Prolixities Docked

Prolixities Docked

Revisiting an enduring guide to battered ornaments, elegant variations and Gr8 Db8s.


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.”

There is something quintessentially Victorian about the fusion—and, perhaps, confusion—of elegy and knowledge systems at the heart of Fowler’s project. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, like the Oxford English Dictionary, was a product of its time, a late addition to the nineteenth-century application of natural science to language. But hauntings persist, as with Annie Darwin’s haunting of Origin of Species. Like Darwin, Fowler was no friend to religion (he left teaching permanently when he realized he could not in good conscience prepare boys for confirmation in the Anglican Church). It is not for nothing that he uses the categories SUPERSTITIONS and FETISHES to rebuke both irrational and rationalized rules, such as the injunction against the split infinitive, a fetishization of Latin grammar. But it may be that another, milder idea of transcendence took its place, in which monuments to knowledge and education were bulwarks against the loss of human relationships.

The loss of Fowler from Fowler’s, with the 1996 third edition, caused an outcry. It was edited by the venerable Robert Burchfield, who owned up to the wholesale revision of the classic into a thoroughly modern—and descriptivist—user’s guide. (Fowler’s second edition had been lightly revised in 1965 by Sir Ernest Gowers.) Hence the reissue of the original, with an introduction and notes by the pop linguist David Crystal, honorary professor of linguistics at the University of Bangor. The notes comment mainly on the difference between then and now. (And sometimes, the likeness: we women still object to “authoress,” which Fowler made an impassioned plea for.) Yet in his introduction, where he tries to pin down the source of Fowler’s mysterious authority, he admits: “I have to confess that I remain puzzled by Fowler.” The combination of prescriptiveness and leniency, which had been key to Fowler’s broad success, is paradoxical. People bought the book, Crystal acknowledges, but “the difficulty of using his book in a principled and systematic way led to his influence on subsequent usage and attitudes being very mixed.” That would have to be true of any prescriptivist text. Who among us does not split the difference between usage rules and the vernacular?

I can’t help wondering what Fowler would have thought of Crystal’s own most recent book, Txtng: The Gr8 Db8 (Oxford; $19.95). It is, first of all, a plea for calm after such hysterical headlines as “Texting fogs your brain like cannabis” and “Texting replaces speech for communication among teenagers.” Was texting the end of literacy as we knew it? Will the intrusion of rebuses into print text spur the next gr8 db8 among grammarians? Henceforth, would we be able to hold a thought over 160 characters? “If there are issues here, they are for sociology and psychology to explore, not linguistics,” Crystal declares. “The problem for linguists will be how to keep up with the technology.” This is the descriptivist position par excellence: linguist as ringside seat holder at the great arena as language evolves before our eyes.

The position has one distinct advantage—it takes a broader view of “linguistic appropriateness” than the prescriptivist usage maven does. The multiplicity of registers is one of the great pleasures of language, and Crystal is obviously sensitive to that pleasure when he quotes the poems that have won texting contests:

txtin iz messin,
mi headn’me englis,
try2rite essays,
they all come out txtis.
gran not plsed w/letters shes getn,
swears i wrote better
b4 comin2uni.
&she’s african

Here’s another:

Sun on maisonette windows
sends speed-camera flashes tinting through tram cables
startling drivers
dragging rain-waterfalls in their wheels
I drive on

These poems, whether William Carlos Williamsesque aquarelles or haiku-raps, are Exhibit A for Crystal’s argument that texting is just another means of ludic play, which enhances rather than detracts from intelligence.

So what would Fowler think of this unmellowed new species, texting? Communication, not ludic play, was his aim; he balked at novelty as much as cliche, but he regarded English as a social integument and not a fixed essence. He would probably have appreciated rebuses but shunned those new battered ornaments, abbreviations like IMHO. In any case I feel sure he would have omitted the H.

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