Fowler and the coin of the realm -

Fowler and the coin of the realm


I see the Oxford University Press has finally concluded that the educated public will never be browbeaten into accepting the New Coke version of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and has decided to give us back Fowler Classic. Can it really be 13 years since Burchfield’s namby-pamby descriptivist Fowler came out? I still remember the day a friend phoned me on a slow day at work, and when she asked what I was up to, I mentioned that I had just read John Simon’s New Criterion review of the Burchfield—the harshest of many reviews I’d already read, but not the most troubling. (In matters such as these, it’s the positive reviews that give the game away.) I must have raged for 20 more minutes about the inherent illogic of putting a soggy, slack, no-rules, whatever-works-even-if-it-doesn’t type in charge of a usage guide, especially Fowler’s. I later found out that she had already bought me the “new Fowler” in hardcover for Christmas and had to race back to the store to return it. Life imitates O Henry.

When I finally laid eyes on the Burchfield, Simon’s verdict was confirmed: the abuse of the Fowler brand was as inexcusable as he had made it seem, and in the long term probably offended even those who would have quite liked and depended on a separately marketed Burchfield’s Usage. (Alas, too late for that now.) The new edition of Fowler smells like an unstated apology, or perhaps a mulligan. If you didn’t like the third edition, folks, here’s Fowler 3.5, with all the updates and modernizing caveats hygienically cordoned off.

The descriptivist-prescriptivist debate in usage is, to be sure, one of those controversies in which no one really represents either extreme. The “prescriptivist”, who believes there are objective rights and wrongs in usage, still does need descriptive data about how language is used. Prescriptivists like Fowler who achieve enduring influence are always very careful data-gatherers. But while the “descriptivist” professes relativism (filthy hippie that he is), he can always be caught incorporating value-judgments, or the material for them, into his data-collecting. (“Educated users tend to favour…”) Language, like money, has social and objective elements. It is, at once, master and servant.

My philosophy, for what it’s worth, is that the main strength of English as a medium of expression comes from its Latin-Saxon “double register” and its imperial voraciousness about borrowings. Changes in language that tend to impoverish our treasury should be resisted. It is useful that “infer” and “imply” should be understood to denote two distinct concepts; to have them be fuzzified synonyms is uneconomic. When changes in language enrich the treasury, they can be safely, even eagerly embraced: William Strunk’s anachronistic insistence that “nauseous” means “nauseating” would leave us with two words doing the same conceptual work, and without a single term for “being in a state of nausea.”

Descriptivists often don’t seem to recognize such an economy of words at all. Henry Watson Fowler, for all his twerpishness, navigated it better than any other usage maven yet has. He was to the English language what Bagehot was to English finance or Dicey to the English constitution.


Fowler and the coin of the realm

  1. Nauseated.

    Actually.. that sums up more than I'd intended it to.

  2. Right (and ha ha), but "nauseated" doesn't quite mean the same thing as "nauseous"; the participial ending calls attention to the stimulus rather than the internal state induced thereby, and saying "I'm a tad nauseated" is awkward.

  3. Canada could use its own grammar guide. I nominate you to write it.

    Instead of using pandas on the cover, you could use puffins. They're more Canadian…and almost as cute as penguins. Everyone loves penguins.

  4. But nausea literally means "sea-sickness" (< ναυσία < ναῦς, ship). You can just say "I'm feeling a tad seasick," and you save two syllable as vs. "nauseated" or one as vs. "nauseous" (well, none if you palatalise the -se- into -zh-). And it conveys a more vivid meaning. Meanwhile, the principle that misusage must be fought tooth & nail has been comfortably preserved.

  5. I have no opinion on Fowler's Modern English Usage and I had no idea Colby was a SNOOT.

    This post just made me think of one the funniest essays I ever read, David Foster Wallace on lexicography:

    "Did you know that probing the seamy underbelly of U.S. lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a nearly hanging-chad scale? For instance, did you know that some modern dictionaries are notoriously liberal and others notoriously conservative, and that certain conservative dictionaries were actually conceived and designed as corrective responses to the "corruption" and "permissiveness" of certain liberal dictionaries?"… – You have to scroll down a bit to get to first paragraph.

  6. That's a poet's solution. Your first problem would be persuading people to describe themselves as "seasick" when their real problem is, and is known to be, a tuna burrito. It's much easier to stretch a metaphor in the way you suggest when it's hidden behind a Greek translation, and besides, not all nausea is quite like seasickness anyway.

  7. Well, I have to concede you're right. Which is kind of a relief, since by now people actually look at you funny if you say you're "nauseated" (as opposed to "nauseous"); and the energy wasted in holding one's tongue when one hears "nauseous" is better spent elsewhere. En avant!

  8. Or perhaps a lapdog with delusions. . . .

  9. Only Fowler's first is Fowler.

  10. Iffy loves puffins.

  11. Hah.. sick-of-the-sea.. tuna burrito.
    I see what you did there!

  12. "who has some SNOOT training"

    Says you. :)

    I think we should ask woman who had to return a book and buy something else during Christmas this question.

    "The sorts of people who feel that special blend of wincing despair and sneering superiority when they see EXPRESS LANE — 10 ITEMS OR LESS"

    I read this essay years ago and since then I have wondered what's the problem with the sign but have not bothered to figure it out. I tend to favour the descriptive side, obviously.

  13. Well, there are a few…
    -the way it's phrased, the "or less" is redundant. If you say "10 items", it goes without saying that 9 is also fine. If they want to be more descriptive, it would be "less than 11 items".
    -Another snotty thing to say is that numbers should be spelled in sentences.
    -Also, the ordering is not right, it should be "10 or less items".

    However, the biggest sin of them all may be the word "express". It's not the lane this is "express", it's the people in it. When using "express" as an adjective, it means either "precise" or "travelling at high speed".

  14. It took me a while to arrive at the final indignity of Simon's "review" of Burchfield's edition… "Yet what the Greenwich observatory was for time, England's southern counties have been for standard speech."

    Into the garbage bin you go, Mr. Simon.

    Colby : this member of the educated public has been a consistent user of Burchfield's edition for over a decade, and I am quite content to continue using it now. No browbeating was ever necessary. I'll definitely check out the new edition, though – I have all the time in the world for the original Fowler, and for David Crystal.

  15. Exactly right! I was shaking my head in disbelief until I got down here to you again, Cosh.

    • So you're also a snoot.

  16. I am not a SNOOT. I am a feral creature of the wilderness who has some SNOOT training.

  17. ""Less" should be "fewer"."

    That's the answer? I thought that's what it might be but 10 ITEMS OR FEWER does not sound right at all. Wouldn't it have to be FEWER THAN 10 ITEMS line or some such?

    • The more I think about it, the more I cannot imagine anyone saying "10 items or fewer", unless he was wearing a Prince Charles halloween costume or he was trying to be annoying.

      "10 items or fewer" sounds pretentious and awkward.

    • Less is for things you don't count, fewer is for things you do count. Less money, fewer dollars. Less whiskey, fewer shots. Less ammunition, fewer cartridges. Less journalism, fewer columns.

      You'll notice that while a lot of people will say "less columns," or "less shots," few people will say "fewer whisky," or "fewer money."

  18. You guys are really snooty. From Webster, this usage has been around since King Alfred:

    usage The traditional view is that less applies to matters of degree, value, or amount and modifies collective nouns, mass nouns, or nouns denoting an abstract whole while fewer applies to matters of number and modifies plural nouns. Less has been used to modify plural nouns since the days of King Alfred and the usage, though roundly decried, appears to be increasing. Less is more likely than fewer to modify plural nouns when distances, sums of money, and a few fixed phrases are involved <less than 100 miles> <an investment of less than $2000> <in 25 words or less> and as likely as fewer to modify periods of time <in less (or fewer) than four hours>.

    The math phrase 3 < 4 does not translate as "3 is fewer than 4", everybody says "less than".

    Are you equally snooty about the word "more"?

    • "and a claim of great age …. epoch in which English was very barbarous indeed"

      I am not sure about this. If people were saying 'ain't' for three hundred years but the rules were changed about 80 years ago than I think claims of 'great age' are valid. Just because a few influential lexicographers/teachers decided they didn't like how 'ain't' sounded, and changed what school children were taught, doesn't mean it is not proper english.

  19. But you would say "three [items] are fewer than four [items]"; with "3 is fewer than 4" you are treating "3" and "4" as the names of particular numbers, not as quantifiers.

  20. I must say, I was already liking Mr. Cosh's posts, but now I am a big fan. Keep up the grammar, Mr. Cosh, there's a good number of us here who like wrangling about this stuff (which is important, after all).

  21. I think the (mis)usage "10 items or less" is formed from analogy with "10 items or more," which is correct. Curious that we have quantitative ("fewer") and non-quantitative ("less") terms for the negative but not for the positive.

  22. Are you guys serious? All those answers are wrong. "Less" should be "fewer".

    • Heck, at least one of them must be right.