But it is acceptable to begin a sentence with a conjunction?
May I be permitted to boldly split the infinitive (boldly
to split or to split boldly)? Would I be guilty of an
unpardonable solecism if, describing an hypothetical situation
within my control, I were to use the subjunctive rather than
indicative mood (was to use)? Is it valid to criticise
an author failing to use the possessive case in respect or a
gerund or "verbal noun" (an author's failing to use)? Is
the temptation to place a preposition at the end of a sentence
something which one should struggle against (against which one
For 70 years, Modern English Usage, first published by H.W.
Fowler in 1926, has been the standard reference to which educated
English-speaking people turn for guidance on these and similar
questions. It was an unashamedly prescriptive book, which
proceeded from the assumption that there is a single "correct"
way to speak and write, and that all deviations from Fowler's
orthodoxy are either "vulgar", "colloquial", "dialectical" (which
included Scottish, Irish, American and Australian usage, as
well as usage common in parts of England outside the Home Counties),
"obsolete", or simply "wrong".
Fowler's work was the product of an age of certainty. On
the occasion of his retirement on 13 April 1964, Sir Owen Dixon
spoke of his predecessor, Sir Samuel Griffith, as having "a
legal mind of the Austinian age, representing the thoughts and
learning of a period which has gone, but is was dominant and
decisive. His mind clearly was of that calibre: he did
not hesitate, he just felt that he knew; and that what he knew
was right." Fowler was a contemporary of Griffith, and
Dixon's description of Griffith's approach to the law may fairly
be adapted to describe Fowler's approach to the use of the English
In his own words, Fowler intended his work to benefit "the
half-educated Englishman of literary proclivities who wants
to know Can I say so-&-so?". Instead, Modern English
Usage became immensely popular amongst educated people who sought
in it confirmation of their own prejudices - whether for their
own benefit, or for the improvement of others. Thus it
is reported that Sir Winston Churchill, writing to the Director
of Military Intelligence concerning the plans for the "D-day"
invasion of Normandy, said:
"Why must you write intensive here? Intense is
the right word. You should read Fowler's Modern English
Usage on the use of the two words".
When counsel appearing before His Honour Judge Skoien made
the mistake of referring to a person's gender rather than the
person's sex, his attention was drawn to Fowler's observation
that gender is a "grammatical term only"; that -
"To talk of persons or creatures of the masculine or
feminine gender, meaning of the male or female sex, is either
a jocularity (permissible or not according to the context)
or a blunder."
Very little of Fowler's Modern English Usage could
today be regarded as "modern", if indeed it was "modern" in
1926. As Burchfield observes in his Preface to the new edition,
Fowler's work -
"... is a fossil ..., and 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 twentieth century".
Burchfield's approach is very different. He avoids
prescriptive statements of what is "correct", preferring merely
to offer suggestions as to the usages which may be regarded
as "standard". Erroneous spellings and pronunciations
are sometimes expressly repudiated; but non-standard grammatical
constructions are merely noted as such, without specific disapprobation.
Only the most extreme pedant could maintain Fowler's position
on some issues. His objection to "curtailed words" - such
as bra for brassiere, bus for omnibus, mob for mobile vulgus,
and taxi cab for taximetered cabriolet - is no longer sustainable.
And Fowler's complaint that the ousting of eyeglass by
monocle (the later being "a hybrid, a gallicism, and a word
with no obvious meaning to the Englishman who hears it for the
first time") is "a melancholy illustration of the popular taste
in language", may have been valid at a time when eyeglass still
stood some chance of survival, but is of no continuing relevance
now that monocle has won the day, especially since the wearing
of a single lens in one eye (whichever word may be used to describe
it) has fallen from fashion.
In some instances, Burchfield mounts a solid argument for
abandoning what was once the received wisdom on a number of
contentious issues. Thus, for example, Burchfield persuasively
defenestrates the "preposition at the end" and "split infinitive"
shibboleths, by demonstrating that neither of these supposed
rules is supported by logic, historical usage, or contemporary
usage. And whilst acknowledging that "it is a sound rule
that confines the use of comparative forms of an adjective to
context in which two entities are being compared, and restricts
superlative forms for comparison of three entities or
more", Burchfield demonstrates that it is not uncommon for even
the best writers to use superlatives when comparing only two
items: not only did Shakespeare do so ("to prove whose blood
is reddest, his or mine"); Burchfield is even able to cite (with,
one might think, a certain degree of satisfaction) an example
of Fowler's having used this supposed solecism: "dinghy,
dingey. The first is best".
One undoubted improvement on Fowler is Burchfield's decision
not to retain a number of the more idiosyncratic headings which
appeared in the first edition, such as airs and graces, between
two stools, unequal yokefellows, wens and hypertrophied members,
battered ornaments, pairs and snares, and swapping horses. Whilst
these headings had a certain charm, and even a humorous appeal
in Fowler's own schoolmasterly way, they offered very little
guidance to the subject-matter of the entries which they headed;
and in a work arranged alphabetically, presumably for the convenience
of the reader seeking quickly to locate an entry on a topic
of particular interest, such headings were of very little assistance.
Moreover, these headings tended to overlap, so that a
reader seeking guidance on the question whether a particular
turn of phrase should be regarded as passé might have
to consult, not only the entry on battered ornaments, but also
those on cliché, elegant variation, facetious formations,
hackneyed phrases, incongruous vocabulary, irrelevant allusion,
out-herod (!), popularized technicalities, soubriquets, stock
pathos (!), vogue words, wardour street, working and stylish
words, and worn-out humour - and possibly several others - as
well as seeking the proposed expression in its proper alphabetical
location, in order to be satisfied that it is not one of the
many such expressions to which Fowler took exception. Burchfield
has adopted the more sensible, although less endearing, approach
of placing all words and phrases which are the subject of comment
in their appropriate alphabetical location, and only using obvious
headings where it is convenient to deal with an entire subject
in one entry.
On any view, Burchfield's is a superior work of scholarship:
it draws on a much wider range of original sources, both
historic and contemporary. In particular, whereas Fowler
(in his own words) had his "eyes not on the foreigner", Burchfield
(a New Zealander) makes extensive reference to sources from
the United States and Canada, Australia and New Zealand, South
Africa, and (to a lesser extent) other English-speaking countries.
Burchfield also had the advantage that "a great deal of
this evidence could be obtained and classified by electronic
means". There is some genuine updating in Burchfield's
work: thus, for example, he has added to Fowler's list of common
misquotations - such as "escaped with (not by) the skin of my
teeth", and "to paint (not gild) the lily" -
some more recent
examples, such as Margaret Mitchell's "My dear (not Frankly,
my dear), I don't give a damn" and Humphrey Bogart's "Play it!
(not Play it again, Sam!)". And, of course, Burchfield
has entered upon subjects of contemporary relevance which had
not arisen in Fowler's time, such as "political correctness",
the modern use of the words gay and queer, and what Burchfield
describes as the "sensitive, verging on explosive" issue of
To indicate appropriate pronunciations, Fowler used a system
of respelling, often aided by the suggestion that a particular
word should be pronounced so as to rhyme with another word.
Thus, his entry on "girl" reads -
"girl rhymes with curl, whirl, and pearl, with the first
syllable of early, not of fairly. But a pronunciation
gairl, not very easily distinguished from gal was at one
time general in upper-class society and, though now dying,
is still affected by some persons who aim at peculiar refinement.
Novelist who write gurl as a representation of coarse
speech are presumably of this refined class."
Burchfield uses the symbols of the "International Phonetic
Alphabet" which are undoubtedly more precise and "scientific",
although less immediately helpful to the general reader to whom
these symbols are not entirely familiar.
On the whole, then, Burchfield's must be regarded as a better
work of lexicography. But whether it is a better work of philology
- or a more useful book to own - depends very much upon one's
point of view; in particular, whether one seeks a prescriptive
statement of how the language should be used, or a descriptive
statement of how the language is used.
My own view is that Burchfield's book, whilst undoubtedly
a very valuable and scholarly contribution to lexicography,
is disappointing because it is not what it claims to be - a
new edition of Fowler. Mr Frank Devine, writing in The
Weekend Review (15-16 May 1997), suggests that Burchfield
"is unduly self-effacing when he permits his labours ... to
be described as editing"; that he is "effectively, author of
a new guide to English usage". To my mind, Mr Devine is
closer to the mark when he suggests that the retention of Fowler's
name is a matter only of "professional courtesy - and perhaps
commercial acumen". In no sense is this a new edition
of Fowler's Modern English Usage; through and through,
it is Burchfield's Modern English Usage.
But for the borrowing of Fowler's name, this book undoubtedly
rates as a valuable one to acquire and consult, as providing
a contemporary alternative to the guidance offered by Fowler.
But anyone who acquires this book, hoping that it will
be a 1990s version of Fowler, will be disappointed.
Unfortunately, vigorous modern scholarship allows little
room for idiosyncrasy, quixotism, and a humorous wit. Fowler
exhibited all of these traits, and the undoubted popularity
of his work is no doubt largely attributable to them. Today,
it is doubtful whether any reputable publishing house would
engage such an eccentric character as Fowler to produce a scholarly
work on English usage; but, by the same token, it is unlikely
that many of the better-known definitions from Dr Samuel Johnson's
Dictionary - such as "Dull. To make dictionaries is dull work.";
"Excise. A hateful tax levied upon commodities."; "Oats.
Grain, which in England is generally given to horses,
but in Scotland supports the people."; and "Patron. Commonly
a wretch who supports with insolence, and is paid with flattery."
- would have survived rigorous modern editing standards. The
English language would have been much poorer without the likes
of Johnson and Fowler, even if they do not satisfy modern standards
of academic scholarship.
In short, Burchfield's Modern English Usage - mistitled
as The New Fowler's Modern English Usage - is an excellent
work; but it is not what it pretends to be.