Elegant Variations and All That

A modernized edition of a venerable classic of English usage brings changes that are vast and controversial -- and almost always sensible.


IN its announcement of this new edition of H. W. Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage, the Oxford University Press catalogue says, "This masterful revision has been carried out by Robert Burchfield, hailed by The Chicago Tribune as 'the greatest living lexicographer.'" What is notable about this sentence is not the claim of greatness it makes for the reviser -- which is most likely true -- but rather its use of the word masterful. A traditional distinction between masterful and masterly is that masterful means "domineering, powerful" and masterly means "skillful, expert"; the use of masterful in the sense of "skillful" is considered an error. The idea that this sense is erroneous was first raised by Fowler, who would have been appalled to see masterful applied to a revision of his greatest work. The reason that this sense of the word is now generally acceptable is the reason that usage guides need to be revised.

There are two main approaches to the study of usage: prescriptive and descriptive. Prescriptivism involves the laying down of rules by those claiming to have special knowledge of or feeling for a language. Prescriptive advice tends to be conservative, changes being regarded with suspicion if not disdain. Descriptivism involves the objective description of the way a language works as observed in actual examples of the language. Descriptive advice -- almost an oxymoron -- about the acceptability of a word or construction is based solely on usage. If a word or expression is not found in careful or formal speech or writing, good descriptive practice requires the reporting of this information.

A typical prescriptive approach, as illustrated by the article on masterful in Wilson Follett's Modern American Usage (1966), is to state a judgment, often in terms of harsh condemnation:

masterful, masterly. The distinction between the two is not disregarded with impunity, because the idea of domination, of enslavement, exercised by one human being over another, is so clear in masterful that it seems absurd to apply the same word to the writing of a sonnet or a court decision. . . . In spite of the excuse that such anarchy affords to the heedless, a pale, shimmering, altogether masterful watercolor remains both ludicrous and wrong.

A typical descriptive approach, as shown in Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1989), is to state the issue, discuss the history ("This distinction . . . is entirely factitious, the invention of H. W. Fowler. . . . The two words were for a long time interchangeable. Each of them had a 'domineering' sense and a 'skillful, expert' sense"), show examples of the disputed use (Merriam-Webster's cites eleven examples of masterful meaning "skillful," from such authors as Henry Miller and Mary McCarthy and such sources as The New York Review of Books, The Wall Street Journal, and Harper's Magazine), and summarize with advice ("Both words are entirely standard and in quite respectable use. The recommended distinction is easy to observe, and you may prefer to do so, but you are in good company if you choose to ignore it").

Each approach has advantages and disadvantages. Descriptivism is the scientific method of linguists and lexicographers. At its best, descriptivism embraces prescriptivism, since a descriptive study should examine the prescriptive commentary that precedes it. Armed with the history of a usage and an examination of its appearance in various contexts -- spoken and written, formal and informal, British and American -- those seeking advice should be able to make an informed judgment. In practice, however, no matter how good a descriptive book is, the average person does not much care for the approach, especially when it contradicts widely accepted shibboleths. He or she wants to be told what's right and what's wrong. The dictum "Don't end a sentence with a preposition" is easier to digest than a thousand-word article on the history of the usage from Dryden on down.

Prescriptive books sell by tapping into our fear of seeming ignorant; few people will -- or should -- accept an argument that between you and I is standard English, as one scholarly journal proposed recently. Prescriptivism is based on the argument that there is a way of using the language that is better -- clearer, more precise, more elegant, more etymologically faithful. This argument is often true, and is strengthened by the fact that many prescriptivists are skillful writers. But many prescriptive rules are invented, arbitrary, or ignorant of how the language functions. Worse, some prescriptivists are the very stereotype of ruler-thwacking English teachers -- so vehement and inflexible about their rules that anyone who breaks them is branded vulgar, illiterate, or worse. With this in mind, Lionel Trilling once complained, "I find righteous denunciations of the present state of the language no less dismaying than the present state of the language."

THE author of the English language's best and most popular prescriptive usage book, first published in 1926, was Henry Watson Fowler, a former schoolmaster who had resigned a position teaching classics and English out of unwillingness to help prepare his boys for confirmation in the Church of England. After several years of freelance journalism Fowler retired to a cottage in Guernsey. He became a self-taught lexicographer, and edited some of this century's most valuable reference works, including The Pocket Oxford Dictionary and -- with his brother Francis George -- The Concise Oxford Dictionary and The King's English, a usage book that, as The Times of London remarked, "took the world by storm." A practical guide to the language, intended for writers not interested in studying grammar, it gave sensible prescriptive advice illustrated with examples drawn from journalism and literature. Twenty years later H. W. Fowler (his brother had since died of tuberculosis caught in the Great War) published A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, an alphabetized and thoroughly revised version of The King's English. Fowler's name stands for "usage" as much as Webster's stands for "dictionary" and Roget's for "thesaurus": Modern English Usage went on to become the most famous and highly regarded usage book ever published. The Times Literary Supplement called it "a work of sterling soundness and essentially English common sense." The historian A.J.P. Taylor in 1978 called it perhaps the greatest book ever published by the Oxford University Press. The usage authority James Kilpatrick said, "For the serious writer, or even the fun-loving writer, Fowler's Modern English Usage is like an American Express card. We ought never to sit down at our typewriters without one." And Robert Burchfield, the former chief editor of The Oxford English Dictionary, the editor of its Supplement, and now the editor of Fowler, summed it up as "this quite extraordinary book, the Bible of prescriptivists."

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