The inner pedant—or in linguistic terms, prescriptivist—takes over in moments of weakness. I used to silently mock the “Millenium Hilton Hotel” when I passed the misspelled sign on Church Street. Currently, a sign distracts me on my morning walk: “Quiet hours are in force between 11 p.m. and 8 a.m.” Quiet hours are enforced? Quiet hour rules are in force? I can’t quite decide if the sign is deeply wrong, or if my hypnopompic fog hasn’t worn off yet. Generally linguists eschew prescriptivism, where educated judgments on usage are rendered by experts, for descriptivism, where linguists benevolently observe the many forms of language left to happily thrive in their natural environments.
But as an anti-Millenialist, how can I defend myself against the pleasures of H.W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition (Oxford; $29.95)? Published in 1926, the most esteemed usage guide of the twentieth century has been reissued, and its inimitable combination of prescriptivism and reasonableness (the split infinitive in the last sentence of my first paragraph can stay) is bracing. It is good morning reading in its butter-yellow cover, dispelling hypnopompia like a cup of strong coffee. As one skips through the entries, gleaning tidbits along the way (the word devilish has three syllables if an adjective, two if an adverb, did you know?), one starts reading more for the quirks of Fowler’s personality, or the felicities of his prose, than for instruction. His idiosyncratic coinages verge on the poetic—WARDOUR STREET, in his time a byword for antique stores, describes stylistic archaisms like “albeit” or “thither”; BATTERED ORNAMENTS describes clichés. One of his most famous targets, ELEGANT VARIATION, is the practice that gave the thesaurus a bad name. You know you are committing an elegant variation when you engage in a bit of synonym-sprinkling to avoid using the same word twice in a sentence, or a paragraph, or some other arbitrary limit. Fowler inveighed against it:
Thackeray may be seduced into an occasional lapse (careering during the season from one great dinner of twenty covers to another of eighteen guests—where however the variation in words may be defended as setting off the sameness of circumstance); but the real victims, first terrorized by a misunderstood taboo, next fascinated by a newly discovered ingenuity, & finally addicted to an incurable vice, are the minor novelists & the reporters. There are few literary faults so widely prevalent, & this book will not have been written in vain if the present article should heal any sufferer of his infirmity.
One learns quickly that “the journalistic mind” or “stock reporters’ English” were Fowler’s bête noire. That the variation is “elegant” points to Fowler’s sense of humor, which here could be classified—by his own chart on page 241—as witty. (Motive or Aim: Throwing light. Province: Words & ideas. Method or Means: Surprise. Audience: The intelligent.) But it may have a touch of the sardonic too. (Motive or Aim: Self-relief. Province: Adversity. Method or Means: Pessimism. Audience: Self.)
Henry Watson Fowler was born in Kent in 1858, worked as a schoolmaster and a journalist and began his career as a grammarian around the time that he began collaborating with his brother Frank Fowler, younger by twelve years. They produced a four-volume translation of the Greek rhetorician Lucian, and after that the controversial but bestselling The King’s English. They proceeded to edit the Concise Oxford Dictionary and together proposed the book on usage that would become Modern English Usage. Frank would die of tuberculosis before the book could be completed—the result of volunteering, in middle age, with the British Expeditionary Forces in 1915. (So loyal was Henry to his brother that he enlisted too, dissembling his age; he was given a medical discharge for gout within the year.) The book begins with a poignant dedication to Frank: “I think of it as it should have been, with its prolixities docked, its dullnesses enlivened, its fads eliminated, its truths multiplied.”