The Great Prescriptivist H.W. Fowler's voice in this reissued classic is a human one, not fettered to a slavish devotion to strict rules of grammar

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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 Txting:
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

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.

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 and 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.

the rest of the article

1, 2010

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