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March 3, 2011 1:20 AM   Subscribe

The "King of English", H.W. Fowler wrote A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Although "modern linguists are almost by definition incapable of understanding the function of a book like Fowler’s Dictionary", the "half-educated Englishman of literary proclivities" who just wants to know: "Can I say so-&-so?’" may now buy the classic first edition of the Dictionary again. An earlier book, The King's English, is free for anyone seeking advice on Americanisms, Saxon words, the spot plague, archaism or split infinitives.
posted by TheophileEscargot (27 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
Missing comma in first sentence.
Semicolon ought to be a comma in second sentence.
Extraneous single quotation mark in second sentence.

3/10. More time reading and less time mucking about behind the rugger shed, TheophileEscargot. I'll be speaking to your parents about this.
posted by Sutekh at 1:53 AM on March 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


Interesting. In the second article, a 19th century historian of rhetoric takes on David Crystal (who btw is awesome). I look forward to reading this!
posted by honest knave at 2:01 AM on March 3, 2011


Oh god, it's like reading Chaucer. This man needs a good editor.
posted by londonmark at 3:14 AM on March 3, 2011


rugger shed?
posted by nowonmai at 3:27 AM on March 3, 2011


rugger shed.
posted by bright cold day at 3:35 AM on March 3, 2011


When I read Swamm's review I have to say I found the swipes at "linguists" both tiresome and, in a way, dishonest: he goes from "descriptivism means that linguists won't condemn common usages of language as morally or logically unacceptable" (true) to "and this means that linguists don't care about actual usage at all" (nonsensically wrong). If anyone is going to research trends in the usage of "orotund," it will be a linguist; if anyone is going to provide a scientific picture of how AAVE is viewed by non-AAVE speakers, it will be a linguist studying (and quite possibly speaking) AAVE.

He sounds like a man bitter at the biological sciences because they spend their time studying the natural world instead of writing dog-breeding manuals with chapters on acceptable tail angle and ear coloring. But linguists and biologists have better things to do with their time than refine meticulous recipes for meeting standards that are not agreed upon or followed even by those who claim to value them.
posted by No-sword at 3:57 AM on March 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


I don't read Swaim as saying "and this means that linguists don't care about actual usage at all". I think his argument is that linguists who complain about the prescriptivism of books like Fowler's are missing the point, because they are operating in different spheres. There is no point in an academic linguist caring about actual usage in a prescriptivist way, because linguistics is about recording and explaining language rather than making value judgements about its use. But Fowler's isn't a book of academic linguistics, it's an etiquette manual. Its rules don't reflect some set of eternal, unchanging cosmic principles of the English language (which is what descriptivists often seem to accuse prescriptivists of arguing for), they instruct readers in the art of not appearing to be illiterate.

Sure that might be a little classist and elitist, but if feeling a little bit sad every time someone confuses "infer" and "imply" (and even "impute", wtf?) because it makes the language a slightly blunter instrument than it needs to be means that I'm a classist elitist, then I guess I'm just going to have to resign myself to being first up against the wall when the revolution comes. Until then I will reserve the right to lose a small amount of respect for anyone who uses the word "irregardless".

He sounds like a man bitter at the biological sciences because they spend their time studying the natural world instead of writing dog-breeding manuals with chapters on acceptable tail angle and ear coloring.

I think a better analogy would be a man bitter at the writer of a dog-breeding manual about acceptable tail angle and ear colouring for not actually addressing acceptable tail angle or ear colouring, which is basically what he accuses David Crystal of having done.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:53 AM on March 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


One of my earliest MeFi memories is of being scolded by languagehat for quoting Fowler's Modern English Usage in an AskMeFi answer. I was young and naive in those days and didn't realise that prescriptivism to languagehat was like a red rag to a bull (a cliché of which I'm sure Fowler would not have approved).

There's a wonderful account of Fowler in Peter Sutcliffe's history of Oxford University Press:

He lived in Chelsea. Every day without fail he ran at nine or ten miles an hour to the Serpentine for his morning bathe. In one Christmas Day race he was badly cut about the chest by ice. He had a recurrent dream that he was having tea with Queen Victoria, but otherwise it was an uneventful life. In 1903 he went to join his brother Frank in Guernsey. Frank was twelve years younger, and since leaving Cambridge with a first in Classics had done little except grow tomatoes, rather half heartedly, and build himself a small granite cottage.

It's a sad story really. When the First World War broke out, the Fowlers patriotically lied about their ages (Henry was 56, Frank was 44) in order to fight for their country. Instead of being sent to the Front, as they'd hoped, they were kept behind the lines and made to wash dishes and heave coal. Frank's health broke down and he died of tuberculosis. Henry dedicated Modern English Usage 'To the Memory of my Brother'.
posted by verstegan at 5:10 AM on March 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


Christ, what a prescriptivist!
posted by serf4luv at 5:10 AM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


But linguists don't have a problem with the prescriptivism of a book like Fowler's. If someone wants to read such a book and follow its dictates, good for them. It may well make their writing clearer and more understandable. What drives linguists batty is the secondary stage: people treating such books like divine writ when it serves their purposes and denouncing those who do not meet its standards, without acknowledging or even noticing in most cases that all of the celebrated writers in the English language, including Fowler I am quite sure, break the rules regularly — as do the rules lawyers themselves, of course.

And I stand by my analogy. The point is that tail angle and ear coloring are irrelevancies. There are people who claim to care about them, and hold fierce opinions about them, but these opinions are often misinformed, ridiculous, contradictory, or all of the above. It sounds to me like David Crystal wrote an introduction that said, more or less, "This is an important book full of interesting advice, but Fowler wasn't infallible and people who don't follow all the guidelines he lays down aren't necessarily wrong or unintelligent."

(Note: I am probably with you on much of the substance. I am committed to descriptivist principles, but misused apostrophes, "would of" instead of "would have" and the like still irritate me. I just think it's either ignorant or unreasonable to complain about David Crystal, linguist, writing an introduction for a book about language usage which explains how language actually works and where the book sits in relation to that.)
posted by No-sword at 5:23 AM on March 3, 2011


Prescriptivism is fine if someone is looking for the *correct* usage of a word or punctuation.

As a midwesterner, I happily ask people "What are you looking at?" It's correct for me and the people I know, and that is fine. But if an editor shrieked at me and wanted to know what my problem is, I would want to know what the right answer is. (Did I do it again?) Prescriptivists are necessary to keep a language together or we'd all just make up our own languages and damn anyone who doesn't like it.
posted by gjc at 6:06 AM on March 3, 2011


ON this note: "The speaker who has discovered that Juan and Quixote are not pronounced in Spain as he used to pronounce them as a boy is not content to keep so important a piece of information to himself; he must have the rest of us call them Hwan and Keehotay; at any rate he will give us the chance of mending our ignorant ways by doing so."

Juan Quixote would rightly be pronounced Wan Keehotay or perhaps Hwan Keehotay with a bit of a breathless H at the beginning.....

I'm curious. what was the incorrect or other prounucation people were using? (I've never heard it any other way)
posted by TravellingDen at 6:19 AM on March 3, 2011


RE: "because modern linguists are almost by definition incapable of understanding the function of a book like Fowler’s Dictionary."

The fact that prescriptivists are baffled by descriptivists does not mean that the reverse is true.
posted by edheil at 6:25 AM on March 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


Somebody slap this guy. Seriously.
posted by edheil at 6:28 AM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


TravellingDen, the British have a habit of pronouncing foreign words as they are spelled: Paris, Calais, potpourri. This extends to names, as well. See the first stanza of the first canto of Lord Byron's Don Juan:
I want a hero: an uncommon want,
When every year and month sends forth a new one,
Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,
The age discovers he is not the true one;
Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,
I 'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan—
We all have seen him, in the pantomime,
Sent to the devil somewhat ere his time.
See how new one and true one rhyme with Juan? Similarly, when discussing my dissertation on 18th Century British interpretations of Don Quixote, I have to remind myself that it's proper to mis-pronounce The Female Quixote (while Female Quixotism is a bit more natural).
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:01 AM on March 3, 2011


Prescriptivism is fine if someone is looking for the *correct* usage of a word or punctuation.


Correct according to whom?

Math has a "correct." Engineering has a "correct." You know you've missed it because your bridge falls down.

If "correct" means that you're conveying meaning clearly to people, then prescriptivists should come down a lot harder on Baudrillard and Foucault than on a kid who speaks a nonstandard dialect.

If "correct" means that it makes sense according to logic and etymology -- that's kind of defensible, though I'll keep on using singular "they," but there has to be a limit on how far back we're willing to go.

What "correct" means, usually, is that it doesn't grate on the ears of highly educated people who have been brought up in the prescriptivist tradition. If it meant anything else, we wouldn't have people still carping on split infinitives, which is only a "rule" because long ago some dude decided that if you couldn't do it in Latin, you shouldn't do it in English. "Because it doesn't grate on the ears of highly educated people who have been brought up in the prescriptivist tradition" is a good reason to learn the rules, and follow them, especially if you need to do things like get a job or write memos. But it is, at bottom, about 98% arbitrary.
posted by Jeanne at 8:00 AM on March 3, 2011


I own the earlier edition of Fowler. Fun to read. But like all things, language and writing evolve and he is wordy and cumbersome to use when you need a quick answer to a language problem.
Our writing and reading evolve, like all other things, and a quick glance at, say, paragraphing, in non-fiction prose from 50 years ago and today gives a guick illustration of change.

And then the net. What would Fowler say about the contemporary convention of using a numeral to begin a title, as in "10 Reasons to Buy Fowler's Classic Book" rather than "Ten Reasons To Buy Fowler's Classic Book"
posted by Postroad at 8:01 AM on March 3, 2011


There's almost a straw man argument emerging that being a prescriptivist means believing that the language should never change. But as the articles point out, Fowler recognized perfectly well that language changes. If anything, he spends far more time mocking pretension and archaisms than modern slang.

What "correct" means, usually, is that it doesn't grate on the ears of highly educated people who have been brought up in the prescriptivist tradition.

It seems to me that there is a correlation between the production of etiquette and style manuals, and social mobility in society.

"Prescriptivism" began in the Eighteenth Century along with the Industrial Revolution. Etiquette manuals were very popular in the Nineteenth Century, at a time when the middle classes were expanding rapidly. It was at this time that J.M.W. Turner rose from the slums to become the greatest painter of the age; when Charles Dickens rose from a childhood pasting labels on shoe polish to become a respected writer; when Robert Cain became a millionaire brewer from an origin in the Liverpool slums. In times like these, people on the rise turn to books that will help them to communicate on equal terms with their new peers.

In the present day, we have a very low level of social mobility. These days, your parents' income largely determines your own income. I think it's interesting that it's in times like these that linguists see little value in manuals like Fowler's.

Fowler's Dictionary doesn't represent an oppressive attempt by the upper classes to clamp down on the self-expression of the lower orders. It was the middle and lower classes who were buying the books. Rather, it represents the determination of the less-well-educated to educate themselves, to rise to a different class, to ensure that they could communicate with anyone on the social ladder without being patronized or belittled.

Nor is it quite as simple as the propagation of the values of "highly educated people". Fowler mocks without mercy the pretensions of Times leader writers, who at that time represented the voice of the Establishment. His dictum "Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance" gives an advantage to the uneducated over the educated.

To me, the style of English favoured by Fowler reminds me of the
London Underground architecture of Charles Holden, which was being built at exactly the time the Dictionary was published. It's a clean, classless, modern style; modestly ornamented without elaborate frills; intended to be used and appreciated by people at all levels of society from a Duke to a dustman.

We live in an age which sees little value in this. We think dustmen should write like dustmen and dukes should write like dukes: after all, we no longer live in a time where a Turner or a Cain would rise from a childhood with the former to an adulthood mingling with the latter. But is this a sign that our age is a classless paradise, or an age when the classes are absolutely rigid?
posted by TheophileEscargot at 8:58 AM on March 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


Barton Swaim is a fool, and I agree with everything No-sword said. I myself love fusty, fussy old Fowler, though I would never use him for guidance on twenty-first-century prose; if you're going to read him, by all means get the new "classic first edition" with Crystal's excellent introduction and notes (which I reviewed here). The later attempts to update him were just sad and should be avoided. If you want a current usage guide, I fervently recommend, as always, Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage.
posted by languagehat at 9:00 AM on March 3, 2011


Semicolon ought to be a comma in second sentence.

Pedantry fail.
posted by phatkitten at 9:07 AM on March 3, 2011


Indeed, I do see value in prescriptivist manuals in precisely those terms, TheophileEscargot. I just think that a system where class mobility can only be achieved by conforming to the values of the upper class is just as rigid, ultimately, as a system where class mobility can't be achieved at all. It's very like the advice that businesswomen got in the 1980s that boiled down to the idea that you can have career success by acting exactly like a man. You can't get any equality as long as the goal is complete assimilation to the standards of the powerful.
posted by Jeanne at 9:55 AM on March 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I prefer the usage suggestions of James Thurber: on the split infinitive; on "one" and "only".
posted by kenko at 10:08 AM on March 3, 2011


In fact, if Thurber is to be believed, Fowler was quite sensible: "Mr Fowler's point is, of course, that there are good split infinitives and bad ones. For instance, he contends that it is better to say "Our object is to further cement trade relations," thus splitting "to cement," than to say "Our object is further to cement trade relations," because the use of "further" before "to cement" might lead the reader to think it had the weight of "moreover" rather than of "increasingly.""
posted by kenko at 10:11 AM on March 3, 2011


Whenever I have a question I find Fowler helpful and insightful. Much like Aristotle, Fowler will often survey current (for his time) usage, sometimes he gives a little history, and follows this with examples from the leading prose writers of his day. All along giving practical advice when taking all these factors into consideration. I often wish more modern English usage manuals would follow his excellent example. Also, he is very funny, and many commentators here are missing out on his droll, sometimes dry, wit.

Fowler is more of a descriptivist than people generally credit him for as he explicitly mentions usage trends and gives different advice to those In America as opposed to Britain. Personally, when people claim to be one or the other I find both end up being equally pretentious.
posted by Shit Parade at 10:31 AM on March 3, 2011


Thing is, the real first edition is easy to find, in hard back, and for less money than the re-issue.

The re-issue, however, does have an introduction by David Crystal.
posted by IndigoJones at 11:20 AM on March 3, 2011


I own a copy of fowler, but all my questions go to and are answered by Bryan Garner and his Garner's Modern American Usage.
posted by about_time at 5:02 PM on March 3, 2011


Fowler Fucxkin' Rules Prescriptivism!!




please carry on.
posted by ovvl at 8:07 PM on March 3, 2011


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