Usage guides… there’s no getting away from them!

Yesterday, I found this well-worn copy of Margaret Nicholson’s A Dictionary of American-English Usage (Signet 1958) in my local street library (see photo below) just around the corner of where I live.

I realised that it has been just about exactly 10 years after I put the original 1957 edition in the HUGE-database I created for the research project Bridging the Unbridgeable, which we started in 2011.

The book’s subtitle reads “Based on Fowler’s Modern English Usage”, and if memory serves, this was taken quite literally. Although I haven’t done a systematic comparison, the changes from Henry Fowler’s Modern English Usage (Oxford University Press 1926) were – to my recollection – minimal.

However, a quick dip into the HUGE database does reveals an interesting change that was made by Nicholson.

In the entry on all right, Fowler starts out as follows:

“The words should always be written separate; there are no such forms as all-rightallright, or alright” (Fowler 1926, p.16)

Nicholson changed Fowler’s use of the flat adverb “separate” to a full adverbial form, changing the start of the entry to:

“The words should always be written separately; there are no such forms as all-right, allright, or alright” (Nicholson 1957, p.17, emphasis added)

Does this perhaps show a lower tolerance for the use of flat adverbs in American English?

Nicholson’s Dictionary of American-English Usage was possibly an attempt by Oxford University Press to replicate the commercial success of Fowler’s Modern English Usage in the US by appealing to the American market. Apparently the idea worked since this paperback was published just one year after the hardcover. As can be seen from the logo top left on the cover, it is part of a series of cheap paperbacks called “Signet 75c books” – this would put the book’s price at about $7 in today’s money.

small, single book case street library against a wall with yellow tiles

About Robin Straaijer

I am a linguist and EAP trainer, working on English prescriptivism and Standard English. Lover of photography and comedy.
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