Sea of Reads

Peripatetic, itinerant, eclectic musings about books, politics, history, language, culture, and anything else that interests me.

Fowler, Crystal, and Swaim

Barton Swaim reviews the new facsimile reprint of H.W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, although really it’s more a review of the old prescriptivist versus descriptivist approach to word usage. Here are the first few paragraphs:

The third edition of the work of the brilliant and cantankerous Englishman H. W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, published in 1996, signaled the triumph of the descriptivist view of language—the view, that is, that the lexicographer’s duty is merely to describe the language as it’s used, not to make pronouncements about how it ought to be used. It also signaled the triumph of tedium over enjoyment, and of abstract truth over utility. Edited by the late R. W. Burchfield, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, as the third edition was titled, addressed all the significant questions about English grammar and usage and explained with sufficient clarity the ways in which those questions have been addressed in the past.

But it only gave unambiguous counsel if there were some practical reason for it, and then only in the mildest terms: “this use should probably be eschewed.” If you wanted to know whether “their” may refer to singular antecedents, for example (If someone isn’t doing their job, they should be fired), Burchfield told you that “the issue is unresolved, but it begins to look as if the use . . . is now passing unnoticed.” Maybe the issue is “unresolved,” one thought, but could you please resolve it and tell me whether I should write “they” or “he” or “he or she” and so avoid sounding like an ignoramus to an educated audience? For his part, Fowler—the original Fowler—had called this use of the plural pronoun a “mistake.” He acknowledged rare instances of the use in Fielding and Thackeray, but suggested that “few good writers” could get away with it.

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage first appeared in 1926. What made the Dictionary so successful was, above all, its exhaustiveness: it contained upwards of a thousand entries, many of them tightly argued essays, and seemed to cover every conceivable question of language faced by a writer—a remarkable achievement for its time. Equally important, though, was the way in which Fowler made his judgments. Even when he inveighs against what he regards as a poor usage, he does so with a kind of winsome authority.

This reprinted first edition comes with a new introduction by David Crystal, the noted British linguist. Swaim thinks he was the wrong man for the job:

… Crystal gives Fowler due credit for defenestrating the old rules against beginning sentences with conjunctions, ending them with prepositions, and splitting infinitives, and quotes approvingly the observation that “to let oneself be so far possessed by conventions whose grounds one has not examined as to take a hand in enforcing them on other people is to lose the independence of judgement that . . . would enable one to solve the numerous problems for which there are no rules of thumb.” “But if this principle were applied consistently,” Crystal says, “we would lose half the entries in the Dictionary.” No: we wouldn’t. That Fowler deprecates those who try to impose ill-conceived conventions on others does not oblige him to suppose all conventions are ill-conceived.

Plainly Crystal was the wrong man to write this introduction. I say that not just because he’s done a terrible job of it, although he has, but also because modern linguists are almost by definition incapable of understanding the function of a book like Fowler’s Dictionary. They take the view that “prescriptivism” is an unfortunate byproduct of eighteenth-century anxieties about class, and that a work like Fowler’s perpetuates those anxieties. There is truth in that view of things, just as there is truth in all oversimplifications.

The review is in this month’s issue of The New Criterion, and is well worth reading in full.


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This entry was posted on February 17, 2011 by in Book Reviews, Language.
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