Fowler and the coin of the realm

I see the Oxford University Press has finally concluded that the educated public will never be browbeaten into accepting the New Coke version of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and has decided to give us back Fowler Classic. Can it really be 13 years since Burchfield’s namby-pamby descriptivist Fowler came out? I still remember the day a friend phoned me on a slow day at work, and when she asked what I was up to, I mentioned that I had just read John Simon’s New Criterion review of the Burchfield—the harshest of many reviews I’d already read, but not the most troubling. (In matters such as these, it’s the positive reviews that give the game away.) I must have raged for 20 more minutes about the inherent illogic of putting a soggy, slack, no-rules, whatever-works-even-if-it-doesn’t type in charge of a usage guide, especially Fowler’s. I later found out that she had already bought me the “new Fowler” in hardcover for Christmas and had to race back to the store to return it. Life imitates O Henry.

When I finally laid eyes on the Burchfield, Simon’s verdict was confirmed: the abuse of the Fowler brand was as inexcusable as he had made it seem, and in the long term probably offended even those who would have quite liked and depended on a separately marketed Burchfield’s Usage. (Alas, too late for that now.) The new edition of Fowler smells like an unstated apology, or perhaps a mulligan. If you didn’t like the third edition, folks, here’s Fowler 3.5, with all the updates and modernizing caveats hygienically cordoned off.

The descriptivist-prescriptivist debate in usage is, to be sure, one of those controversies in which no one really represents either extreme. The “prescriptivist”, who believes there are objective rights and wrongs in usage, still does need descriptive data about how language is used. Prescriptivists like Fowler who achieve enduring influence are always very careful data-gatherers. But while the “descriptivist” professes relativism (filthy hippie that he is), he can always be caught incorporating value-judgments, or the material for them, into his data-collecting. (“Educated users tend to favour…”) Language, like money, has social and objective elements. It is, at once, master and servant.

My philosophy, for what it’s worth, is that the main strength of English as a medium of expression comes from its Latin-Saxon “double register” and its imperial voraciousness about borrowings. Changes in language that tend to impoverish our treasury should be resisted. It is useful that “infer” and “imply” should be understood to denote two distinct concepts; to have them be fuzzified synonyms is uneconomic. When changes in language enrich the treasury, they can be safely, even eagerly embraced: William Strunk’s anachronistic insistence that “nauseous” means “nauseating” would leave us with two words doing the same conceptual work, and without a single term for “being in a state of nausea.”

Descriptivists often don’t seem to recognize such an economy of words at all. Henry Watson Fowler, for all his twerpishness, navigated it better than any other usage maven yet has. He was to the English language what Bagehot was to English finance or Dicey to the English constitution.

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