The Assassination of Henry Fowler
n 1909, a year after the publication of the popular second edition
of The King's
English, the classic reference work of H.W. and F.G. Fowler, the
first author wrote to his publisher with a proposal for a sequel:
by the Coward Robert Burchfield
Another scheme that has attractions is that of an idiom dictionary—
that is, one that would give only such words as are in sufficiently
general use to have acquired numerous senses or constructions and
consequently to be liable to misuse ....
A century later, Fowler's monumental
Dictionary of Modern English
Usage (MEU, 1926) remains the standard by which all
works of its genre are judged.
MEU was not the first systematic treatment of errors in English
usage. Half a century earlier, Dean Henry Alford's manual of usage
and idiom, The
Queen's English (1864), exposed (some would say
exemplified) the decadence of popular usage in his time. Of
particular concern to Alford was "the deterioration which our Queen's
English has undergone at the hands of the Americans." But it was the
American Alfred Ayres who produced the first alphabetized usage
Verbalist (1882), bearing the subtitle "A Manual Devoted to
Brief Discussions of the Right and Wrong Use of Words and to Some
Other Matters of Interest to Those Who Would Speak and Write with
Propriety". Another American, Ambrose Bierce, was the author of Write it Right: A
Handbook of Literary Faults (1909), his purpose being "to
teach precision in writing", which, he held, "is attained by choice of
the word that accurately and adequately expresses what the author has
in mind, and by exclusion of that which either denotes or connotes
something else." In contrast to Fowler's reflection on the "numerous
senses" of words, Bierce took a parochial view of proper usage:
Few words have more than one literal and serviceable meaning, however
many metaphorical, derivative, related, or even unrelated, meanings
lexicographers may think it worth while to gather from all sorts and
conditions of men with which to bloat their absurd and misleading
But it was not Fowler's judgments regarding correct usage that set him
apart from the field as much as the process by which they were derived
and the style in which they are presented. He repudiated the
arbitrary grammatical proscriptions that prevailed in his
time—split infinitive, preposition at end, conjunction at
beginning, etc.—and replaced them with reasoned analysis and
sound judgment, delivered with passion, humor, and, as he promised in
his letter to Oxford Press, "a cheerful attitude of infallibility".
His approach to the subject is marked by an insistence on clarity and
vigor and a rejection of pleonasms, clichés, and "barbarisms".
Instead of merely passing judgment, Fowler teaches his reader how to
think about words, instilling a sense of when to enforce logic and
when to respect idiom. Nevertheless, because he refused to be
intimidated either by the trends of the masses or by the dubious
practices of respected writers, he is regarded by today's descriptive
linguists as an intemperate prescriptivist.
The remarkable popularity of MEU invited a plethora of imitations.
Fowler's most prominent British successor was the New
Zealand-born lexicographer Eric Partridge, better known for his works
on etymology and slang, whose Usage
and Abusage (1942) includes
numerous references acknowledging Fowler's precedence.
The mid twentieth century saw a proliferation of manuals that were tailored
to account for American variations in usage, most of them reflecting the
growing influence of structural linguistics.
In their Dictionary of
Contemporary American Usage (1957), Bergen and Cornelia Evans
espoused the view that owing to the continual transformation of
language, "no one can say how a word `ought' to be used. The best
that anyone can do is to say how it is being used, and this is
what a grammar should tell us." Margaret Bryant, in her Current American
Usage, (1962) endeavored to describe "standard English", which
she defined to include any expression that is "used by many cultivated
people to communicate in speech or in writing."
Theodore Bernstein, an editor of The New York Times, took a
more critical approach in The Careful Writer: A
Modern Guide to English Usage (1965). Bernstein was
interested in "what makes for clarity, precision, and logical
presentation" and did not hesitate to impose his own
predilections. "And why not?" he asked. "If reputable writers are
entitled to personal preferences and the whims of the multitude are
often heeded, why should I be left out? After all, it's my book."
But the true spiritual heir to Fowler among American commentators was
Wilson Follett, whose unfinished work, Modern American
Usage (1966), was edited and completed three years after his
death by Jacques Barzun. Like his predecessor, Follett was an
unapologetic champion of the best in English usage. He denounced
illogicality, wordiness, and "journalese" (as marked by "the tone of
contrived excitement"), along with pedantry and purism ("The
difference between purity and purism is as difficult to define as that
between modesty and prudery"), and defended the purity of the language
against the gathering storm of descriptivism. Follett may also be
remembered for his eloquent
condemnation of Webster's Third
Edition, Ambrose Bierce's nightmare come true.
The abundance of usage manuals to appear during the last half century
have been fairly balanced overall. On the descriptive side, perhaps
the best of its kind is Merriam-Webster's
Dictionary of English Usage, edited by E. Ward Gilman, who
conscientiously reports the prohibitions of various discerning
authorities, only to reject them all in favor of a more permissive
approach. Paul Lovinger's Penguin Dictionary of
American English Usage and Style may be the boldest of the
contemporary prescriptive guides but lacks the illuminating pedagogy
of Fowler and Follett. The most popular of today's manuals is Bryan
of Modern American Usage, which shows ample respect for the
Fowlerian tradition but concedes a good deal of ground to the trends
of popular usage.
Among the many contributors to this literature, of particular interest to
us here are those who have found it less convenient to write
books of their own than to rearrange the words of an established
authority, with the ostensible purpose of rendering a classic more
accessible to a contemporary audience. Both Partridge and Follett have fallen
prey to this practice, but only Fowler has been targeted more than
once. It may be argued that there are instances in which this sort of
grave robbing is of some benefit to the public, but certainly the
editor assumes a strict responsibility to grasp and preserve the
essential character and thesis of the original work. The following
sections will focus on three of Fowler's revisors whose adherence to
this principle degenerated
from each to the
next: Margaret Nicholson, Ernest Gowers, and Robert Burchfield.
argaret Nicholson was a publishing manager of
Oxford Press whose best known original work was A Manual of
Copyright Practice for Writers, Publishers, and Agents (1945).
In 1957, she edited A Dictionary of
American-English Usage, an adaptation of MEU to a
different time and place:
New words and idioms have come into the language since Modern English
Usage; there are peculiarities of American speech and writing not
recorded by Fowler; and many of us today, English and American, have neither
the time nor the scholarship to follow through the fascinating but sometimes
exasperating labyrinth of Greek and Latin parallels and Fowler's Socratic
method of teaching by wrong examples. American-English Usage is
an adaptation of MEU, not a replacement. AEU is a simplified
MEU, with American variations, retaining as much of the original
as space allowed.
For the most part, this is an accurate summary. Among the deleted
entries are Academy (a list of the chief schools of Greek
philosophy and their founders); gag, guillotine, and
kangaroo (terms pertaining to the closure of a debate in the
House of Commons); fivepenny (similarly of incidental interest
to the American reader); common, epicene, neuter (as
distinguishable terms of grammar); and pacif(ic)ist (Fowler
prefers the longer variant).
The additions include acronym, white-collar,
television, and surrealism (all of which came into vogue after
Fowler's time); filibuster (a distinctly American practice);
Thanksgiving (in formal speech, we are told, it must be
followed by "Day"); alibi (as slang for excuse);
aid(e) ("aide for aid now common in US"); pinch hitter
(and the subtleties of its metaphorical use); propellant,
propellent (the first is an American invention); raccoon,
racoon (American and British spellings, respectively); slosh
(intransitive in US, transitive in Britain); and uglify
("sounds like a recent arrival, but it dates back, in good usage, to
the 17th c.").
The revised entries also generally reflect either American variations
or evolving usages. Nicholson allows agenda as a singular;
Fowler insists on agendum. Of accompanist and
accompanyist, he likes neither and wishes for
accompanier; she simply observes that the former is more common
in the U.S. She retains his observation that greyhound is
etymologically independent from grey and adds an injunction
against the Americanism grayhound. He denounces normalcy
as a "spurious hybrid" with nothing to recommend it; she reports that it
was popularized by Harding but short-lived as a vogue term.
Oddly, Nicholson agrees with Fowler's assessment that single
quotation marks are to be preferred to double, with the latter
reserved for nested quotations, but notes that "Most US publishers
prefer the double." She supports his campaign to resurrect the
adverbial use of owing to in favor of due to and adds
that "in US the infringement [of the latter] is now so general as to
be accepted by many as standard usage." On the other hand, she does
not share much of his concern for shall & will, should &
would—Fowler's classic three-page essay on the subject is
replaced by two paragraphs, the first taken from Gowers's
Plain Words and the second a summary of American practice, with a
reference to KE for a more complete exposition.
Nicholson assures us of her commitment to preserve not only the essential
content of the first edition, but the author's personality as well:
Fowler's own manners and pedantries---and I'm sure he would have been the
last to deny them---have been left untouched. There was a temptation
sometimes to soften the sting of `illiterate,' `journalese,' `lady novelists,'
`uneducated writers'; perhaps Fowler himself would have tempered some of them
had he revised his book, but only Fowler could decide that. They have been left
as he wrote them.
Here Nicholson trusts her readers not to consult the original work.
Fowler's 1926 entry on aggravate and aggravation begins,
"The use of these in the sense annoy, vex,
annoyance, vexation, should be left to the uneducated.
It is for the most part a feminine or childish colloquialism, but
intrudes occasionally into the news papers." In Nicholson's revised
version, in spite of her promise, the usage is merely deemed "for the
most part colloquial". Similarly, when Fowler tells us that the word
clever "is much misused, especially in feminine conversation,
where it is constantly heard in the sense of learned, well read,
bookish, or studious", Nicholson slyly deletes the qualifying phrase.
When he observes in his discussion of the misuse of like for
as that "Every illiterate person uses this discussion daily",
or of the blunder of irrevalent that it is "not difficult, with
a little fishing, to extract it from the ladies", she simply removes
the observation. Under the heading ITALICS, she
grits her teeth through the description of those to whom "it comes as
natural to italicize every tenth sentence or so as it comes to the
letter-writing schoolgirl to underline whatever she enjoys recording."
But the next sentence defeats her patience and is discarded in
the transcription: "These mosaics have on discreet readers exactly the
repellent effect that interjections had on Landor: `I read warily; &
whenever I find the writings of a lady, the first thing I do is to
cast my eyes along her pages to see whether I am likely to be annoyed
by the traps & spring-guns of interjections, & if I happen to espy
them I do not leap the paling'."
There is no denying that Fowler was prone to sexism, and at times intolerant
of the educationally deprived—some of the missing lines are
to all fair-minded people—but as his editor has told us, they are Fowler's
words and his alone to change. Our main complaint, however, is
against her misrepresentation of her own agenda, which is puzzling, since
those of us who tend to attach importance to the integrity of an author would
be unlikely to buy her edition anyway.
On the other hand, Nicholson was generally true to her word in
preserving "Fowler's own manners and pedantries", as well as his more
relevant opinions and basic approach to the subject. Regrettably, the same
cannot always be said of her successors.
rnest Gowers was the author of
Plain Words (1948) and
The ABC of Plain Words (1951),
which were later combined and published as
The Complete Plain Words.
Both are concerned with "the choice
and arrangement of words in such a way as to get an idea as exactly as
possible out of one mind into another."
However, both were written at the invitation of H.M. Treasury for the
specific purpose of developing a set of guidelines to simplify the writing
of government officials. Recognizing the broader appeal of Fowler's
approach as well as the market value of his name, Gowers later
agreed to serve as the editor of a second edition of MEU for
Oxford's choice of editor might be questioned in light of some
of the remarks found in his Presidential Address to The English
Association, delivered several years earlier, on the subject of
H.W. Fowler: The Man and his Teaching. In particular, the
observation that "He does indeed attach an importance which most
people today would think excessive to a scholarly exactitude in the
formation of new words", though not strictly inaccurate, misses the point that
it is for precisely this reason that such discipline is more needed
now than in Fowler's own time. Even more disturbing is the assessment
on the fused participle: "if I had been the referee in that contest
I would have awarded Jespersen a win on points."
Any points tallied in that exchange by Jespersen, who
characterized his opponent as an "instinctive grammatical
moralizer", were earned either by blatantly misquoting Fowler's original treatise
on the subject and cleverly ridiculing the result, or by adding to the endless list of otherwise
respectable authors in whose writing the construction may be found.
There are, of course, many who are compelled by evidence of the latter sort, none of
whom is to be entrusted with preserving the Fowlerian tradition.
Nonetheless, like Nicholson, Gowers acknowledges his responsibility to
I have been chary of making any substantial alterations except for the
purpose of bringing him up to date; I have done so in a few places
where his exposition is exceptionally tortuous, and it is clear that
his point could be put more simply without any sacrifice of
Bringing Fowler up to date requires a number of new
entries—I.Q., cold war, teenage(r),
doubletalk, publicize, etc.—as well as deletions
and modifications of old ones. Those uses of the phrase all the
time that Fowler once classified as slang are now accepted as
standard. His woefully confused discussion of molecule, atom,
electron, corpuscle is nearly salvaged in the second edition. The once innocent
designation Chinaman, Gowers warns, "has acquired a derogatory
flavor and is falling into disuse". The revised entry on
pacif(ic)ist still supports Fowler's judgment that "The longer
form is better etymologically," but concedes that "euphony favours the
shorter and probably accounts for its having prevailed."
Unlike Nicholson, Gowers is still addressing a primarily British
audience. He is moved, however, to account for the "American
linguistic infiltration" in a new entry on "Americanisms", in which
he lists additions to the popular vocabulary as well as more
subtle influences on grammar and idiom, such as "the obliteration of
the distinction between SHALL and WILL that the few who understand it used to consider
the hall-mark of mastery of the niceties of English idiom"; "the
effects of HEAD-LINE LANGUAGE, especially as an
eater-up of prepositions (world food production for
production of food in the world)"; "the victory of aim to
do over aim at doing; and "the progress made by DUE TO towards the status of a preposition and of LIKE towards that of a conjunction".
One interesting entry introduced in the second edition is a discussion
of gambit, a term of chess that worked its way into popular
usage over the first half of the twentieth century. Gowers's
observation is that the word should be reserved for reference to "the
first move, especially with an implication of cunning, in any contest
or negotiation", and that any broader use is an example of "that SLIPSHOD EXTENSION that almost always goes with POPULARIZED TECHNICALITIES." The Webster's New
International sequence is helpful in tracking this
development. The first
edition (1909) gives only the technical definition, "A chess
opening in which the first player gives up a pawn or a piece, or
several successively, for the sake of an advantage in position". The
second (1934) adds
"Hence, a concession to invite discussion." Not until the
third (1961) do we
find evidence of the deprecated usage: "a calculated move, maneuver,
Clearly, Fowler was not positioned to comment on the
extension, but if he had been, he surely would have objected to
Gowers's definition as a slipshod extension in its own right, and
insisted that the term be reserved to describe a concession offered at
the opening of a negotiation with the expectation of recoupment.
Of greater concern is the rewriting of various existing entries. In
his efforts to bring Fowler "up to date", Gowers is often too eager to
accept defeat on his behalf. Fowler's observation that the adjective
phenomenal applies to "everything that is reported to the mind
by sight, hearing, taste, smell, or touch" remains intact, as does his
conclusion, "To divert it from this proper use to a job for which it
is not needed, by making it do duty for remarkable,
extraordinary, or prodigious, is a sin against the
English language", except that Gowers changes the tense and throws in
the towel: "To divert it from this proper use ... was a sin against
the English language, but the consequences seem now to be
irredeemable; this meaning is recognized without comment by most
Where Fowler insists that agenda is the plural of
agendum and that the latter be used whenever a singular is
required, the revision reads, "Although agenda is a plural
word, it is pedantry to object to the common and convenient practice
of ... treating it as a singular one." Furthermore, says Gowers, the
phrase one item of the agenda, which he admits is "rather
cumbrous", is still preferable to agendum, which is in itself
Regarding the spelling of blonde, Fowler advises that "The -e
should be dropped", especially when the word is used as an adjective,
noting the inconsistency of preserving the French inflection with
respect to gender but not number: "the doubt between blond women and
blonde women (with blondes women in the background) at once shows its
abdurdity." Here Gowers drops the objection without explanation. If
he is unsure where Fowler would stand on this matter a generation
later, he might look to his own contemporary and Fowler's kindred
sprit Wilson Follett, who also rejects blonde as an adjective.
Apparently, one of the places where Fowler's exposition has been judged
to be "exceptionally tortuous" is his delightful article on "feminine
This article is intended as a counter-protest. The authoress, poetess,
& paintress, & sometimes the patroness & the inspectress, take exception
to the indication of sex in these designations. They regard the distinction
as derogatory to them and as implying inequality between the sexes; an
author is an author, that is all that concerns any reader, & it is
impertinent curiosity to want to know whether the author is male or female.
Fowler goes on to argue that such objections are actually counter to
the higher interests of women, insisting that "the proof of real
equality will be not the banishment of authoress as a degrading
title, but its establishment on a level with author." However
unlikely it may be that today's feminist would be swayed by this piece
of Fowlerian logic, it is nonetheless a shame that it could not have
been spared the blue pencil of Ernest Gowers, who seems to have valued
political correctness above clear thinking. The entire discourse has
been replaced with a long and pointless discussion of the various ways
in which occupational and agent nouns are inflected to indicate the
female sex, and a listing of those feminine forms that are in common
use and those that are not. The politic conclusion is that "Feminine
designations seem now to be falling into disuse", a result that
"symbolizes the victory of women in their struggle for equal rights".
It is hard to imagine that even in Gowers's view, Fowler's original point
has merely been "put more simply without any sacrifice of Fowleresque
These ladies neither are nor pretend to be making
their objections in the interests of the language or of people in
general; they object in their own interests only; this they are
entitled to do, but still it is lower ground, & general convenience &
the needs of the King's English, if these are against them, must be
reckoned of more importance than their sectional claims. Are these
against them? Undoubtedly. First, any word that does the work of two
or more packing several notions into one is a gain (the more civilized
a language the more such words it contains) ....
Secondly, with the coming extension of women's
vocations, feminines for vocation-words are a special need of the
future; everyone knows the inconvenience of being uncertain of whether
a doctor is a man or a woman; hesitation in establishing the word
doctress is amazing in a people regarded as nothing if not
A more subtle example of the distortion of such flavor is found in the
entry on STURDY INDEFENSIBLES. This is, of
course, quintessential Fowler: one of those quaintly titled and
inimitably crafted essays on English idiom. But what does Fowler mean
by the phrase? The answer given will depend on whether one has read
the original Fowler or fallen into the trap of taking the more readily
available second edition as the genuine article.
The opening sentence of the edited version should raise a flag.
Many idioms are seen, if they are tested by grammar or logic, not to
say what they are nevertheless well understood to mean.
Is the reader supposed to be utterly unfamiliar with the nature of
idiom? Is the sentence simply free of content? Could this really
be Fowler? We compare it with the original:
Many idioms are seen, if they are tested by grammar or logic, to
express badly, or sometimes to express the reverse of, what they are
nevertheless well understood to mean.
So we are not addressing idioms in general, but rather a certain class
of bad ones in particular. Moreover, a stand is being taken.
The revised edition continues:
Fastidious people point out the sin, and easy-going people, who are
more numerous, take little notice and go on committing it; then the
fastidious people, if they are foolish, get excited and talk of
ignorance and solecisms, and are laughed at as pedants; or if they are
wise, say no more about it and wait.
Here Gowers takes a stand of his own. In view of the sharp connotation
of excess conveyed by "fastidious", it is clear that "sin" is being
used with irony and that the author counts himself among the sensible
silent majority. But for Fowler, the division is even clearer:
Good people point out the sin, & bad people, who are more numerous,
take little notice & go on committing it; then the good people, if
they are foolish, get excited & talk of ignorance & solecisms, & are
laughed at as purists; or if they are wise, say no more about it &
Note as well that with the replacement of three words, Gowers and his
easy-going comrades are merely ridiculing the pedants for their
pedantry, whereas for Fowler, they are degrading the purity of the
And what is it that the pedants are being asked to wait for?
The indefensibles, however sturdy, may prove to be not immortal, and
anyway there are much more profitable ways of spending time than
Perhaps there does arise an occasional idiom that is unworthy of use;
if so, it is likely to die a natural death.
But Fowler has a very different story: there is no place in our
language for any one of the constructions under discussion; they are
doomed by their very nature:
The indefensibles, however sturdy they may be, prove one after another
to be not immortal. There was a time when no-one was more ashamed
to say `you was there' than most of us are now to say `it's me'; `you
was' is dead; `it's me' has a long life before it yet; it too will die,
& there are much more profitable ways of spending time than baiting it.
By today's standards, an extreme position is represented here: the
common expression it's me, and others listed later in the
article—that long nose of his, It should not be taken
too literally, It is no use complaining, Were ever finer
lines perverted to a meaner use?, etc.—are no less
objectionable than you was there and will not be tolerated.
The later version is not open to this interpretation.
Gowers, then, has gone a step further than Nicholson. The only
modifications in her edition that exceed her stated objectives are the
deletion of truly offensive passages, which, as one would like to
think, Fowler may indeed have removed himself if given the chance.
Gowers, on the other hand, in violation of his acknowledged
responsibility, elected to revise positions that were merely
unpopular—a deficiency that was clearly of no concern to the
original author—or simply at odds with his own inclinations.
Although his edition is generally regarded as a light revision
with no sacrifice of substance, a careful reading leads to a different
side from its puzzling title, the first thing one notices about The New Fowler's Modern
English Usage, Third Edition, is its sheer bulk in comparison
to the first or second, as measured by the number and dimensions of its
pages. A cursory inspection of any of those pages leads to the next
inescapable observation: Oxford University Press could not have hoped
to find a more suitable candidate for its editor than Robert
Burchfield, if we assume that their objectives were to dishonor the
legacy of H.W. Fowler and to offend all who still care about the
subject of inquiry.
Burchfield was a lexicographer of the new age, best known as editor of
the four-volume Supplement
to the Oxford English Dictionary, an effort that spanned three
decades. He was also a scholar of English etymology and linguistic
history and the author of several books:
The Spoken Word (1980),
The English Language (1985),
Studies in Lexicography (1987),
Unlocking the English
Language (1991), and the fifth volume of the
of the English Language (1994). Burchfield's approach to the
study of language was decidedly descriptive, marked by a commitment
to accommodate all dialects and "varieties" of English, past and
present. He was, in short, Fowler's natural enemy.
In his introduction, Burchfield has no need to conceal his contempt
for his predecessor:
The mystery remains: why has this schoolmasterly, quixotic,
idiosyncratic, and somewhat vulnerable book, in a form only lightly
revised once, in 1965, by Ernest Gowers, retained its hold on the
imagination of all but professional linguistic scholars for just on
The question is not meant to lead—he really has no clue to its
answer—but rather to set the stage for the plundering to follow.
The reader who is hoodwinked by the subtitle "The acknowledged
authority on English Usage" and expects to find another updated facsimile
of the original classic will be sorely disappointed—"The New
Fowler" is no relation to the old.
A fundamental difference between the two lies in their treatment
of empirical data: the same ill-formed constructions that Fowler uses
as illustrations of his proscriptions are offered by Burchfield as
evidence of their acceptability.
From the outset it was obvious to me that a standard work on English
usage needed to be based on satisfactory modern evidence and that a
great deal of this evidence could be obtained and classified by
The condescension spirals downward. Fowler wrote, he notes, "before the
advent of new electronic technology made it possible to scrutinize
standard varieties of English in many countries throughout the world
with minute thoroughness." He allows that there are still more
antiquated works on the subject than MEU, "But it is a fossil
all the same, and an enduring monument to all that was linguistically
acceptable in the standard English of the southern counties of England
in the first quarter of the twentieth century."
Burchfield is puzzled by Fowler's need to enliven his scholarship with
"a veneer of idiosyncrasy and humour". His "unexpected, even opaque,
titles to articles" and "amusing headwords ... have endeared the book
to Fowler's devotees, but no longer have their interest or appeal and
are not preserved in this new edition." Thus, we find no trace of
STURDY INDEFENSIBLES, ELEGANT
VARIATION, UNEQUAL YOKEFELLOWS, PAIRS AND SNARES, SLIPSHOD
EXTENSION, or PRESUMPTUOUS WORD-FORMATION.
The classic essay on FUSED PARTICIPLES is
replaced by a discussion of "possessive with gerund", the point of
which seems to be that one is free to take it or leave it, and that
sentences such as this are unobjectionable: "There can be no question
of you disturbing the clerks."
In fact, Burchfield overrules most of Fowler's proscriptions on
the basis of their prevalence. For example, he dismisses the conservative
position on singular they, noting that "The evidence presented
in the OED points in another direction altogether." He defends a
child of ten years old against Fowler's attack on grounds that
double genitives are in common use, failing to notice that this
construction contains not even a single genitive. The use of
like as a conjunction, he asserts, "is common in all
English-speaking countries, and must surely escape further censure or
Burchfield's peremptory descriptivism is marred by a streak of elitism
that must give pause to his colleague, the "professional linguistics scholar". Oddly,
he still has a concept of "poorly educated people", who, for example,
use of in place of have. Regarding the construction
between you and I, he tells us, "Anyone who uses it now lives
in a grammarless cavern in which no distinction is recognized between
a grammatical object and a subject." So much for "the evidence".
The common misuse of fulsome is dismissed as an American
vulgarity, and we are advised to "restrict the word to its 1663 meaning"
of offensive to good taste by being excessively flattering, for
no reason but that this was the first recorded usage.
Burchfield has retained a few of Fowler's original entries (see, for
example, soluble, solvable; repa(i)rable; and
repellent, repulsive) but most of the text has been entirely
rewritten. In some cases, the motivation for the revision is elusive.
Consider Fowler's discussion of intelligent and
While an intelligent person is merely one who is not stupid or
slow-witted, an intellectual person is one in whom the part played by
the mind as distinguished from the emotions & perceptions is greater
than in the average man. An intellectual person who was not
intelligent would be, though not impossible, a rarity; but an
intelligent person who was not intellectual we most of us flatter
ourselves that we can find in the looking-glass. Intelligent
is usually a patronizing epithet, while intellectual is a
respectful one, but seldom untinged by suspicion or dislike.
This paragraph of 94 words is replaced by another of 218 and
considerably less content of interest. First, Burchfield finds some
advantage in replacing Fowler's pithy characterization of intelligence
with his own, "quick of mind; clever, brainy", and then drones on with
a series of pointless examples: "The range of ability covered by the
word intelligent is considerable, [including] that of a child
seeming to have acquired skills ahead of the normal time .... Wayward
people in the dock are often described by prosecuting counsels as
intelligent but ... . A dog that performs a particular act,
e.g. fetches a thrown stick, may be characterized as
intelligent." As for intellectuals, he doesn't like them
Intelligent people are
dispersed through the nation. They are hardly ever hamfisted or
impractical; they are simply too busy protecting society from anarchy
to claim immunity from the acquisition of ordinary skills.
Intellectuals are a distinguished but impermanent minority;
they normally speak like archangels, or philosophers, or political
scientists, usually in several languages, and have original views
about the arts and about the diverse ways of mankind, but usually
cannot cut a slice of bread straight or drive a car. Their
reputations, like their opinions, come and go.
The original entry is undoubtedly an example of a "schoolmasterly, quixotic,
idiosyncratic, and somewhat vulnerable" treatment in need of revision
by a sophisticated editor. One wonders what adjectives Burchfield
might use to describe his own replacement.
Naturally, many of the usage issues addressed by "The New Fowler" were
unknown to his ascendant. Among these is the abuse of
hopefully, which was reported independently by Follett and
Bernstein in the 1960s. Burchfield's much anticipated treatment of the topic
appeals to the innovative notion of sentence adverb:
... certain adverbs in -ly have acquired the ability
to qualify a predication or assertion as a whole.
That is, certain adverbs have begun to appear regularly in contexts in
which they cannot reasonably be said to qualify any words in
particular. Rather than to admit that they are misplaced,
one might prefer to say that they qualify the entire sentences in
which they occur, in some unspecified way.
Such adverbs are all elliptical uses of somewhat longer phrases.
As a term of grammar, ellipsis has a specific and well
established meaning, as reported even by the latitudinarian
Webster's Third: "omission of one or more words that are obviously
understood but must be supplied to make a construction grammatically
complete (as in 'all had turned out as expected' for 'all had turned
out as had been expected')." And what is the somewhat longer phrase
of which hopefully is an ellipsis? Burchfield gives us a choice
"It is hoped [that], let us hope".
What we have, then, is nothing like an elliptis: not only are the
omitted words not obviously understood, but the remaining
representative word does not even occur in the phrase that is being
With no apparent purpose but to demonstrate the depth of his
confusion, Burchfield goes on to present two perfectly legitimate and
traditional instances of adverbs as verb modifiers, claiming them as
examples of this notion of elliptical sentence adverbs:
The investigators, who must regretfully remain anonymous.
Agreeably, he asked me my name and where I lived.
Here, in fact, he astutely observes that agreeably
means "in a manner that was agreeable to me", leaving one wondering
how he could possibly fail to recognize its attachment to the verb
Another issue that was unknown to Fowler is the abuse of the mathematical
term parameter, which Burchfield characterizes as follows:
A mathematical term of some complexity which, in the course of the
20c., has become perceived by the general public as having the broad
meaning 'a constant element or factor, especially serving as a limit
or boundary'. This meaning is still at the controversial stage ....
The implication that we shall eventually be forced to accept this
usage simply because there exist numskulls who are unable to
distinguish between parameter and perimeter is
foreboding. But it seems that the true definitions are irrelevant to
the present discussion:
The mathematical and computer science uses are too technical to define
and illustrate here ....
For the skeptical reader who wonders whether Burchfield has any idea
of the meaning of the word, all doubt is finally removed:
Anyone feeling uneasy about parameter has a wide choice of
near-synonyms to choose from border, boundary,
criterion, factor, limit, scope, etc;
one or other of these is normally more suitable in context.
(Apologies to the mathematically uninformed.)
It must be acknowledged that Burchfield, like a broken clock, is
occasionally accurate in his observations. As a veteran
lexicographer, one of his strengths is a deep knowledge of etymology,
as revealed in his articles on "etymology" (a classification of
words according to the accessibility of their origins), "folk
etymology" (e.g., hiccough and welsh rarebit as
misguided "etymologizing alterations" of the original hiccup
and rabbit), "back formations" (televise, edit,
reminisce, donate, etc.), "facetious formations"
(correctitude, contraption, bonus, bogus,
etc.), and "true and false etymology" (catgut, crayfish,
curtail, and pencil, it seems, are unrelated to
cat, fish, tail, and pen). Other entries
discuss the origins of individual words, e.g., transpire (which
arrived at its modern meaning by way of "to escape by evaporation")
and witticism ("an ingenious hybrid formation coined by Dryden
But as a guide to usage, The New Fowler's is a poor substitute
for the original compendium of insightful analysis, nice distinctions, and
prescriptions grounded in logic, analogy, and principles of grammar.
Burchfield has succeeded only in replacing all of this with nonsensical
blather, belaboring of the obvious, and condonation of ungrammatical
constructions supported by mindless observations about prevailing
est there be some concern that the foregoing
commentary may be unduly harsh, it must be understood that the act of revising
the considered words of a deceased author in such a way that his
intent is knowingly misrepresented is an offense that cannot go
While Margaret Nicholson may be acquitted of this particular crime,
the same is not true of Ernest Gowers, whose name was omitted from the
title of this saga mainly in the interest of preserving the cadence
of that of Ron Hansen's historical novel. Although he respected and conformed to Fowler's
general approach, Gowers also significantly altered the substance of his
conclusions, with such subtlety and deftness that the unsuspecting
reader is readily deceived.
Of course, Robert Burchfield, who combined arrogance with incompetence, was
the worst of the lot. It is worth noting, however, that if he had
simply chosen a different title, he would be answering only to the
reduced charges of incidental plagiarism and having written a wretched
book. But then, that book would not have sold nearly as well.
Oxford University Press, which retains the copyright to MEU,
must hold some responsibility for—if not interest in—its
preservation. Although this premise has not generally been born out
by Oxford's practice, its latest offering is a welcome deviation: a
photographic reproduction of the
original, "edited" by David Crystal. An academic linguist known for
promoting non-standard varieties of English, Crystal is an unlikely
candidate for this assignment, but his contribution—a topic for
another discussion—is felicitously confined to a separate
A final word in defense of our own title is in order, in consideration
of a relevant observation offered by Fowler himself:
coward(ly). The identification of coward & bully has gone
so far in the popular consciousness that persons & acts in which
no trace of fear is to be found are often called coward(ly)
merely because advantage has been taken of superior strength or
position; such action may be unchivalrous, unsportsmanlike, mean,
tyrannical, & many other bad things, but not cowardly; cf. the
similar misuse of DASTARDLY.
Our use of the word may be subject to this censure under the view that
Burchfield and his kind have merely taken advantage of having
out-lived their unwitting coauthors. But the act of violating the
integrity of a defenseless author and using his name to market the
result for personal financial gain, while dodging the liability of
having one's work judged on its own merit, is no less cowardly than
that of the outlaw Robert Ford, who shot his victim in the back of the
head and made a living posing for photographs as "the man who shot