Anglican Samizdat

December 3, 2009

Putting Fowler Back in Fowler’s

Filed under: Books — David Jenkins @ 4:38 pm

Oh happy day, there is a new edition of Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage coming out:

H.W. Fowler and David Crystal, ed. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Oxford University Press. 832 Pages. $29.95

Henry Watson Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage is an unabashedly prescriptivist tome, which is to say that it doesn’t waffle in describing the right way, and the wrong way, to use English words. The archetypal usage manual, commonly called just “Fowler’s,” was initially published in 1926. It has undergone two revisions since, the product of the first of which, a book judiciously and lightly edited by Sir Ernest Gowers, was released in 1965. F.W. Bateson, the English literary scholar, reflected the general feeling when he wrote that Gowers was “remarkably successful . . . in retaining Fowler’s ipsissima verba while making the minor corrections and qualifications that time has made necessary.”

Similar approbation did not greet the second revision of Fowler’s, published in 1996 and helmed by the late lexicographer and linguist Robert W. Burchfield. John Simon, reviewing that book for the New Criterion, wrote that Burchfield — who before editing Fowler’s had edited both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Cambridge History of the English Language — had “made himself a true citizen of Oxbridge.” “But an ox bridge,” Simon quipped, “can be no better that a pons asinorum.”

The trouble, simply put, was that Burchfield had expunged Fowler from Fowler’s. Gone were some of the original author’s beloved subheadings (“Pairs and Snares” was pared, “Unequal Yokefellows” unyoked) and gone, too, was his jaunty, slightly mischievous, scything-while-grinning tone. Most objectionable was that Burchfield had changed Fowler’s from a prescriptive book to a descriptive one. Usage was no longer to be judged but understood. Entries that had earlier attacked ambiguity, castigated the careless, and lowered the boom on barbarism were suddenly more interested in explaining the origins and development of the English language’s scofflaws than in pointing them out and locking up. The warden had become the prison psychologist.

David Crystal, editor of the rereleased first edition, writes that Fowler “turns out to be far more sophisticated in his analysis of language than most people realize.” What’s more, “Several of his entries display a concern for descriptive accuracy which would do any modern linguist proud.”


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