Modern English : Fowler’s version and more

Fowler’s Modern English Usage

well-thumbed old book, open

Image by Anja from Pixabay

When I was a child, one of my mother’s friends gave me a copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage. It was a very special present and pretty battered. She bought it when she was working at the BBC during the War.

Clearly it had seen a lot of use. She worked with a bunch of engineers who were always asking her about grammar whenever they had to put anything in writing.

She gave it to me after she’d asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up.

I had said, loftily, that I was already doing it. (I was eight or nine. Violet Elizabeth could have taken my correspondence course.) The answer, of course, was, “Tell stories.”

To her great credit, she didn’t hoot with laughter. Instead, she disappeared into her study and returned with the well-thumbed object under reference.

“You’ll be needing this,” she said.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage?

electronic benefitsWell, it was Modern when he wrote it. He seems to have started it in 1911. War interrupted. He lied about his age (he was fifty-six) and volunteered, until invalided out in 1916. The book was eventually  published by the Oxford University Press in 1926.

Pretty soon Fowler’s was a best seller.

From then on, every secretary worth his or her salt would have a copy on, or at least in a drawer in, her desk.

My mother, a very professional (and highly paid) secretary would take shorthand dictation from her boss. Then she could correct his grammar and occasionally phraseology at the same time as she typed it out.

Mostly the bosses didn’t notice, I gather.

H W Fowler

extended shadow on the ground of a person in academic gown and mortar board

Image by Cindy Parks from Pixabay

Until he was 40, Henry Watson Fowler was basically a Victorian schoolmaster. The Times later called him “a lexicographical genius”. But he was absolutely grounded in the life of Victorian boys’ schools.

He went to Rugby at 13, after some time in a German boarding school. He won prizes for Latin and Greek and continued to study both ancient languages at Balliol College, Oxford.

Then he taught at Fettes College, for two terms, before moving to a permanent job as a master at Sedburgh. There he taught Latin, Greek and English for 20 years.

And then he broke out! He left Sedburgh at the end of the summer term in 1899, aged 41, and moved into London.

terrace of white neoclassical houses in London

Image by Darin McLeod from Pixabay

Specifically, he moved into 14 Paultons Square, Chelsea, at the further end of the King’s Road from Sloane Square. The square is constituted of two rows of terraces and a further road along the top. They stand round three sides of a pretty, central garden full of trees. From the King’s Road it almost looks like a small wood.

Fowler’s career as a writer

HW wrote about “its plants, its Cockney inhabitants, and its magical night scenes” in an article for Lady Randolph Churchill’s quarterly magazine The Anglo-Saxon Review.

However delightful the square, it was definitely a bit of a comedown for the well-respected public school master.  [Comedown, informal, meaning 1: a loss of status or importance, from the phrase “to come down in the world”.]

Fowler's blue plaqueBut by now HW was aiming to make his living as a freelance writer and journalist. His career had taken him as far as he could go in a public school. Further advancement would require him to prepare his pupils for confirmation in the Church of England. HW, a long-term convinced atheist, could not in conscience do so.

So, with only his hope of literary earnings and a small legacy from his father to keep the wolf from the door, he closed his eyes and jumped. I take my hat off to him.

I’m really glad to say that, by the time my mother and her friends were relying on him daily, they all called him The Blessed Fowler. Strictly non-denominationally of course. And English Heritage have put up a blue plaque to him in Paultons Square!

Even More Modern English

Fowler's Modern English Usage coverThe Blessed Fowler has been so successful, indeed, that his book has never been out of print. Successor generations, of course, have had at go at keeping Fowler’s Modern English Usage in step with what is currently understood and accepted by most educated speakers of the language.</p>

The second edition of Fowler’s in 1965 was edited by Sir Ernest Gowers, a successful (and modest!) civil servant with a distinguished history of service both during WW2 and afterwards. He wrote Plain Words, a hugely successful book of only 94 pages, published in 1948. It encapsulated Gowers’s long-term crusade against bureaucratic jargon, pomposity of phrasing and all round gobbledegook. And it sold 150,00 copies in its first 8 months. It, too, has been revised and reprinted, most recently in March 2014, with revisions by his granddaughter, Rebecca Gowers.

Incidentally, she followed it, two years later, with Horrible Words: A Guide to the Misuse of English, which definitely sounds like a must read to me.

OED Editor Robert Burchfield turned out a third edition of Fowler’s in 1996. Philosopher Jeremy Butterfield, author of Damp Squid: English Laid Bare (another title for my To Be Read list) edited a fourth edition in 2015. Though a “re-revised edition” of Burchfield’s 3rd edition is expected in September this year.

Modern English Standards

5 star delusion not inspirationInevitably, H W’s Modern English Usage became a standard setter. And where there are standards there will be nay-sayers, sometimes justified, sometimes not. Fowler the classicist has been criticised for trying to treat English in the same way as Latin. Most noticeably this is reflected in the controversy over split infinitives.

Personally, I confess that mostly split infinitives make me wince. But then, I have to agree, as I’m sure HW would, with Noam Chomsky’s point, that “To boldly go where no man has gone before” is genuinely different in meaning from “to go boldly where …etc”, quite apart from being much more euphonious.

H W, the teacher of small boys, had a dry way with nonsense which is very pleasing. It has been continued by both Gowers (another classicist at university), Burchfield and Butterfield. Comments are usually fair and balanced, but when they lurch into personal opinion they can be a hoot – and pretty crisp. Welsh rabbit is amusing and right. Welsh rarebit is stupid and wrong.

Finally, on the big one, let me quote (from the 1965 edition of Fowler’s):

The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish. And the conclusion is: Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by the minority classes.”

Lovely chaps, all four!

Pip, pip.

Sophie Weston Author


7 thoughts on “Modern English : Fowler’s version and more

  1. Louise Allen

    Lovely post. I have a 1951 edition of Gower’s ABC of Plain Words. he is very firm! Opening the book at random I found “ENTAIL. This word is too popular.” and “DEVELOP. This word is overworked…”
    That’s us told! He quotes Fowler a lot.

    1. Joanna

      Made me laugh, Louise. I too have Gowers but I don’t use it as much as Fowler where I have the Burchfield version. Always useful. And the Pedant Dame swears by it, I believe…

      Thanks to Sophie for the background on HW. Didn’t know any of that. Fascinating.

      1. Sophie Post author

        I didn’t really know much about H W until I started to dig, Joanna. Am really impressed that he took that leap of faith into free lancing and Paultons Square, for so many reasons.

        Now I want to read the article about the garden. Wonder if the London Library has a copies of The Anglo Saxon Review?

    2. Sophie Post author

      I’ve always thought, Louise, that one of the few advantages of the time when male supremacy was generally undisputed is that people like Gower, who really was personally quite a modest man, didn’t feel the need to sit on the fence about his opinions.

  2. annieegac89d5885b

    Most enjoyable and interesting post, Sophie. I don’t have his book, and will now keep an eye out for it, but I have had editors move my adverbs in several places to make split infinitives. I dither about moving them back, because it’s so common these days that it sounds more natural. But I generally do.

    1. Sophie Post author

      I’m with you on that. I’ve been known to recast a whole sentence to avoid a split infinitive. It’s pretty much a physical thing – like that nail on a blackboard sound. Makes me wince every time. In spite of Prof. Chomsky’s cogent argument.

  3. Elizabeth Bailey

    Loved this article. I didn’t know about Fowler’s life and found it fascinating. Also have earmarked Horrible Words book! Definitely getting that one.


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