What Is Good English?

Born and educated in California, MARGRET NICHOLSON was formerly Head of the Publishing Department at Oxford University Press, and in this capacity she worked with authors and editors in the revision and final editing of manuscripts accepted for publication. She is the author of Oxford Author’s Style Book and A Manual of Copyright Practice, and her new book, A Dictionary of AmericanEnglish Usage, based on Fowler’s famous guide, has just been published by Oxford University Press. Miss Nicholson is at the present time Head of the Contract and Copyright Department of The Macmillan Company.



SOME thirty years ago a professor of English at the University of California introduced his students to Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. That was in 1926 or 1927. I wish I could remember which, because it would be interesting to know that, without the fanfare of today’s publicity, a scholarly reference book published in England could have found immediate enthusiasts in California that first spring of its publication. But I can’t remember. Nor can I remember, I am ashamed to say, which of my English professors made the introduction. I do know that he spent the full hour that day reading snatches from it, and that I, for one, was an immediate convert. I stopped in at Sather Gate Book Shop that noon and bought a copy, and from that day on “MEU “ has been my delight and mentor.

I never in those days felt that Fowler was particularly British or difficult, During the three years I taught high-school English MEU was always on the classroom reference shelf and to the best of my memory it was used, even by suburban California teen-agers of the “roaring twenties.”I can’t remember any complaints about its being unAmerican.

It wasn’t till several years later, after I had abandoned teaching and was working at the Oxford University Press in New York, that I became aware of the battle between American-English and English-English. Oxford was militantly British at the time and the staff was virtuously conscious of representing one of the last outposts of British civilization. We addressed letters to our authors “John Doe Esq.”— Mr. was allowed only for printers, paper men, and unpaid accounts. Posted above each desk was a list of English spellings to be rigorously adhered to in all correspondence: analyse with an s, judgement, with an e, pyjamas with a y — though in what context pyjamas would appear in our daily correspondence I can’t imagine. It became almost natural for me to speak of my holiday, rather than my vacation; in the circumstances (not under — though I should have remembered Fowler’s remarks on that bit of foolishness), of course, I should need new luggage. I even remember once saying unblushingly that I should leave Wednesday fortnight. If my friends suspected me of snobbism (which they probably in their ignorance called snobbishness) it is hardly surprising. Today it all seems like a foreshadowing of “U. and Non-U. ” under the guise of “Brit, and Non-Brit.”:

Brit. Non-Iirit. (or “chiefly U.S.“)
tin can
biscuit cracker
chemist druggist
packet package or pack
ill sick
shop store
braces suspenders
I fancy increase (of wages) I think (or worse, I guess) rise (in salary) or lamentably, a raise
lodger roomer
sweets candy

And so on. Fortunately, before very long Oxford New York changed its policy. American spelling became the standard, our mimeographed lists were tossed into the basket, I graduated (a good Americanism) into editorial work, and the war of Brit. and Non-Brit. was forgotten. Modern English Usage remained on my desk, an indispensable help in editing both English and American manuscripts. But it was then that I began wondering about the possibility of a slightly simplified Fowler with American variations. Some fifteen years later, to my delight and apprehension, I was invited to undertake the task of preparing one.

Of course there is an English idiom and an American idiom, but in scholarly or serious speech and writing, as opposed to informal talk and fiction, the difference is not as evident as many of us believe. In books that do not contain dialogue, and that have not been deliberately edited for the American reader, our first clue that the writer is British is the spelling; in speeches that seem typically British, it is chiefly the accent that gives this impression; read in the newspaper there is often little that would not be the natural expression of any literate American. I consciously watched for expressions and constructions that one could label peculiarly English or peculiarly American in all my reading during the five years or so that I was working on the “American Fowler” and found many times that I could read chapters in succession without finding any example that could be cited as one or the other without qualification.

The other day I decided to make a random test of my theory in a book I was reading for pleasure (and what a pleasure it is to be able to give one’s whole mind to the meaning rather than reserving at least half of it for spotting idiomatic usage and construction!). I found nothing in the first hundred pages, and rather desperately stopped on page 108 when I came to “Here we are back full circle to theories long familiar to philosophers.” There is nothing in that that an American could not have written, but I suspected that “full circle” so used would come perhaps more natural to an Englishman. But very soon after that I found “A novelist who disregards major public events is either a footler or a plain idiot.” A footler? If I had not consciously been watching for Briticisms I should have passed this over without noticing, but having stopped I realized I had no reliable idea of what a footler is; I reached for my dictionaries. Both W’ebster’s Collegiate and The American College Dictionary give footle, n., “twaddle, drivel,” and label it slang, but whether British or American slang they do not say. The Concise Oxford Dictionary gives footle, v., “to trifle, play the fool,” and n., “twaddle, folly” — also both slang. I am no authority on slang, so I gave up, but my feeling is that as current slang footler is chiefly Brit., not U.S. Then I found a term that I felt would justify me in stamping the writer British (if I had not already known he was): “Civilization can lift itself up by its boot-tags.”Boot-straps is the American for that; no American would write boot-tags unless he was deliberately affecting familiarity with British idiom. Our man is English. I wish I had closed the book before I read the last sentence on the same page_ “An electoral system gerrymandered in the interest of the moneyed class.” Gerrymandered? What is our man now?

To be fair, I must admit that as I read on into the more specific chapters of the book I came across many individual words and phrases that would identify it as English rather than American: motor-cars, tinned food, the greengrocer, “old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of the Autumn morning,” “posh tailor-made clothes. ” (Webster’s Collegiate doesn’t even list posh; The Concise Oxford defines it “smart, tip-top,” and labels if slang. What about tip-top?)


AND what about the reverse of the picture? What is it that tells the English reader “this book was written by an American”? First, of course, as with us, the spelling. We wantonly omit hyphens when they are needed and insert them when they are unnecessary; we use z when s is called for and discard the “ in -our endings; we do not realize (or realise) that worshiped and kidnaped, without doubling the penultimate consonants, are not only wrong but invite flagrant mispronunciation. So let us forget the spelling. Wanting to have something more than a theoretical opinion, I asked some English friends how they identified a nonfiction book as American. “By its illiteracies,” one of them retorted immediately. And what are the peculiarly American illiteracies? I insisted. Although it is rather unfair, since this was an informal, off-the-record conversation, I am going to give his list in the order in which it was presented.

Improper use of will for shall, first person future. This delighted me. It is true that the distinction between will and shall is less and less observed in America, even by good speakers and writers. Those of us who were brought up on traditional English still observe it instinctively; we are a minority. But is will for shall in this usage peculiarly American and indisputably an illiteracy? Sir Ernest Gowers, in his ABC of Plain Words, published in England for English writers in 1951, does not agree. He points out that “I will go” has always been the plain future for the Celts, that Americans have followed their practice, and that “the English have taken to imitating the Americans.” “If wc go by practice rather than precept,”he continues, “we can no longer say dogmatically that ‘I will go’ for the plain future is wrong.” Fowler would not like this. In his article on will (MEU) he says: “Of the English of the English shall & will are the shibboleth . . . and endow his speech with a delicate precision that could not be attained without it.” Opposite views by two men to the manner born. Americans may choose whichever they will.

In back of for behind. “All Americans say it,” according to my friends. Well, a great many Americans do. Certainly it slips easily from the tongue of many who should know better. I do not remember having come across it in print, and I cannot believe that a serious writer would be guilty of it. I agree that it is an illiteracy. Of back of for behind (the in is completely otiose) Fowler says gently, “An American, not an English idiom.”

The omission of the preposition in such phrases as “I’ll see you Tuesday,”"He works nights,”"I’ll write you as soon as I know.’ These are all standard American usage now; the Englishman, however, would say on Tuesday, at night, and to you. In recording write you when there is no direct object, The Oxford English Dictionary says, “freq. c. 1790 — c.1865" and gives several examples.

He aimed to (be) rather than at (being). Whatever the purists may say, this is now standard American usage, although it is no longer condoned in England. OED lists it as obsolete, Webster’s Collegiate without qualification, and ACD as “U.S.,”contrasting it with the English at plus the gerund.

Different than instead of different from. How long this battle has been going on! It was in full swing in my own schooldays, and quite recently when I was discussing Americanisms with a college professor she exclaimed in horror, “I hope you’re not going to allow different than!” Allow it? We have it, whether we like it or not. Again I turn for comfort to OED: “The usual construction is now with from. . . . The construction with than is found in Fuller, Addison, Steele, DeFoe, Richardson, Goldsmith, Miss Burney, Coleridge, Southey, De Quincey, Carlyle, Thackeray, Newman, Trench, and Dasent, among others"—the others, I am afraid, including two thirds of the American public.

So much for peculiarly American illiteracies. We have them, yes. But I was happy that my friend selected the examples he did.

Apart from so-called illiteracies, there are some words that have different meanings on the two sides of the Atlantic. For example, faculty is used on the campuses (so used only in America) of both English and American colleges, but as applied to the whole body of teachers and perhaps administrative officers (A faculty meeting was called for Wednesday night) it is “U.S. only.”Sabbatical is used in England in its religious sense but not for an academic sabbatical leave. The Humane Society in England rescues the drowning and has nothing to do with the prevention of cruelty to animals.

Differences of this kind can be misleading, and it is well not to have too sanguine an acceptance of dictionary definitions. Even in the most recent edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary, which helpfully uses an asterisk to indicate words and meanings “chiefly or originally American,” one discovers some surprising things. “Faucet (chiefly U.S.), tap for a barrel.” “Filibuster . . . *obstructionist in legislative assembly.” “Barn-dance (orig. U.S.), dance in which partners advance side by side & then dance a schottische step.”“Bat, v. (U.S. & dial.), to wink (never batted an eyelid — did not sleep a wink).” “ Beauty Parlour (orig. U.S.), establishment in which the art or trade of face massage, face lifting, applying cosmetics, &c. is carried on.”A bouncer, U.S. slang, is a chucker out. Call down, U.S. colloq., means challenge.

There are of course many words that we — and the British — now use without being conscious of the fact that they are Americanisms: a blanket ruling, a blood donor, the Red Cross drive, to be through one’s work, to grill the prisoner, to meet the deadline. Most of these were at one time slang or colloquial, but are now standard, at least in informal use.

Understandably it is in slang and colloquialisms that the differences between British and American are greatest and most apparent. Even in one country there is difference in regional, occupational, and social slang. If slang has color, it it expresses some idea or feeling with an economy not found in standard English, it may pass its own boundaries and even become part of the permanent language. No one thinks now of mob, bus, or cab as slang. It is my belief that gangster, hold-up, and hoodlum are also in the language to stay (although it is regrettable that they reflect so unsavory an element of American life). The R.A.F. gremlins are as much at home in the United States as they are in England and may live to rival pixies and elves. Americans grouse (British slang) about their troubles and the British have little sympathy with grouches (U.S. slang).

Fowler says, speak as your neighbor speaks. True, the advice comes from his article on pronunciation, but it is as applicable to the use of EnglishEnglish and Ameriean-English idiom. Personally I am unable to go the whole way and concede that if a large enough number of my neighbors say or write a thing in a given way, that way is right — or at least not until enough time has elapsed to give its blessing to the usage in question. To me adviser is so spelled, no matter how many times I see advisor in print, even in scholarly books. I prefer John’s going to Boston amazed me to John going to Boston . . . even though I am assured that the gerund in America is dead. Speak as your neighbor speaks — but today our neighbor is the English-speaking world. If we have an idea to give to our neighbor, whether it is a commercial product or a global (U.S. vogue word) philosophy, we are inefficient if we allow disputed constructions or local peculiarities in our language to distract his attention. English-English and American-English are coming closer together, not growing farther apart. Two world wars, our publications, motion pictures, radio, television, and even the UN are seeing to that.

My feeling is that good English is good English, whatever the nationality of the writer. In every community there are local meanings, terms, and constructions, arising from the circumstances and environment of that particular locality. Some of these should be treasured, some should be eschewed in formal speech and writing. There is no essentially American-English or English-English. There are only not-too-important regional variations.