The Stylish Stylist

In 1926, Henry Watson Fowler published “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage,” a book that has remained in print ever since. (The first edition and the second edition use Fowler’s sentences; the third edition, which was published in 1996, is a substantial rewriting of the classic and uses the Fowler name as a form of brand.) Fowler’s book is not a dictionary of definitions, like Johnson’s or Webster’s, it is a usage dictionary, an instructional manual for better using this beautiful tool we have devised called the English language.

Its entries give instructions on pronunciation, offer the pros and cons of employing a variety of idiomatic expressions, and argue again and again for simplicity in expression. Many style guides have followed—the MLA, the AP, the Chicago Manual—and each one is more useful in answering day-to-day questions about one’s writing than Fowler’s guide is, but none is as entertaining as his. His fight was a fight against cliché, obfuscation, and empty rhetoric. He fought for style, for clarity.

He fought against pointless rules. One might think from the description of his work that he is the reason for the commonplace rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. The opposite is true. In a two-page essay on the topic (two pages!), titled, “Preposition at end,” he writes:

“It was once a cherished superstition that prepositions must be kept true to their name and placed before the word they govern in spite of the incurable English instinct for putting them late (‘They are the fittest timber to make great politics of,” said Bacon; and ‘What are you hitting me for?’ says the modern schoolboy). ‘A sentence ending in a preposition is an inelegant sentence’ represents what used to be a very general belief and it is not yet dead. […] The fact is that the remarkable freedom enjoyed by English in putting its prepositions late and omitting its relatives is an important element in the flexibility of the language.”

Fowler then gives many examples (two pages!) of worse blunders made by pointlessly hewing to this nonexistent “prepositions go here” rule. And the way he uses his examples, for instance his pairing of the Renaissance philosopher Francis Bacon with generic “modern schoolboy,” displays his desire to keep a light hand on one’s writing.

His entry on the use of the word “literally” anticipates the world in which we now live, a world in which that word means almost nothing, nothing at all, in the way we use it:

“We have come to such a pass with this emphasizer that where the truth would require us to insert with a strong expression, ‘Not literally, of course, but in a manner of speaking,’ we do not hesitate to insert the very word that we ought to be at pains to repudiate. Such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible.(Emphasis mine.)

The problem with the use of the word “literally” has literally bedeviled anyone who cares about precision in language for almost a century.

Fowler wanted writers to avoid using the obscure metaphor merely because it is commonly employed. Hence his entry on the idiomatic expression, “Salad Days”:

“Salad days (one’s raw youth) is one of the phrases whose existence depends on single passages (see Antony and Cleopatra, ‘My salad days when I was green in judgement’). Whether the point is that youth, like salad, is raw, or that salad is highly flavoured and youth loves high flavours, or that innocent herbs are youth’s food as milk is babes’ and meat is men’s, few of those who use the phrase could perhaps tell us; if so, it is fitter for parrots’ than for human speech.”

Avoid the empty turn of phrase unless one is making a point of the phrase’s emptiness.

Fowler died on Christmas Day 1933, at the age of 75. He had recently completed his work on the first edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a two-volume version of the full, twenty-volume, 20,000-page, Oxford English Dictionary. In 1928, a few years before his death, Oxford offered to pay the wages of a servant to help him speed the work along (dictionaries always take longer to put together than first supposed) and he refused the help in a memorable letter. At age 68, he described his average day in these words:

“My half-hour from 7:00 to 7:30 this morning was spent in (1) a two-mile run along the road, (2) a swim in my next-door neighbor’s pond—exactly as some 48 years ago I used to run round the Parks and cool myself in Parson’s Pleasure (an Oxford locale). That I am still in condition for such freaks I attribute to having had for nearly 30 years no servants to reduce me to a sedentary and all-literary existence. And now you seem to say: Let us give you a servant, and the means of slow suicide and quick lexicography. Not if I know it: I must go my slow way.”

Help might have resulted in a faster dictionary but it would have been a “slow suicide.” Fowler needed no cliché to tell Oxford that he was living in his “salad days” in the here and right-now.

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Some of this first appeared two years ago.

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