Fits and Excursions

Walter Nash

It appears sometimes that the Classical education is dead, and with it the attendant mysteries of the grammar school. Gone, gone, the long parsing in the languid afternoon; gone the Cognate Accusative and the Ablative Absolute; gone for ever those musty-gowned, atrabilious instructors who denounced the folly of the dangling participle, demonstrated the proper location of however, and enforced with random ferule the doctrine that the verb to be is followed by the Nominative Case. Gone, and good riddance, possibly: but something has been lost, as well I know when I try to tell university tutorial groups about prepositions, predicates and other preliminaries to the study of discourse. We have become stumbling foreigners in the primary language of criticism.

This is an educational defect that no book on usage can wholly repair, if only because such books are burdened with diverse tasks. They have to frame recommendations, general and specific, for the practice of language; they must furnish at least a little basic information about grammar and linguistic terms; and if they have pretensions to being anything more than ready-reference rule-givers, they ought to express, through their various pronouncements and comments, something definable as a philosophy of their subject. Very few Usages fulfil these requirements. One that has been making an honourable showing for nearly forty years is a text written – or perhaps one should say ‘fathered’ – by a Classically-educated civil servant who felt that bureaucrats should learn to write like human beings. Sir Ernest Gowers’s Plain Words (1948) and The ABC of Plain Words (1951) jointly became The Complete Plain Words (1954), continuing happily into a second edition (1973) under the urbane guardianship of Sir Bruce Fraser; and here it is afresh, deftly revised, with much tact and adroit editorial craft, by Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut.

‘With this third edition,’ we are told, ‘it has become difficult to enumerate the precise contributions of Gowers, Fraser, Greenbaum and Whitcut. It would be tedious to do so, and of little interest to most users of the book.’ Most users of the book may well agree: but it is nonetheless interesting to trace the history of a standard work, to see how authority takes or shifts its stance. Editorial revisions and additions, perhaps not in themselves extensive, may appreciably change the scope and appeal of a text. This book began as an onslaught on officialese, an encouragement to the clerkly classes to attempt plain words – not ‘plain composition’, be it noted, but ‘plain words’. In the earlier editions, Gowers’s position was explicitly stated: ‘The golden rule is not a rule of grammar or syntax. It concerns less the arrangement of words than the choice of them ... Arrangement is of course important, but if the right words are used they generally have a happy knack of arranging themselves.’ It is disarming – if a little reminiscent of Humpty Dumpty – to be assured that the right words have a knack of arranging themselves, but the assurance has no very firm base in theory or experience. It implies that if you take care of the dictionary, discourse will take care of itself – an optimism seemingly not shared by the present editors, who have cancelled this passage. Its sentiments, however, are echoed or implied elsewhere in the text.

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