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:

To recrudesce is to become raw again or renew morbid activity, as a wound or ulcer may, or metaphorically a pestilence. or vice or other noxious manifestation. That being so ... what have Mr Laver and Lord Melbourne done that their appearance should be a r.? Nothing, except fall into the hands of journalists who like POPULARISED TECHNICALITIES and SLIP-SHOD EXTENSION. This disgusting use is apparently of the 20th c. only.

The linguist Jespersen called Fowler ‘an instinctive grammatical moraliser’, meaning no compliment; but that, of course, is precisely the reason for his book’s survival. At the same time, Fowler was no worshipper of rules for their own sake, and as Gowers points out, ‘there was nothing he enjoyed debunking more than the “superstitions” and “fetishes” as he called them, invented by pedagogues for no other apparent purpose than to make writing more difficult.’

Professional linguists, however, do not like Fowler. There is a broad distinction in the philosophy of the subject between prescriptivists, who tell you what to do, and descriptivists, who say what people do in practice. A prescriptivist will tell you that something is wrong (using hopefully to mean ‘with luck’, say); a descriptivist will tell you that some conservative language users consider that usage to be a mistake. Fowler was the prescriptivist par excellence (and that is one of the principal reasons for the survival of Modern English Usage); all professional linguists, however, are descriptivists, and Robert Burchfield is no exception. On the face of it, for all his immense knowledge of the historical development of English, this makes him an odd choice as the man to revise the most famous work of prescriptivism in the language.

I have to admit: I picked up the new edition of Modern English Usage with a sense of foreboding which was not at all diminished by my first few sessions with the book. In fact, to recycle Donald Davie’s reaction to Philip Larkin’s Oxford Book of 20th-Century English Verse, I recoiled in horror from page after page. This began with the denigration of Fowler in Burchfield’s Preface. ‘What I want to stress,’ says the second paragraph of the new volume, ‘is the isolation of Fowler from the mainstream of the linguistic scholarship of his day, and his heavy dependence on schoolmasterly textbooks.’ He goes on to speak of ‘the chalk-lined hand of the classics master at Sedbergh’, and to say that the original Modern English Usage is ‘a fossil ... 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’. When he mentions recently encountering three fans of Fowler, he points out that they are ‘a judge, a colonel and a retired curator of antiquities at the British Museum’; in other words, three old farts. None of this makes you warm to Burchfield or his book.

‘Anyone who has spent nearly thirty years, as I did, editing a major dictionary on historical principles is bound to prefer a historical approach to English usage to one that is limitedly descriptive.’ This historical emphasis is coupled with a desire to produce something much closer to a standard, orthodox, reliable work of reference than Fowler’s book. The title Modern English Usage was always a tad misleading, since it was such a quirkily personal work – a point that OUP has tacitly acknowledged since Gowers’s 1965 revision when it became, on the cover though not on the title page, Fowlers Modern English Usage. (The new book is The New Fowlers Modern English Usage on both cover and title page, though it uses three different typefaces to make that seem less clunky.) Burchfield’s book is much closer to something that a reputable linguist could call Modern English Usage while keeping a straight face.

This is not automatically an improvement. Burchfield takes – has no choice but to take, given the consensus among professional linguists – an entirely different approach to his evidence from Fowler. Where Fowler could cheerfully regard a usage as wrong irrespective of how many people used it, Burchfield has to pay attention to the sheer weight of numbers. ‘In September 1986 ... I obtained a personal computer and began to establish a database consisting of ten independent fields corresponding to obvious categories of grammar and usage.’ (Note the terrible, reeking gentility of that ‘obtained’.) The value of this database, Burchfield writes, ‘lies in the fact that it contains material from sources that I have selected myself, and examples that I have chosen and keyed in myself – in computer terminology, it contains no garbage’.

Maybe so. But there are times at which the new edition of Modern English Usage makes the reader think of an ethics manual written by a philosopher who keeps pointing out that the difference between right and wrong is an imaginative construct – our philosopher may be right (as it were) but he is also, at some basic level, missing the point about what his own book is for. One example will have to stand for many: here is Burchfield’s entry for refute:

The traditional meaning (first recorded in the 16c.) is ‘to prove (a statement, opinion, allegation, accusation etc) to be false; to disprove by argument’. When T.S. Eliot (in Murder in the Cathedral) wrote If you make charges, Then in public I will refute them, and when Rebecca West wrote The case against most of them must have been so easily refuted that they could hardly rank at suspects, both writers could be assured that their use of refute was beyond reproach. At some point in the second half of the 20c., however, traditionalists began to notice that people outside an educated social divide were beginning to use refute as a simple synonym of deny. In 1986 an enraged person wrote to the letters editor of the Spectator: ‘In Mr Chancellor’s day someone who didn’t know the difference between “refute” and “deny” wouldn’t have been employed by the Spectator as an office cleaner, let alone a television critic.’ In the Eighties the police, trade union leaders and other sternly honest authorities were forever refuting (that is, denying) allegations of brutality, malpractice, dishonesty and so on. The skirmishing continues. The likelihood that the new use represents a legitimate semantic shift is rejected by the traditionalists. Those who have no idea what a semantic shift might be, like the sound of refute, and will continue to use it in its partially standard new way. I have an uneasy feeling that the new sense will begin to sound normal in the 21c. – but not yet.

Marx said of Darwin that his world of competitive striving between species bore a remarkable similarity to the realities of Victorian economic life. In a similar spirit one can say that the linguistic ideology of descriptivism pays a contemporary deference to the power of market forces.

The rare occasions when Burchfield puts his foot down are not much more satisfactory. Of ‘the regrettable type between you and I’ he writes that it ‘must be condemned at once. Anyone who uses it now lives in a grammarless cavern in which no distinction is recognised between a grammatical object and a subject.’ Fair enough – we don’t mind being outside Burchfield’s educated divide, but we’d hate to end up in his nasty cavern. However, of the four examples Burchfield chooses of ‘you and I’, from the famous garbage-free database, two are drawn from works of fiction spoken in the first person; and the third, from Lawrence Norfolk’s Lemprière’s Dictionary, is a line of dialogue (‘ “What is it?” asked Lemprière. “Part of you and I,” said Septimus’). This doesn’t seem to me to be very good evidence for anything, apart from the fact that some novelists sometimes depict people making mistakes in oral grammar.

Perhaps, however, all this is to do no more than say that Burchfield is not Fowler, and does not try to be. More extended use of the new Modern English Usage caused me to calm down; although Burchfield lacks some of Fowler’s virtues he has still managed to produce a very useful book. Its reasonableness is sometimes suffocating, but is none the less reasonable for all that; and his historically-minded even-handedness is a clarifying force. (Clarity isn’t always one of Fowler’s strengths.) Here, for instance, is his summing-up on the subject of sentence adverbs (hopefully and its chums):

since at least the 17c. certain adverbs in-ly have acquired the ability to qualify a predication or assertion as a whole. Such adverbs are elliptical uses of somewhat longer phrases. In the last third of the 20c. this little-used and scarcely observed mechanism of the language has broken loose. Any number of adverbs in-ly have come into common use as sentence adverbs. Conservative speakers, taken unawares by the sudden expansion of an unrecognised type of construction, have exploded with resentment that is unlikely to fade by the end of the 20c.

In general, the harder or more abstruse the point, the better Burchfield is; the grammatical discussions in his book, of restrictive and non-restrictive clauses, say, or of uses of the apostrophe, are exemplary. Some of the details are at least as good as anything in Fowler – it is indeed, as Burchfield says, ‘remarkable’ that the majority of native speakers of English are unaware of the rule for pronouncing the most common word in the language. That’s the, which is pronounced thuh before a word beginning with a consonant, and thee before a word beginning with a vowel. Betcha didn’t know that.

I wonder, however, whether the new edition of Modern English Usage means we have heard the last of the instinctive grammatical moralisers. I doubt it There is now a gap in the market for a clear, unequivocally prescriptive account of contemporary written English. This book would set its face against the demotic pressures on the language from the mass media and from English’s increasing global popularity; it would implicitly accept that ‘correct’ English is a dialect, but would set out the rules of that dialect with unambiguous energy, and would not accept a blurring of the distinctions between popular spoken forms and Correct Usage. It would agree with Fowler that a grammarian’s job is ‘to tell the people not what they do and how they came to do it, but what they ought to do for the future’. It would know the difference between right and wrong, and would not be afraid – would indeed be eager – to smite the uncircumcised. Who could be found to write it? I suggest that it should be someone like the American academic whom I once heard described, by her colleague, as ‘the woman who put the hyphen into anal-retentive’.