With Luck

John Lanchester

  • The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage edited by R.W. Burchfield
    Oxford, 864 pp, £16.99, November 1996, ISBN 0 19 869126 2

During the latter half of the Second World War, Ludovic, the deranged and upwardly mobile murderer of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, becomes ‘an addict of that potent intoxicant, the English language’. He begins an obsessive study of books about words, and starts to write a volume of pensées (a piss-take of Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave). ‘Not laboriously, luxuriously rather, Ludovic worked over his notebooks, curtailing, expanding, polishing; often consulting Fowler, not disdaining Roget; writing and rewriting in his small clerkly hand on the lined sheets of paper which the army supplied.’ The Fowler referred to here is A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler, usually known as Fowlers Modern English Usage, first published in 1926, and now brought out in a third edition, completely rewritten by the lexicographer Robert Burchfield.

We can take Ludovic’s reliance on Fowler as the synecdoche for a whole tradition; over the last seventy years, Fowler has been the place of first and last resort for English grammatical disputes. Perhaps a chief reason for the success of Modern English Usage is that it is so much less boring than one might expect – as, indeed, was its author. Henry Fowler was born in 1858, educated at Rugby and Balliol, and worked as a teacher at Sedbergh for 17 years before losing his job in a row over his refusal to prepare boys for Confirmation. Fowler was now 41. He moved to London, where he scratched a living writing pieces, ‘and attempted’, in Ernest Gowers’s words, ‘to demonstrate what he had always maintained to be true – that a man ought to be able to live on £100 a year’. In 1903 he moved to Guernsey and began working with his brother Francis Fowler, to whom Modern English Usage is dedicated. They produced a translation of Lucian, the first Concise Oxford Dictionary and, in 1905, a hugely successful grammar book called The Kings English. When war broke out both brothers lied about their age and joined up, only to be frustrated in their desire to be sent to the trenches. Frank died in 1918; in 1925 Henry went to live in Somerset, where he worked for the Clarendon Press and wrote his new usage book; he died in 1933.

‘The mystery remains,’ Burchfield writes in his Preface to the new edition: ‘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 seventy years?’ The fact that he feels the need to ask is a bad sign. Fowler has remained popular because he is spiky, idiosyncratic, and not at all shy about giving firm views. Burchfield finds his humour schoolmasterly, which isn’t quite fair; it is true that there is a degree of whimsy about some of the section-heads in Modern English Usage (‘False Scent’ about sentences which change track halfway through, ‘Unequal Yokefellows’ for asymmetrical constructions), but Fowler is usually more brisk than that. In his entry on ‘recrudescence’, for instance, he quotes the word being used in a literary context about Lord Melbourne and in a cricketing context about a Mr Laver, and goes on:

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