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


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.”

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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 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.

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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.

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April 1, 2010