Fowler is Funny

Fowler is Funny

by Paul Bennett, freelance copyeditor

I have no religion except Fowlerism. I am a devout follower of Fowler, and when you make the decision to be devout, you must be prepared to defend your saviour. I have defended Fowler for years against people who, with not even a hint of humour flickering around the corners of their eyes or mouths, rage against anything that has even a whiff of helping to guide writers improve the elegance of their writing rather than letting them alone to write themselves, unfettered by good taste, into an incomprehensible corner. They reprimand me, saying that my using Fowler to help a writer become comprehensible is prescriptivist, and, therefore, unforgiveable. They imply that the advice provided by anyone keen and clever enough to write a grammar book defiles the holy shrine to language lawlessness that has been erected by twentieth century wordpersons who prescriptively tell us that we mustn’t be prescriptive, even though most writers yearn for it.

It is obvious from these people’s reactions to my using Fowler that they have never read him!  To them, Fowler is just a name that represents repression. They do not know that Fowler’s approach to grammar is based on logic, commonsense and clarity, and that he may even be reprimanding them in his humorous tilts at the shibboleths faithfully clung to by so many academic, government and business writers. They seem to imagine Fowler as a dour, schoolmasterish figure in a crumpled, grey, chalk-dusted suit, reading from engraved stone tablets. Even David Crystal, wordo supreme, who acknowledged Fowler’s humour in The Cambridge Encyclopedia of English Language says, in his The Fight for English (OUP 2006): “John Humphrys illustrates a new genre of usage publishing. So does Lyn Truss. It is a genre … characterised by humour. You have to look hard to find a vestige of a smile in … Fowler … and all the others”.

Before I knew that Fowler was funny, I found his Modern English Usage frustrating because I couldn’t always find what I wanted. I wanted to learn about aviatrix, but I couldn’t find it. This happened again with a few other words. I solved my problem by reading every word of Fowler’s second edition (1965, revised by Ernest Gowers) and compiling a wordfinder of the things that were not listed alphabetically. (My wordfinder tells you to read about aviatrix in the article “-trix”.)

It was during this marathon of reading that I found out how funny Fowler is. He’s not obviously funny — like Groucho Marx — he’s funny in a slowly revealed, perhaps ironic, way, that shows he has no time for pedantism; believes that European languages should not follow illogical, ancient rules; thinks that middle-class genteelisms and academic writing excesses are embarrassing; and that the enemy of elegance and comprehensibility is flab.

Fowler brightens your day as I’ll show you by listing some of the parts of his great work that struck me as funny enough to jot down as I worked my way through it. The subheadings are mine; the name of Fowler’s article follows the @. There is a note at the end of this article to explain why some extracts are marked with an asterisk.

Don’t blindly follow traditional rules of grammar

“… in the starch that stiffens English style one of the most effective ingredients is the rule that whose shall refer only to persons. To ask a man to write flexible English, but forbid him whose as a relative pronoun of the inanimate is like sending a soldier on active service and insisting that his tunic collar shall be tight and high.” @ whose.

“We know that grammarians are often accused, and indeed often guilty, of fogging the minds of English children with terms and notions that are essential to the understanding of Greek and Latin syntax, but have no bearing on English.” @ cases1

 Stick to this and you’ll be OK

“… quite right is all right, and all right is quite right but quite all right is quite all wrong …” @ quite.

“… but venturing on dangerous ground, which the subjunctive always is except to skilled performers, he side-slips.” @ subjunctives

“… what is required is the habit of paying all words the compliment of respecting their peculiarities.” @ slipshod extensions

“… if a French adjective is to make itself at home with us it must choose first whether it will go in male or female attire and discard its other garments.” @ spirituel(le).

Inelegant writing

“Some writers are as easily drawn off the scent as young hounds.” @ number4.

“Readers should be credited with the ability to make their way from end to end of an ordinary sentence without being pulled and pushed and admonished into the right direction; but some of their guides are so determined to prevent straying that they plant great signposts in the middle of the road, often with the unfortunate result of making it a no thoroughfare.” @ overzeal

“Writers who appear educated enough to know whether a sentence is right or wrong will put down the opposite of what they mean, or something different from what they mean, or what means nothing at all, apparently quite satisfied so long as the reader can be trusted to make a shrewd guess at what they ought to have said instead of taking them at their word; to his possible grammatical sensibilities they pay no heed whatever, having none themselves.” @ negative mishandling.

“Ready acceptance of vogue words seems to some people the sign of an alert mind; to others it stands for the herd instinct and lack of individuality … the better the writer, or at any rate the sounder his style, the less will he be found to indulge in the vogue word.” @ vogue words.

“The intelligent reader, however, is wont to reason that if his author writes loosely he probably thinks loosely also …” @ tautology 3.

* “Writers open to overworking [-tion words] would be wise to try doing without them altogether; they would seldom find any great difficulty in it, and they would have a salutary exercise in clear thinking.” @ -tion.

“Anyone who was conscious of this weakness might do much to cure himself by taking a pledge to use no relative pronouns for a year …” @ trailers.

“To those who have any regard for the language as distinguished from its pliability to their immediate purposes …” @ -less.

“She [Mrs Malaprop] is now the matron saint of all those who go wordfowling with a blunderbuss.” @ malapropisms .

“Needless substitution of the abstract for the concrete is one of the surest roads to flabby style.” @ membership.

“[Miocene] A typical example of the monstrosities with which scientific men in want of a label for something, and indifferent to all beyond their own province, defile the language.” @ miocene.

Many words depend for their legitimate effect upon rarity; when blundering hands are laid upon them and they are exhibited in unsuitable places, they are vulgarised.” @ vulgarisation.

Vulgarisation of words that should not be in common use robs some of their aroma, others of their substance, others again of their precision; but nobody likes to be told that the best service he can do to a favourite word is to leave it alone, and perhaps the less said on this matter the better.” @ vulgarisation.

Middle-class genteelisms

mot juste is an expression which readers would like to buy of writers who use it, as one buys one’s neighbour’s bantam cock for the sake of hearing its voice no more.” @ mot.

In the neighbourhood of for about is a repulsive combination of polysyllabic humour and periphrasis.” @ neighbourhood.

* “… if [grammar] were less despised, we should not have such frequent occasion to weep or laugh at the pitiful wrigglings of those who feel themselves in the toils of this phrase.” @ one4.

“The power of saying people worth talking to instead of people with whom it is worth while to talk is not one to be lightly surrendered.” @ preposition at end.

“The lust of sophistication, once bloodied, becomes uncontrollable.” @ preposition at end.

* “Previous to and prior to are grammatically blameless but that does not justify their use as substitutes for before because they are thought to be grander or more genteel.” @ quasi-adverbs.

[for people who say: “or so the saying goes”] “… if the rest of their behaviour does not secure them from insulting suspicions, certainly the apology will not.” @ saying.

Unfunny humour

“Anecdotes are our pounds, and we take care of them; but of the phrases that are our pence we are more neglectful.” @ worn-out humour.

“…with all these [examples of worn-out humour] we … not only are not amused; we feel a bitterness … against the scribbler who has reckoned on our having tastes so primitive.” @ worn-out humour.

“… the clever habit [of pedantic or polysyllabic humour] applauded at home will make them insufferable abroad.” @ pedantic humour.

Popularised technicalities

“Those who talk in mathematical language without knowing mathematics go out of their way to exhibit ignorance.” @ n.

* “[quasi-scientific clichés] … have many advantages: their use evokes and even releases emotion, they have the knowing look of key concepts, and no one is quite sure what they mean. But any gratification they give to their users is at the cost of the harm done to the language by wearing down the points of words which, one suspects, may not always have been very sharp …” @ popularised technicalities.

“… what have [they] done that their reappearance should be a recrudescence? Nothing, except fall into the hands of journalists who like popularised technicalities and slipshod extensions. This disgusting use is apparently of the twentieth century only …” @ recrudescence.

“Thinking that to say the word [varsity] shows intimacy with the undergraduate’s characteristic language, they naturally put it into places where it would never occur to him, and reveal themselves not as natives, but as foreigners.” @ varsity.


* “… there is a rotundity about it [in short supply] that to the official mind no doubt made it seem preferable to scarce.” @ short supply.

“Letter: ‘Dear Sir, We beg to enclose herewith our statement of your account for goods supplied and being desirous of clearing our accounts to end May will you kindly favour us with your cheque in settlement per return, and much oblige …’ Reply: ‘Dear Sirs, You have been misinformed. I have no wish to clear your books.’ ” @ unattached participles.

Odds and ends

“[the term] Not only out of its place is like a tintack loose on the floor; it might have been most serviceable somewhere else, and is capable of giving acute and undeserved pain where it is.” @ not6.

“Pigs, being equally intent on roots and search, may root or rout (or rootle) indifferently.” @ root.

“ …few of those that use the phrase [salad days] could perhaps tell us [what it really means]; if so it is fitter for parrots’ than for human speech.” @ salad days.

“ ‘Despite her great age, Mrs Jones is fairly virile …’ Perhaps the reporter associated virile with viridis green, not vir man, and was thinking of a green old age.” @ virile.

* “Most of us, as children, must have wondered why it should be that the green hill far away was without a city wall.” @ without.

*Of these 40 extracts, six are not in the first edition (1925) or, at least, not in the same place. This suggests that the 1965 reviser, Sir Ernest Gowers, had a good sense of humour and blended it nicely with Fowler’s own. I get the impression that, in his third edition (1996), R W Burchfield is more strait-laced than Fowler or Gowers. It would be good to take the time to check each extract against that edition to see whether Burchfield introduced any new funny remarks — but who will volunteer?

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1 Response to Fowler is Funny

  1. Len Yaeger says:

    The funniest line in Fowler’s book, in my opinion is the following.
    ” It is therefore not very profitable to dogmatize here on the subject [pedantry]; an essay would establish not what pedantry is, but only the place in the scale occupied by the author; & that, so far as it is worth inquiring into, can better be ascertained from the treatment of details….”

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