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.

A preoccupation with the choice of words dictated the emphasis that has continued to characterise the work. One of the chapters added by Greenbaum and Whitcut (in a compendium of new material and old) is entitled ‘A Checklist: Words and Phrases to be Used with Care’, and runs to seventy pages, or about one quarter of the entire text. I am uneasy about lists of fallen lexemes, though like everyone else I keep my own file of favourite distastes and enjoy a wholesome indignation when these backsliders appear shamelessly in public. Such catalogues are entertaining, and may help to confirm the comely writer in his virtue, if they do not dissuade the sloven from his vice: but while their strictures and recommendations may command piecemeal assent, collectively they wear an arbitrary, unargued look. They make much of etymologies and ‘proper meanings’; they readily proscribe the redundant particle and the roundabout phrase; they make social judgments on ‘vogue words’ and stylistic pronouncements on words deemed ‘starchy’, ‘showy’ or ‘colourless’ they issue terse imperatives like ‘prefer’ and ‘replace’, without always arguing the preference or the need for replacement. They provide diverse and more or less convincing reasons for rejecting particular words. What they cannot provide is a conspectus of the lexicon, taking into account different levels and varieties of style, suggesting that words are not isolated points but elements in a pattern, and allowing the user at least to glimpse possibilities of a discursive design in which those elements complement or qualify one another. Words speak in company; there is no good foundation for a random censorship of the lexicon.

In any case, history always makes the censor look unreasonable. ‘Proper meanings’ have no lasting substance: the government changes, polysemy rules, words ramble like weeds and have their irregular chronicles. Take a single example from The Complete Plain Words, that of the word meticulous. In the second edition we find Gowers’s cautionary note on what he listed as a ‘seductive’ word – and hence as an aberration from familiar plainness: ‘Meticulous means, by derivation, “full of little fears”, and like its plebeian cousin pernickety still retains a flavour of fussiness over trifles. It is a useful word when the writer wants to suggest that carefulness is overdone, and it would be a great pity if it were rendered incapable of conveying that meaning because of its frequent use as a mere synonym for careful, scrupulous or punctilious. To confine it to its proper meaning is, I submit, the mark of a scrupulous, not a meticulous writer.’ Here is an elegant piece of special pleading – but what is the ‘proper meaning’ that Gowers is so wistfully anxious to preserve? Not since the 17th century has meticulous borne its etymological significance of ‘timid’, ‘fearful’, and for a long time it has expressed a sense more positive than ‘pernickety’. Gowers was pleading a case already lost. Greenbaum and Whitcut include the word in their checklist, revising Gowers’s comment and completely changing its point: ‘Meticulous means, by derivation, ‘full of little fears’, and like its plebeian cousin pernickety may still retain a flavour of fussiness over trifles. It is now, however, widely used in a favourable sense like scrupulous or punctilious, so that one may speak of a meticulously spotless kitchen. There seems to be no point in objecting to this slight shift of emphasis.’ The ‘slight shift of emphasis’ seems to me to be a major change in the common perception of the word’s significance. My desk dictionary (the New Collins) gives the definition ‘very precise about details; painstaking’, which expresses the current acceptance of the word very well. There is certainly no point in objecting to the shift of emphasis, but if there is no point in it why is the item retained in a checklist of words to be used with care? Beware those dangerous expressions: time will inconsiderately tame them.

Previous editions of the book confirm, in their Contents pages, this view of decent words and proper meanings as the first concern of usage; only one chapter is specifically devoted to grammar. In their revision the present editors have attempted to make grammar more visible (to use a current vogue word) by setting out five central chapters, collectively entitled ‘The Handling of Words’, but severally subtitled ‘Troubles in Arrangement’, ‘Troubles with Conjunctions’, ‘Troubles with Pronouns’, ‘Troubles with Verbs’ and ‘Troubles with Negatives and Other Matters’. The intention is clearly to provide a troubleshooting guide to trouble-free sentences, an aim which both defines the strength and limits the value of these chapters. They are concerned in the main with the surface logic of sentences: with questions of antecedence, correlation, conjunction, negation, with the scope of articulators. If both ... and is a bracket that bothers you; if you wonder whether I only did it yesterday means the same thing as I did it only yesterday; if you have a moment’s unease about I just gave the children a bag of sweets and then we ate them; if you feel that some lurking imp of ambiguity sniggers when you write I didn’t do it because of what you told me: in short, if your p’s keep pratfalling over your querulous q’s, then these chapters are for you. They will not have so much to tell you, however, about the control of larger syntactic structures, about textual principles of arrangement and cohesion, about – we revert to that persistent theme – the pattern of discourse.

To be constrained by minor urgencies is almost in the nature of the genre. One of the difficulties of writing about usage for a general public is that grammatical terms cannot be altogether avoided, and the writer usually lacks space or inclination to present a coherent explanatory model. The quickest way is to reduce the general concept of grammar to the particular operations of the parts of speech; and this, somewhat oddly, results in a meticulous (or painstakingly pernickety) attention to matters not wholly grammatical. In this book, for instance, there is a page-long discussion of following as a preposition (e.g. in Following heavy rain last night the wicket is very wet). The discussion is essentially of its lexical meaning, as a synonymic variant of in consequence of, in accordance with, because of, as a result of. Gowers considers it ‘unnecessary’ when it ‘usurps the place of’ these items, and damns its use in a purely temporal sense: but then with typical fairness goes on to make a plausible case for it as compounding the post hoc of ‘after’ and the propter hoc of ‘because’. This, however, is a lexical, not a grammatical argument, and it is incidentally not quite faithful to current fact to claim that ‘grammarians do not admit following as a preposition.’ In A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language, that monumental work of which Professor Greenbaum is a distinguished co-author, following is listed as a ‘marginal preposition’. (‘Marginal’ possibly reflects what Gowers meant when he predicted a ‘de facto recognition’ of this usage.)

This trivial instance illustrates a larger embarrassment. It is not only language that changes: the study of language also has its history. Thus, a great deal has happened during the last thirty years in the academic fields of grammar, sociolinguistics, discourse analysis and stylistics, and what has happened must affect the ways in which usage is understood and Usages are written: but the custodians of a classic, a minor monument, are virtually obliged to behave as though they did not know this. Of course the editors could hardly do other than they have done: their brief was to serve their author by revising his text, not by rewriting it to suit present-day scholarship. Nevertheless, there must have been times when Professor Greenbaum in the piety of editorship felt the impatient tug of Professor Greenbaum the modern grammarian. For instance, several pages are devoted to commentary on which and that as subordinators, particularly in relative clauses of the kind traditionally called ‘defining’ (or ‘restrictive’). In the second edition, these pages are among the least felicitous: Gowers’s customary urbanity becomes a voluble confusion, and at one point he frankly abandons his descriptive task with the declaration: ‘The best advice that can be given on the whole subject of relatives in defining and comment clauses is “Don’t fuss!” ’ Professor Greenbaum (I presume that the revision in this case fell to him) tidies the maladroit tangles and even manages to introduce an updating paragraph on that-clauses in extrapositions and existential sentences: but he is forced to accept his author’s format for explanations which are not well-ordered, not comprehensive, and perhaps not adequate if the conjunctive uses of which and that are to be clearly understood.

To reduce the description of usage to the framing of little regulations is in any case to impose on the user a needless burden of recollections and anxieties. I do not write by struggling to remember the rules or by worrying about pitfalls. I write by fits and excursions. I write by assessing the value of each word, each phrase, each sentence, in its immediate context, and each context in the greater discursive design. Consequently I learn more about usage by studying passages than by memorising precepts. Models are more important than rules; texts are more important than phrases; patterns are more important than their constituent pieces. This is the proper educational emphasis, and in this respect Fraser did Gowers a great service by adding to the original text a chapter entitled ‘Some Specimen Passages’, presenting and analysing samples of composition, good, bad and indifferent. Just such a chapter was needed to complete the book and give critical embodiment to its principles. The present editors have retained it but have completely revised the choice of texts. I could wish they had allowed themselves a fuller commentary, with more cross-references to the prescriptive sections of their text. In particular, I wish they had found more to say about the two extracts presented as models of good writing. There is a peculiar reluctance among writers on usage to analyse meritorious performance: as though only the bad could teach particular lessons, leaving the good to be generally admired. This is a minor shortfall, however, and does not seriously affect the editors’ capable demonstration of the principle they express at the end of the chapter: ‘although the field of good English prose writing is much wider than the little patch that we cultivate, the rules are everywhere much the same.’

Gowers’s little patch has grown to a sizable acreage – or, to vary the figure, his study group has become an audience. Whether he intended it or not, he has achieved the status of an educator, and invites assessment in that role. In his work it is possible to discern a tension, perhaps characteristic of the Usage genre, between the humane mentor dispensing sensible advice and the preceptor austerely in league with those chalky old impostors ‘logic’ and ‘proper meaning’. Fortunately there is in Gowers more of the counsellor than the pedant. He allows a great deal to the reader’s own judgment, qualifies or sometimes even debates his own pronouncements, and repeatedly makes constructive observations about the alternatives that may help a writer out of some local puzzlement. (He discusses, for example, five different ways of avoiding ambiguities of pronominal antecedence.) There is more knowledge in his fairness of mind than in whole volumes of prescription. The best chapter in the book is that entitled ‘The Elements’, a statement of principle, almost of professional ethics, that can hardly be bettered and should be recommended reading in all our colleges and scribal cantonments.

But still there is more to the study of usage than can be pleasantly said in plain words. In my academic parish, the talk is of grammar above the level of the sentence, of cohesion, of the structure of texts, of the dialogic nature of expository prose. (‘Dialogic’ is a village vogue word.) The gossip also runs on social and functional varieties of language, on levels of formality in style, on the relationship of speech and writing, on questions that imply an intrinsic bond between language, society and politics. Any outsider wanting to know what the locals are thinking and saying about these matters could not do better than read the essays collected in Michael Stubbs’s Educational Linguistics. Professor Stubbs is an educationist who writes, in a lucid, amiably unjargoned style that Gowers would certainly have commended, about questions that Gowers might not have considered relevant to his purpose. Yet their importance in the study of contemporary usage and discourse is indisputable. Stubbs’s central concern is with ‘relevant models of language’ that will guide and inform both the teacher and the taught. He rightly questions the assumption, so long enshrined in standard reference-texts, that linguistic authority has a single source: ‘The basic debate is ... about different kinds of authority: everyday versus specialist, analytic versus experiential, abstract and rational versus concrete and practical. The general argument seems clear enough: that no single group could possibly be the sole source of all that is worth knowing about language, and that language study must be a collaborative exercise in which teachers and linguists (and others) work together.’

To teachers of English Language this is a position which has grown familiar, and a position not readily accommodated in Usages of the traditional kind. We may perhaps expect new Usages for old, products of a unifying modern discipline as rigorous in its way as the Classical education ever was. In the meantime, here is Gowers, standing his honest ground in the latest edition of his book. A book to learn from, brood over, argue with, expatiate on, pick holes in, admire; in this age of inordinately expensive publications a dandy, hard-backed bargain; and an agreeable bonus, perquisite or freebie for some lucky, word-loving reviewer to keep on his shelf.