The Warden of English: The Life of H.W. Fowler 
by Jenny McMorris.
Oxford, 242 pp., £19.99, June 2001, 0 19 866254 8
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Jenny McMorris’s biography marked the 75th anniversary of Henry Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage. He is, it’s fair to say, remembered for that book (known, simply, as Fowler) and not for his work as a lexicographer. Fowler is the sacred text of the linguistically self-conscious. McMorris quotes a distinguished judge who ‘had been kept from his bed by it “to a very unusual hour”, adding that it brought “a terror to living and writing”’. A.J.P. Taylor read the whole thing at least once a year, and ranked it as OUP’s greatest publication. Aficionados regularly recite Fowler on split infinitives, as if it were Monty Python on ex-parrots. And nearly seventy years after his death, letters for him still arrive at the Press.

Strangely, Oxford rejected the initial proposal, on the ground that ‘a Utopian dictionary would sell very well – in Utopia.’ But they soon cottoned on, and 60,000 copies of Fowler were sold in the first year. It has remained in print through three editions, and its form and content have been copied, textbook fashion, in the usage manuals that now appear on every publisher’s list. We’re all reading Fowler, even if we don’t know it.

Why did Fowler write Fowler? There was, it seems, ‘word-consciousness’ in his family, and a tradition of teaching. Before becoming a schoolmaster, his father was a mathematics don at Cambridge. Henry himself went from Rugby to Balliol. But he never fulfilled his promise, and left with a disappointing degree and a bog-standard reference from Jowett, the Master: ‘quite a gentleman in manner and feeling . . . a natural aptitude for the profession of Schoolmaster’. He taught for two terms at Fettes in Edinburgh, then landed at Sedbergh on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales. There he gained a reputation for ‘Spartan discipline’ and ‘great fastidiousness’, including top hat and tails for Sunday tea.

After a 17-year slog in this ‘intellectually stagnant’ school, Fowler fled to Chelsea, hoping to make it as an essayist. There was an early breakthrough in the Spectator, but his shyness held him back from the networking needed for success in literary journalism. He must also have quickly realised that he wasn’t up to it. His prose was sweet and sentimental, with a tedious, knowing tone which was perhaps suited to schoolboys but not to the cognoscenti, as shown by the vicious notices of his later collection of essays Si Mihi – !: ‘He is merely shallow and – oh! so banal and trite’; ‘a true autobiography of a second-rate soul’.

Henry bolted again, this time to join Frank, his younger brother, who was growing tomatoes in Guernsey. They impressed OUP with a translation of Lucian, and from then on were virtually full-time employees of the Press. Next came The King’s English (1906), which provided some of the content for the later Fowler. It begins on the same note: ‘Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.’ Oxford recognised the Fowlers’ extraordinary ability to collect and classify, and persuaded them to produce the Concise and Pocket dictionaries as fundraisers for the still incomplete OED. While they were making dictionaries they hit on the idea of refashioning The King’s English in dictionary format in order to eliminate its stodginess. Since Henry was suffering from ‘misolexicography’, he worked on Fowler, while Frank did the Pocket. The plan was to swap halfway through, but Henry was left to finish both when Frank died of TB in 1918.

Fowler didn’t create the need for Fowler; its niche was ready-made. He knew the public craved a dictator to lay down the laws of usage. Bad grammar had always been construed as a sign of bad character, since grammar shades into linguistic style and from there to etiquette and even morality. McMorris quotes a review of Fowler from the Methodist Recorder: ‘a volume on table-manners, good breeding, purity of mind, cleanness of habit, self-respect and public decency’.

As the archivist for the Oxford Dictionaries, McMorris has dug up the correspondence between Fowler and the Press, revealing successive officials as arch-prescriptivists, evidently frustrated by the OED’s historical bent, and hoping to find a champion in Fowler. One goaded him on with ‘a collection of my favourite vices’, another with ‘a heap of filth of various degrees of abomination’. Fowler, too, was fed up. After years of lexicography, he wanted ‘approval & condemnation less stingily dealt out than has been possible in the official atmosphere of a complete dictionary’. Now he could get his own back on the OED experts by setting down his disputed rulings on spelling and pronunciation. As soon as Fowler appeared, mud was slung at him for his ‘unscientific’ approach. Thus the learned Otto Jespersen labelled him ‘the instinctive grammatical moraliser’. Fowler deftly neutralised the insult by embracing the epithet: ‘the moraliser insists on telling people not what they do and how they came to do it, but what he thinks they ought to do for the future.’

It would be wrong, however, to place Fowler squarely in the ‘complaint’ tradition that blossomed in the 18th century with the prescriptive grammars of Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray, primers that remained influential right up to Fowler’s day. True, Fowler is concerned to distinguish right from wrong usage, by making his cases negatively, displaying and correcting the wrong. But The King’s English provided the new model, enforcing its warnings not ‘by fabricated blunders against which every tiro feels himself quite safe’ but by terrorising the reader with numerous real-life infelicities, a ploy that can just as easily backfire (‘Well, if Shakespeare did it . . .’).

Fowler described himself as a ‘heterodox expert’. He was out to ruffle feathers and to put right those who wanted to put others right. After an attack in the Times over his pronunciation for ‘clothes’ (kl¯oz), he saw that his own book was being used ‘as an awful warning of the possibilities of degradation’. But he was no Mrs Grundy, and the editor of the third edition, Robert Burchfield, is absurdly wrong to depict the original as ‘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 20th century’. It is, rather, a monument to all that was acceptable to Fowler.

Yet it was not intended as autobiography. This was a man with a mission. All prescriptivists have their targets: the barbarians and the solecists. Defoe’s Academy would have no place for ‘Clergyman, Physician or Lawyer’, and Swift would not listen to ‘illiterate Court-Fops, half-witted Poets and University-Boys’. For Fowler, the targets are journalists, especially sports reporters, with women, children and minor novelists in second place. He was also clear about his audience: ‘budding journalists’ and, more generally, ‘the half-educated Englishman of literary proclivities . . . who has idioms floating in his head in a jumbled state, & knows it’. A queer sort, for they not only needed guidance on illiteracies and illogicalities, but also a dozen forms of ‘halloo’, thirty words for winds, and definitions to distinguish ‘zeugma’ from ‘syllepsis’ (‘confused in popular use’).

In fact, Fowler is at his best in his pithy definitions and compendium lists. When it comes to prescription, he is badly in need of a mission statement. We know that he wants, in Kingsley Amis’s terms, to be neither a berk nor a wanker, neither an ignorant, shameless sloven nor a pedantic purist (who would?). But his definition of the middle ground is vague and ambivalent. This is manifest in his very different attitudes to the power of his own verdicts: Fowler v. the State of the Language. Sometimes there’s a mere credo. English itself will see to ‘foolish idioms’ as it travels the road to perfection. But then there’s a contradictory call to arms: ‘every just man who will abstain from the fused participle’ – forgive me asking – ‘retards the progress of corruption.’ At other times he evinces gloomy resignation in the face of lost causes (‘a barbarism is like a lie; it has got the start of us before we have found it out, & we cannot catch it’). At others still he is a reforming zealot, issuing a counter-protest in favour of more feminine endings (‘teacheress’, ‘singeress’, ‘danceress’).

An essential element of the description of linguistic usage is a catalogue of the explicit rules that speakers and writers are told to learn and attempt to follow. It isn’t all taken in with our mothers’ milk, a fact often ignored by those who like to have their sides – prescriptivist v. descriptivist – neatly opposed. Fowler claimed that the current rules went wrong because they were of the wrong sort. Their simplicity and generality meant that they could never be more than rules of thumb, though they were sold and bought as absolute truths. His own prescriptions are more like a list of irregular verbs: one learns them by rote, not by rule. Although he does argue for his verdicts, there is no algorithm for determining which reasons to invoke in controversial cases. Often there’s a strong whiff of ad hoc and post hoc rationalisation, a misguided attempt to stamp his particular tastes with the authority of reason.

Shall we, then, argue from Latin against the popular use of ‘aggravate’ to mean ‘irritate’, or ‘meticulous’ to mean merely ‘scrupulous’? Shall we allow the common extension of ‘decimate’ to mean ‘reduce by a large proportion’ as against the Latin original? Shall we give long lists of great writers to support ending a sentence with a preposition, explaining that Dryden, the great exception, allowed his ‘instinct for English idiom’ to be ‘overpowered by notions of correctness derived from Latin standards’? Or say that ‘our grammatical conscience has by this time a Latin element inextricably compounded in it,’ but that this conscience is caught napping in the scores of great writers who have used the ‘grammatically indefensible’ fused participle? Fowler did the lot. Is this ‘sterling soundness and essentially English common sense’ (TLS), or is it Mornington Crescent?

Worst of all, Fowler is never clear about ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, which partly explains his haphazard marshalling of reasons. At the extreme are notions of the ‘strictly correct’ and the ‘technically wrong’. He says that it is strictly correct to ask, ‘Could you tell me what the time was?’, but preferable and ‘practically the only thing possible’ to replace ‘was’ with ‘is’. Similarly, it is technically wrong to say ‘It’s me,’ but since it is colloquial ‘such a lapse is of no importance’. Yet it’s worthwhile marking it as a ‘sin’ and a ‘foolish idiom’ in order to help make it obsolete. Now we don’t know where we stand.

Fowler is most convincing when he is liberating, telling us what we can do in spite of popular fetishes and superstitions such as ‘It is wrong to end a sentence with a preposition! It is wrong to split an infinitive!’ He offers witty descriptions of the psychopathology of the slavish rule-follower, tyrannised by convention, mangling sentences to meet the supposed rules, and hypercorrecting in fear of them. He emphasises the necessity for individual judgment (‘the feeling of educated English readers’), fine-tuned to particular circumstances and sensitive to the relative weights of competing criteria. No wonder he and Frank took to translating Lucian, who was also intrigued by linguistic trivia; in their introduction they called him an ‘individualist to the core . . . the thing is to think for yourself, and be a man of sense’.

Reading Fowler is like tasting with a Master of Wine. The hope is that by absorbing examples and verdicts, we will come to share his palate, be a ‘man of sense’ rather than merely spout him by rote. Unfortunately, his complex advice, couched in dense lawyer’s prose, causes paralysis. So blanket generalisations are still favoured. Snooping for a misplaced ‘only’, a split infinitive, or a final preposition is as popular as ever among the common complainers (Fowler’s ‘grammatical parrots’). And even Michael Dummett (Grammar & Style) has come out as being vehemently against splitting, arguing that the ambiguities it sometimes causes show that it is ‘intrinsically unnatural’. Dummett also plays a remarkable German trump instead of the usual Latin joker: it is ‘contrary to the spirit of the language to divide the root verb from its accompanying to; English is after all a member of the Germanic family, and in German . . . – Now see Fowler: ‘we will split infinitives sooner than be ambiguous or artificial.’ We can hardly append ‘see Fowler’ to each split infinitive, even if to remain silent will be seen as ignorance by those still in the grip of the rule against. So the best reason not to split infinitives is that they ‘still sound offensive to many’ (Dummett). The great majority of current manuals give the same warning, while refusing to condemn splitting outright. It is sometimes strictly permissible, but one shouldn’t do it.

The manifold uses of language demand rules (spelling, pronunciation, vocabulary, syntax) that control its users. On the other hand, the rules are always changing. So there’s never anything fixed to be mastered (dictionaries are out of date well before they are published). And although change is not the work of a solitary individual, it is a human process subject to evaluation. There’s nothing wrong with criticising change that works against the effective use of language, or promoting change that works for it.

One can only applaud Fowler’s wish to retain and improve clarity and expressive power. He rails against ‘slipshod extension’, the creation of ambiguity as one meaning is tacked onto another (‘dilemma’, ‘protagonist’). And he admires the differentiation that makes each of a pair of formerly equivalent words express a different meaning (‘spirituous’ v. ‘spiritual’), recognising that ‘differentiations become complete not by authoritative pronouncements or dictionary fiats, but by being gradually adopted in speaking & writing.’ Still, he can’t resist intervening on their behalf: ‘it is the business of all who care for the language to do their part towards helping serviceable ones through the dangerous incomplete stage to that in which they are of real value.’

Nothing characterises the difference between Old and New Fowler (the third edition) better than Burchfield’s retreat to the watcher’s hide. He replaces those words of Fowler’s with: ‘it is the business of a writer of a usage guide to give a clear indication of the stage reached by such differentiations in so far as the boundaries and limits can be determined from the available evidence.’ Burchfield will serve by standing and waiting, with one foot in the present, the other in the grave. Although, understandably, he wants to trade under the same name (‘the acknowledged authority’), his New Fowler is not a different edition but a different book (another example of a slipshod extension: ‘new’ here means ‘not’, as in ‘New Labour/Criticism/man’). An OED expert mucking about with Fowler must have made Fowler turn in his grave.

It’s a great pity that McMorris does so little to counteract the comment of Fowler’s friend and first biographer, Gordon Coulton, that he had ‘lived the perfect philosophic life . . . a most English life of quiet balance’. It’s too easy to pigeon-hole him as the eccentric stoic enjoying a vigorous routine of early-morning runs and swims, suffering the hard labour of lexicography, and obsessing about washing-up in countryside retreats. Since McMorris rarely gets beyond a serial catalogue of events, she signally fails to deal with his fitful and unresolved character, a character that I see half-exposed in the methodological mess of Fowler, and in his contradictory attitudes to his own authority. Why did he cherish the thought that his jeers had been effective, but back away from controversy, preferring to ‘lie low & say nuffin’? How could one so conscious of style miscalculate the force of his prescriptions, expressing a desire to have seen in the reviews of Fowler ‘the words “terrifying” and “sarcastic” and “sardonic” rather less often’? And what did he hope to achieve by putting those damning press notices at the front of the second edition of his Si Mihi – !?

McMorris herself ends with a man of ‘gentle good humour’, yet early on quotes the verdict of one of his pupils: ‘a cold mechanical machine’. There is also the stickler for etiquette who hated being called a pedant, and his confession to ‘a certain reluctance to meddle with the insides of other people’s minds’ to be set against the enthusiastic didacticism of Fowler, a book characterised by a delicate account of linguistic sense that breaks with inflexible imperatives. Yet he also showed a high-minded rigorism, during two episodes in his life in particular: an obdurate atheism justified his leaving Sedbergh, and a puffed-up patriotism motivated his quixotic attempt, aged 57, to fight at the Front. Coulton fondly compared him to Socrates, but Fowler never really knew himself or what he was up to.

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