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."

The great success of the book rests on its combination of traditional prescriptive advice, common sense, excellent writing, and good humor. Fowler begins his essay on the split infinitive thus:

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

With entries making subtle and broad distinctions concerning a vast array of questions of vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, spelling, and style, Modern English Usage quickly became the quintessential guide to English usage. Unlike many of his followers, Fowler, a working lexicographer, was unafraid to prick the balloon of pretense that surrounds language debates. Designating as "fetishes" and "superstitions" many "current literary rules misapplied or unduly revered," he saw nothing inherently wrong with beginning a sentence with and or but, or with ending a sentence with a preposition, or with using a plural verb with none ("none of them are here yet"), or with the expression try and, or with the split infinitive, as we have seen above. "Let us," he wrote,

in the name of common sense, prohibit the prohibition of whose inanimate [that is, using whose to mean "of which," instead of "of whom"]; good writing is surely difficult enough without the forbidding of things that have historical grammar, & present intelligibility, & obvious convenience, on their side, & lack only -- starch.

As he himself observed, "Differentiations become complete not by authoritative pronouncements or dictionary fiats, but by being gradually adopted in speaking & writing."

In spite of these examples, however, Fowler was on the whole a defender of the conservative usages of Britain's educated classes. He quite bluntly divided the world, according to an ultimate prescriptive distinction, into "good people," who "point out the sin," and "bad people, who are more numerous, take little notice & go on committing it." He constantly dismissed usages he disliked in strong terms: "Every illiterate person uses this construction daily" (like as a conjunction); "This absurdity is so common that it seems worth while to quote a number of examples" (the formula if and when); "Those who talk in mathematical language without knowing mathematics go out of their way to exhibit ignorance" (nth); "This ugly & needless . . . formula" (question as to); "it is fitter for parrots' than for human speech" (salad days); and, placing allegedly poor word-formation above even death, "electrocute, -cution. This BARBARISM jars the unhappy latinist's nerves much more cruelly than the operation denoted jars those of its victim."

The troubling aspect of these attacks is that they are often based on very little, and they have often had large repercussions. In his invention of the masterfulmasterly distinction Fowler stated the "rule" -- never before encountered in English -- only to follow it with a list of examples "violating" it. Other usage problems first raised by Fowler include the use of gender as a synonym for sex (instead of a grammatical category); the use of purport in various constructions (purported to have been; is purported); and the use of protagonist to mean "advocate." His four-page essay on the distinction between that and which (not his own invention) is typical in the immense influence it has had on the issue. Many of his beliefs -- indeed, many of the beliefs of all prescriptivists -- would benefit from a more rigorous application of the open-mindedness he displayed elsewhere in the book, for example in the first sentence of his essay on that: "What grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes & dislikes."

Fowler, though a talented lexicographer, was a gifted amateur, not a trained linguist. He ignored much of the revolution in linguistics that scholars such as Leonard Bloomfield, Edward Sapir, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Otto Jespersen were creating, instead basing his opinions on the grammars of Greek and Latin and applying their rules to English as necessary. "The reading of grammars is repellent," he wrote, and this attitude reinforces the poor opinion many linguists have of his abilities in their field. Randolph Quirk, perhaps the most prominent grammarian of modern English, has said that Fowler "was no great grammarian. . . . Any of a score of his major articles on grammar shows clearly his deficiencies in this field."

Fowler was idiosyncratic, usually in a favorable sense. Modern English Usage contains long essays with charming but often opaque titles such as "Battered Ornaments," "Elegant Variation," "False Scent," "Legerdemain With Two Senses," "Love of the Long Word," "Out of the Frying-Pan," "Presumptuous Word-Formation," "Sturdy Indefensibles," "Swapping Horses," and "Unequal Yokefellows." These essays are enjoyable to read, and give rise to the affection that many people, even descriptive linguists, have for Fowler.

has been revised once before, by Sir Ernest Gowers, a longtime civil servant. Gowers was best known for The Complete Plain Words (1954), a combined version of two earlier books he had written, at the request of the Treasury Department, to help combat the ponderous jargon of officialese. The Complete Plain Words has itself become a classic, with its insistence on clear and direct prose and its own vigorous writing propelling the book through three editions; it remains in print.

Gowers revised Fowler's Modern English Usage in 1965, when he was eighty-five years old. This second "edition" was not an entirely new production but a revision that maintained the attitudes and style Fowler had developed. Gowers did minor editorial work, trimming many illustrative quotations and revising, updating, and consolidating entries. He deleted a number of Fowler's short entries but kept most of the long essays. He also added a few long articles of his own, on such topics as "headline language" and "sociologese," and a larger number of short entries. But Gowers's hand was light, and he let Fowler's advice stand without comment even when he disagreed with it.

It has been clear for some time that Modern English Usage is in serious need of revision; the current standard usage of educated people has moved beyond many of Fowler's pronouncements. In addition, the book deliberately paid only slight attention to Americanisms. William Safire has remarked that "Fowler wrote the Bible on usage, but Modern English Usage needs revision every generation to stay modern." Robert Burchfield is by far the most qualified person for this important job; he has researched and written about usage, and Fowler in particular, for many years. His revision has been eagerly anticipated, its schedule a source of discussion from scholarly conferences to the Internet.

Unlike Gowers, Burchfield has produced a totally new edition. He has rewritten every entry in the book, in his own voice, referring to himself as "I" or "me." He frequently gives advice based on his personal usage or feeling, rather than appealing to some larger sense of correctness, and Fowler's original proclamations are always quoted explicitly.

The changes are vast. The book has been modernized in convenient external ways -- the pronunciations have all been converted to the International Phonetic Alphabet; the major entries now have clearer indexes of subentries -- but the important difference is, of course, in the treatment of the words. The new style is apparent from the very first entry, for the negative prefix a-. This prefix is of Greek origin, and its application to terms of non-Greek origin was once considered a fault. Of amoral (moral is a Latin derivative) Fowler, typically, wrote, "amoral. . . . is inexcusable, & non-moral should be used instead." Gowers revised this assessment, writing, "Amoral is a novelty whose progress has been rapid. In 1888 the OED called it a nonce-word, but in 1933 full recognition had to be conceded"; he went on to warn, though, that this "should not be treated as [a precedent] for future word-making." Burchfield, while warning that a- "is far from being a free-forming prefix," makes no negative comment about the practice or the word amoral.

In a wide variety of examples Burchfield shows a much more descriptive, or at least open-minded, attitude than his predecessors did. Fowler condemned aggravate in the sense of "annoy"; Burchfield accepts it. Burchfield rejects the notion that the language is being overwhelmed by new verbs formed with -ize (though he does repudiate at least one specific formation, as we shall see). He describes the development of snuck as a past tense of sneak in detail and without negative comment. He is remarkably noncritical of the double negative ("I don't want no trouble"), concluding, "the use of double or cumulative negation for emphasis is taken to be a certain indication of poor education and of linguistic deficit. But it was not always so in the past and attitudes can easily change again in the future." On the orient-orientate debate -- the words have identical meanings but orientate is sometimes objected to -- he says that he has somewhat arbitrarily decided to use the former himself, but "one can have no fundamental quarrel" with the longer form. About impact as a verb, while recommending avoiding it, he feels that "it is very likely that it will pass into uncontested standard use as time goes on." In general, when Burchfield discusses a usage question in depth, his conclusion simply states the facts without taking sides.

The overall tone of the book is authoritative and helpful. As in Fowler, the majority of the entries are not concerned with usage conflicts per se; they list pronunciations, advise on correct (or at least usual) spellings, define uncommon words and differentiate similar pairs, give plurals, place accents. These entries are sensible and modern, and will be the most useful part of the book for most readers. The new longer essays are also informative and valuable; those on suffixes added to proper names (Kafkaesque, Dickensian) and on "proper terms" (collective names for animals such as a herd of cattle, an exaltation of larks, a trip of widgeon) are particularly welcome.

Burchfield also brings the principles of historical lexicography to bear on the book. Unlike his predecessors, he often provides the date a word or a sense or even a pronunciation entered the language. He includes a very large number of illustrative quotations with dates, drawn from the files of The Oxford English Dictionary and from an organized effort to gather materials for this volume. The quotations, many from very recent sources, are indispensable, and come from a much broader range of publications than the unsourced newspaper quotations that represent the bulk of Fowler's citations.

Burchfield does engage in the typical prescriptive pattern of objecting to usages for no clear reason -- in some cases inadvertently providing evidence for why the usage is acceptable. On the reason is because, after citing the expression in various writers "of good standing" including Pepys, Wycherly, Pope, Frost, Wodehouse, Hemingway, and Faulkner, Burchfield writes, "Its absence from the works of our most talented writers and scholars is more significant than its presence in more informal printed work." And prioritize "has remained locked in the jargon of business managers, politicians, and other officials." If it's really "locked in," why bother discussing it, especially since he's open-minded on other -ize words?

Harsh dismissal of disliked usages and pronunciations is not uncommon. On regularly, "reduction to three syllables . . . is a vulgarism." At the end of the day is "one of the ignoble clichés introduced into the language in the 20c." About second-syllable stress on harass: "It is hard to tell how long the traditional line can withstand the assault being made on it." The entry for drawing reads, "The use of an intrusive -r- in the pronouncing of this word . . . is not defensible." On he in constructions like "any chance of he and Sylvia reconciling" Burchfield writes, "The use of he instead of him in an objective position, an indication of genuine illiteracy, is now depressingly common." And paralleling Fowler in comparing usage errors to death, he instructs us to "lower the flag in sorrow whenever you see the word idiosyncrasy misspelt."

Unlike Fowler, Burchfield pays attention to American English. He includes many citations from American sources, and often discusses the use or pronunciation of words in America. There are occasional examples of exclusively American issues, such as the expression of a ("not that difficult of a problem"). British visitors to America are warned about the American sense of knock up, meaning "to impregnate" (the usual British meaning is the innocuous "to arouse, wake up"). But despite this welcome attention to Americanisms, Burchfield remains focused on British English. Assorted American usages go unnoticed or are dismissed despite being perfectly natural for us. Commenting on the pronunciation of words prefixed by head-, Burchfield claims that "three stand apart as having the stress on the second syllable: headmaster, headmistress, and headquarters." Not here they don't. Under necessarily he "urges" people to avoid the American stress on the -ar- syllable. The singular of dice is given as dice, with die relegated to a historical note. Of graduate he writes that there is "no problem about its ordinary intransitive sense (he graduated from Yale in 1984)," although this has indeed been a problem for American usage critics, some of whom still feel that only an institution, not a person, can graduate, thus demanding the form he was graduated from Yale.

Burchfield is generally insensitive to the use of "politically correct" language, a subject of great importance in American discourse. He has little patience for "militant feminists" in his essays on -ess, man, -person, and sexist language, preferring things to go along as they once did, and finding "depressing," even (quoting a correspondent) "nauseating," the use of sex-neutral elements in traditional phrases and contexts. On clever he writes, "Fowler (1926) wrote a splendidly prejudiced piece about the misuse of clever, 'especially in feminine conversation'." Why this should be considered "splendid" is unclear; Burchfield is apparently not being ironic. Homo is called "an informal abbreviation of homosexual," but the potential offensiveness is not mentioned. The controversy over words like gyp ("to cheat"), Oriental ("Asian"), and guy ("a person [of either sex]") is not discussed (though this use of guy is mentioned). Most notably, under black Burchfield writes, "A minor curiosity is that African-Americans frequently use the word nigger without giving offence when addressing other blacks." This is surely much more than a "minor curiosity," and Burchfield's discussing the phrases work like a nigger and nigger in the woodpile under the heading black does not speak well of his sensitivity to this most notorious word.

The ardent Fowler enthusiast will most likely be disappointed by this new edition. Gowers, in the preface to his revision, wrote of his predecessor, "His faults were as much a part of his idiosyncrasy as his virtues; rewrite him and he ceases to be Fowler." Burchfield apparently disagrees: the discursive essays "have endeared the book to Fowler's devotees, but no longer have their interest or appeal and are not preserved in this new edition." Burchfield has his own idiosyncrasies (he devotes an entire page of a six-page preface to a description of the database of examples he set up on a personal computer, for instance), but although he has a far better understanding of the English language than his predecessor, he does not have the style and wit. Rewritten, this book has ceased to be Fowler. Those who still want their Fowler must acquire an original. This is as it should be, for Fowler, with all its authentic interest and appeal, is now a period piece, to be read and enjoyed for what it is. Burchfield, in his new edition, has succeeded admirably in producing a sensible, practical, up-to-date, sometimes controversial, and altogether excellent guide to English usage, and it will be welcomed by those seeking a prescriptive usage guide for this generation.

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1996; Elegant Variation and All That; Volume 278, No. 6; pages 112 - 118.