Tuesday, January 19, 2010

HW Fowler--The King of English

Dear All,

Among the many famous personalities of the English language is Henry Watson Fowler who wrote authoritative books such as A Dictionary of Modern English Usage which had been reissued and edited a number of times. The latest one by Professor David Crystal.

The book is the bible for "the King's English"; now viewed as a snobbish,taking an absolutely 'accurate' English usage kind of viewpoint.

Enjoy the article below which is written in "Fowlerian English"!

Rodney Tan

December 13, 2009

H. W. Fowler, the King of English

“To see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sèvres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee,” Eve¬lyn Waugh once said of a fellow writer. I sometimes feel like that chimp, and perhaps you do too. When it comes to handling the English language, we are all fumblers — with the possible exception of Waugh himself, who, as Gore Vidal once observed, wrote “prose so chaste that at times one longs for a violation of syntax to suggest that its creator is fallible, or at least part American.”

Some care about getting English right; others don’t. For those who do, there is a higher authority, a sacred book, that offers guidance through our grammatical vale of tears. Its full title is “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage,” but among its devotees it is known, reverentially, as “Fowler.”

One such devotee was Winston Churchill, who cared greatly about language, even in wartime. “Why must you write ‘intensive’ here?” Churchill demanded of his director of military intelligence while looking over plans for the invasion of Normandy. “ ‘Intense’ is the right word. You should read Fowler’s Modern English Usage on the use of the two words.”

Just who is this Fowler, this supreme arbiter of usage, this master of nuance and scruple, He Who Must Be Obeyed? His full name was Henry Watson Fowler, and he lived from 1858 to 1933. He was educated at the Rugby School and at Balliol College, Oxford, where he failed to take a top degree. For a while he taught classics at a school in Yorkshire (contemporaries there described him variously as “a first-rate swimmer” and “lacking humanity”), but his career as a schoolmaster ended prematurely because of religious doubts. He then tried to make a living as a freelance writer in London, without much luck.

In 1903, he took up a spartan existence with his younger brother, Frank, on the island of Guernsey. Working out of a pair of granite cottages, the Fowler brothers collaborated on a book of usage, which they called “The King’s English.” Despite their amateur status — “We were plunging into the sea of lexicography without having been first taught to swim,” Fowler later wrote — the book was a success. The brothers went on to edit The Concise Oxford Dictionary and were planning a more ambitious book on usage when World War I broke out. Although Henry was 57 at the time, he lied about his age and doggedly petitioned to be sent to the battle front, where he promptly fell ill and had to be sent home. His brother fared worse, dying of tuberculosis at the end of the war. It was left to Henry to complete the work that would make their surname a household word in Britain. “I think of it as it should have been, with its prolixities docked, its dullnesses enlivened, its fads eliminated, its truths multiplied,” he wrote in dedicating it to his brother’s memory. (Nicely put, that!)

The book was published in 1926, to immediate acclaim and brisk sales. Although language, as the truism goes, is an ever changing Heraclitean river, Fowler was not revised until 1965, when Sir Ernest Gowers gave it a light going-over, preserving both the spirit and the substance of the original. (The same cannot be said of the 1996 third edition, heavily reworked by R. W. Burchfield.) Now Oxford University Press has reissued the classic first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage ($29.95), with an acute new introduction by the linguist David Crystal. It is a volume that everyone who aspires to a better command of English should possess and consult — sparingly.

Fowler was fastidious in both manners and morals, but he was no prig. He had a mordant wit and a keen sense of irony, which is part of what makes “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage” such a pleasure to dip into. Despite the title, it’s not really a dictionary. True, there are many entries on spelling and pronunciation (we are informed that the past tense of shampoo can be either “-poo’d” or “-pooed,” for example, and warned against the pronunciation of “enema,” then “in very general use,” as “in-EE-ma”). There are brief and masterly elucidations of fine distinctions in meaning, such as that between “cheerful” and “cheery” (“The cheerful feels & perhaps shows contentment, the cheery shows & probably feels it”).

The bulk of the book, however, consists of little essays. Some of them are heavy going. I have never been able to get through the eight columns of wisdom about the subjunctive, let alone the eleven columns on the troublesome hyphen; nor have I found the impenetrable entry on “nor” much help.

Most entries, though, are as light and whimsical as their (often mysterious) headings, like “Swapping Horses” or “Out of the Frying-Pan.” Under “Frying Pan” we are told, “The writer who produces an ungrammatical, an ugly, or even a noticeably awkward phrase, & lets us see that he has done it in trying to get rid of something else that he was afraid of, gives a worse impression of himself than if he had risked our catching him in his original misdemeanour; he is out of the frying-pan into the fire.” This is followed by the usual surfeit of examples drawn from the contemporary press — e.g., “The reception was held at the bride’s aunt.” (Here the unfortunate writer was evidently trying to avoid “bride’s aunt’s,” but the phrase “at the house of” eluded him.) Fowler reveled in such cock-ups, hoping “to nauseate” the reader “by accumulation of instances, as sweet-shop assistants are cured of larceny by cloying.”

If you are like me, you might be pleased rather than annoyed when others commit such glaring solecism since they afford a momentary feeling of superiority. A perusal of Fowler will show you how dangerous that is. I never misuse “aggravate,” “transpire,” “eke out,” “ilk” or “discomfit” (all of which should be looked up in Fowler just for his witty strictures). Yet I now humiliatingly discover that I’ve been a lifelong abuser of “meticulous.” Fowler calls it a “wicked word,” a pretentious and ignorant borrowing from French; properly, it means not “careful,” but “frightened” — indeed, teeth-chatteringly so — coming, as it does, from the Latin metus (fear). My slipshod use of “meticulous” has no doubt been silently deplored all these years by those who have read their Fowler more meticulously — er, punctiliously — than me (or I). That’s the trouble, as Crystal notes in his introduction, with being a stickler for usage: “You must always be watching your back.”

But Fowler was not one of those. For all his classicist rigor, he was a tolerant man who realized that “tilting against established perversions . . . is vanity in more than one sense.” His ideal was a democratic one, a natural, unaffected and humbug-free English summed up in the word “idiom.” And if idiom and grammar are in conflict, so much the worse for grammar. Thus he was cheerfully lax about “who & whom” and the placement of “only,” and he mocked the pains people go through to avoid ending their sentences with prepositions. When it came to the notorious split infinitive (e.g., “to boldly go where no man . . .”), he observed that those English speakers who neither know nor care about them “are to be envied” by the unhappy few who do.

Despite this abundance of common sense, one shouldn’t spend too much time in Fowler’s company. Better writers may be attracted to his volume, but more for random delight than for improvement. It’s wonderful to learn, under “True & False Etymology,” that “belfry” is not named for its bell and that “isle” has nothing to do with “island”: oh, the glorious quirks of English! But heightened self-consciousness about usage is the enemy of vigor. One sees this not infrequently in Fowler’s own prose, which can be crabbed and intricate to the point of unintelligibility. One sees it also in disciples of Fowler, who turn out pedanti¬cally correct little essays in his honor (which is why I myself have adopted a slovenly, even squalid manner here).

But if you do become yet another obsessive Fowlerian epicure, remember: the pleasures of usage snobbery are best enjoyed in private.

Jim Holt is the author of “Stop Me if You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes.” He is writing a book about the puzzle of existence.

Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/13/books/review/Holt-t.html?_r=1&emc=eta1&pagewanted=print

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