressed in an ironic or kindly way, is what we find in most of the entries in the book.”

Still again: Crystal gives Fowler due credit for defenestrating the old rules against beginning sentences with conjunctions, ending them with prepositions, and splitting infinitives, and quotes approvingly the observation that “to let oneself be so far possessed by conventions whose grounds one has not examined as to take a hand in enforcing them on other people is to lose the independence of judgement that . . . would enable one to solve the numerous problems for which there are no rules of thumb.” “But if this principle were applied consistently,” Crystal says, “we would lose half the entries in the Dictionary.” No: we wouldn’t. That Fowler deprecates those who try to impose ill-conceived conventions on others does not oblige him to suppose all conventions are ill-conceived.

Plainly Crystal was the wrong man to write this introduction. I say that not just because he’s done a terrible job of it, although he has, but also because modern linguists are almost by definition incapable of understanding the function of a book like Fowler’s Dictionary. They take the view that “prescriptivism” is an unfortunate byproduct of eighteenth-century anxieties about class, and that a work like Fowler’s perpetuates those anxieties. There is truth in that view of things, just as there is truth in all oversimplifications.

In his book How Language Works (2005), Crystal puts it this way: “The eighteenth century—the century of manners, as it is often called—was one in which upper-class people were anxious to avoid accusations of social ineptness at all costs, and with language the most pervasive means of expressing social identity, it is not surprising that linguistic behaviour became preeminent as the means of conveying class most subtly and flexibly.” (Ignore the remark about the eighteenth century being “often called” the “century of manners”—so far as I’m aware Crystal is the first to use the phrase.) It’s certainly true that the prescriptivist attitude was largely an invention of the eighteenth century. And it’s true, too, that many of the crotchets expressed by Swift, Johnson, and others don’t stand up to the scrutiny of modern linguistics. Languages mutate, definitions evolve, grammatical conventions are just conventions, and there’s nothing anybody can do to stop the change.

True enough. But it doesn’t follow that these things are obsolete or irrelevant. Restaurants, free trade, and bifocal eyeglasses were all inventions of the eighteenth century, too. And, as with the prescriptive temperament in language, it doesn’t much matter what you think about them: they are part of the civilization we live in, and they will continue to be so. When linguists like Crystal deride “prescriptivism,” they think they’re deriding the stubborn allegiance to outmoded doctrines, and speak as if, with proper instruction in “sound principles” and a little prodding, these allegiances may be put to rest.

In fact, “prescriptivism” isn’t an “ism” at all. It’s an inevitable outgrowth of a civilized commercial society. A society such as ours in which high levels of social and economic mobility coexist with high levels of literacy will be one in which people advance by means of language, among other things. People gain employment and promotions by their ability to speak and write. They make their way into social relationships, and out of them, by their ability to put words together.

Language is endlessly complex and changing, however, and most people don’t feel sufficiently fluent to approach the task of writing without some source of authority: not an authority in the Scriptural sense, but an authority nonetheless, and not a collection of descriptions. You don’t open a Dictionary of Modern English Usage to brush up on “sound linguistic principles” or to find out whether a phrase is common enough to be uncontroversial. You open it, rather, to consult the opinions of those whose understanding of the patterns of language is wider and deeper than your own, and who have a more sensitive ear for its rhythms and resonances. It’s true that languages mutate, and that grammatical “rules” aren’t “rules” in the ontological sense. But who cares? All you want to know is whether a particular usage is in accord with the habits of literate people.

To be fair, descriptivists aren’t anarchists. In Fowler’s third edition, for example, Burchfield advises against using “infer” when you mean “imply” (though it takes him several tiresome paragraphs to arrive at that conclusion). What offends them is the insistence that certain usages ought to be followed even in the absence of clear practical justifications for them. A sign bearing the word “tomato’s” is understood as readily as one advertising “tomatoes,” and no one will misunderstand the statement “He laid quietly in the grass” even though it should have been “He lay quietly in the grass.” The descriptivists point out, correctly, that each of these “mistakes” may in time become standard as the language evolves and the old interdictions lose their force.

To insist on rule-following in the absence of any practical justification for the rule, they argue further, is to engage in class prejudice. And here, I think, is the real reason for the intense dislike descriptivists feel for the older attitudes. The idea of “correctness” is linked in their minds with snobbery. It’s clear from Crystal’s work that he regards “prescriptivism” as an absurd bourgeois bigotry: the half-educated passing sentence on the uneducated for failing to obey rules understood by neither. That suspicion isn’t unreasonable. We’ve all known people who feel they’re superior because they don’t split infinitives.

But you may as well condemn table manners for the same reason. Conventions of politeness aren’t based purely or even primarily on functional considerations—putting one’s elbow on the table doesn’t affect the taste of the food—and they are apt to become tools in the hands of pretentious fools. Yet the proposition that they should therefore be done away with is manifestly preposterous. Certain conventions will govern the ingesting of food in a civilized society. Humans abide by customs when they wish to please their companions or ingratiate themselves, and there’s no point in trying to convince them to stop.

So it is with the prescriptivist temperament in language. The employer will always want to know whether a job applicant can write and speak the way educated people write and speak, considerations of clarity notwithstanding. The ambitious student will always take secret pleasure in saying “It was she” instead of “It was her.” The conscientious parent will always encourage his children to mind their grammar, and partisans of various stripes will always cackle when disfavored politicians fall afoul of the rules (“The goals of this country is to enhance prosperity and peace,” “Give Al Gore and I a chance”). Descriptivists like to think of themselves as clear-eyed realists. But it’s they, and not the sentimental traditionalists, who wonder why we can’t dispense with all these arbitrary “rules” and just get along. Is there a dream more fanciful?


[1]A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by H. W. Fowler, introduced by David Crystal; Oxford World Classics, 784 pages, $17.95.

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