Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage

I’m repurposing an e-mail that I sent to a discussion list stuffed full of acerbic academics several years back. I was directly challenged to put my oar in by the man who was (at that time) the dean of the college in which I was teaching. And so I did. I look back on this post as an unpaid ad for a lively and useful grammar.


At 11:25 AM -0500 27/10/98, [Dean, The] wrote:
> It seems that no one will stand up for tradition anymore; it has
> become more important to avoid awkward sentences than to
> adhere to that which is time-honored and rooted in the Latin.
> Have you nothing to say, [Izzy]?

Ask and ye shall receive. But be warned, I am writing during a brief moment of lucidity between illness-induced naps. Any stains on the page are cheese/potato soup.

The sad fact is that most of our English sentence structure derives not from our learned Greek and Latin forbears, but from the hairy, smelly Saxons. Apparently, the winners get not only to write the history, but also to choose the language in which it will appear. Many of the tricks of clear expression that I hold dear have been artificially imposed on our beloved, syncretic language. And many of those tricks seem doomed to eventual rejection. Away they go, carried off with the bodies of native sons of a language once inflected. Alas, woe, and so be it. I may cringe a little every time I hear George Thorogood growl “who do you love?”, but there is little I can do to stop whom from being expunged from the language, or being relegated to use as a shibboleth among pedants.

My guide in such matters has for many years now been Henry Ward Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1st Edition 1926, 1st American printing 1944; Second Edition 1965; 3rd Edition... we'll come to that in a minute).

For those unfamiliar with Fowler’s, it is (was... we’ll come to that in a minute) a highly idiosyncratic, extremely funny, commonsensical analysis of the foibles of the English language as it is found on a small island across the big waters. In the first edition, the article on the split infinitive goes on for several pages, beginning thus:

Split Infinitive. 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 & distinguish.

1. Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority & are a happy folk, to be envied by most of the minority classes....

So run the first one and a half inches of about 33 column inches of informative, opinionated, and entertaining text on the split infinitive.

The second edition of Fowler’s was edited by Ernest Gowers and published the year before Sir Gowers died. He wisely left the tone of the original Fowler’s intact and restrained his work to making a number of additions to the information contained in the first edition, and a very few changes where necessary. One such addition may be found at the end of the article “Whence, whither.” The original article ended:
If whither was too antiquated, the alternative was ‘to which place’, but occasions arise now & then, as in this sentence, to which whence & whither are, even for the practical purposes of plain speech, more appropriate than any equivalent.

Aside from the mechanical changes and the deletion of the word “place,” Gowers changed this article by the addition of a sentence that gets a hearty “amen” from me. Add to the above:
They [whence & whither] should be allowed to stand on their own feet: not even the examples that can be found in the Psalms and the Apostles’ Creed justify the use today of the tautology from whence.

It was from the pen of Fowler that I finally learned the difference between Which and That when used as English relative pronouns. I read Fowler’s for fun.

Copies of the first two editions turn up with alarming regularity at second-hand book shops. (Sorry about that, my diction seems to have been influence by Fowler. I meant, of course, used book stores.) In addition, the second edition remains in print as a paperback from Oxford for ~$10. Get a copy while the getting is good.

Toward the end of 1996, Oxford brought out a third edition of Fowler’s. No longer is it A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, by H.W. Fowler. It is now, rather misleadingly, called The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, edited by R.W. Burchfield. The tone and idiosyncratic charm of the old Fowler’s has been entirely erased. But what Burchfield has brought should not be overlooked.

Fowler (and Gowers after him) drew his examples from the pages of the local papers. Burchfield, as a long-time editor of the OED, draws his examples from literature, citing sources as he goes. He is also far more careful to set out not only the state of the language, but also a history of how the language got to be in its present state. So while the article on the split infinitive is still long (and even lively in its own academic, un-curmudgeonly way) it has been completely reshaped from the five sections into which Fowler organized his own discussion. I will quote here the first and the last paragraphs:

split infinitive. No other grammatical issue has so divided the nation since the split infinitive was declared to be a solecism in the course of the 19c. First, it is essential to clarify what is and what is not a split infinitive. A brief history of the construction then follows. Finally, a description of the present state of the split infinitive is given with numerous illustrative examples showing various types of split and unsplit infinitives.
[several columns of type snipped, including examples of split infinitives from the pens of such luminaries as Wyclif in the 14c, Byron, and Hardy in the 19c., and Amis and Keillor in the 20c.]
4 Preference. No absolute taboo should be placed on the use of simple adverbs between the particle to and the verbal part of the infinitive. ‘Avoid splitting infinitives whenever possible, but do not suffer undue remorse if a split infinitive is unavoidable for the natural and unambiguous completion of a sentence already begun.’ (Burchfield, The Spoken Word, 1981).

My advice, then? Go find an old Fowler’s and read it for illumination and entertainment. And when you need a more in-depth treatment and can stand the dryness, pick up a New Fowler’s. I understand that Modern American Usage is now out in a new edition as well (I think this year, but it may have been last), but I've never had a compelling reason to pick up a copy and see what it may be like.

to boldly go where no .... wait
boldly to go where .... hmmm, maybe
to go boldly where no ....

forget it, I'm just going back to bed.

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