The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, revised third edition

R.W. Burchfield

Oxford University Press, 1996

873 pp., $29.95

By Doug Shaver

Spring 2002

If the law were persnickety about such things, Burchfield or his publisher could get into trouble over truth in labeling. The New Fowler's is a suitable enough successor to the work many of us have revered, but it is not Fowler. It is not even a revision of Fowler. It is a new book bearing Fowler's original title.

Something like an update of Modern English Usage was needed, and Fowler himself, who died in 1933, wasn't around to do it. Neither was Sir Ernest Gowers, who in 1965 prepared a revised edition that faithfully preserved Fowler's style and most of his pronouncements. Whether Burchfield should have been given the job is going to be debated for a long time. Prescriptivists don't like The New Fowler's any more than they have liked Webster's Third International.

Burchfield's credentials are certainly in order. He is a scholar of the history of English and was an editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, serving as chief editor from 1971 to 1984. Those who would resist the evolution of our language by an appeal to authority don't have many others they can turn to who could be thought to outrank him.

And, it's not as though Burchfield routinely hesitates to exercise authority. Although not as doctrinaire as Fowler, he can come across as no less the schoolmaster. Concerning advise, advice, he remarks, "It should not be necessary to say that advise is a verb . . . and that advice is a noun . . . but apparently the two words (or spellings) are sometimes confused." On affect, effect: "These verbs are not synonyms requiring differentiation, but words of totally different meaning neither of which can ever be substituted for the other."

Under disinterested, he observes, "Without doubt the sense 'uninterested, not interested' is making a strong challenge at the present time," but after citing numerous examples of such usage by presumptively knowledgeable writers, he concludes, "My recommendation is to restrict disinterested to its sense of impartial, at any rate for the present."

He calls for maintaining the distinction between fewer and less according to whether the noun being modified represents something countable or measurable. His word for the likes of "less things" or "less men" is simply "wrong."

But as he indicates with his "for the present" concession on disinterested, Burchfield's own ultimate authority -- as it must be for any conscientious writer -- is consensus among those who use the language. A word or expression can "really mean" only what those who read it understand it to mean.

Burchfield thus notes, under ex-:

Fowler . . . scorned formations in which ex- is prefixed to a noun phrase, e.g. ex-Lord Mayor, ex-Prime Minister, ex-Chief Whip, on the ground that such persons are not ex-Lords, ex-Primes, etc. Who would dream of thinking so? The eye easily accommodates such expressions, the ex- being simply assumed to apply to the whole of the noun phrase.

He observes, without hint of disapproval, that fallacy is "widely used outside logic in the broad sense 'a mistaken belief, esp. one based on unsound argument'." Some of us wish it weren't. Too bad for us. Likewise, the use of quantum jump to mean sudden large increase is recorded practically without comment except for a cross-reference to his article on popularized technicalities. In that article is no indication that there might be something unfortunate about the tendency of scientific language to lose precision when adopted by non-scientists.

Burchfield, then, is telling us what people are doing with the language, and if he disapproves, he rarely says so. His lack of demurral scarcely leaves the writer without guidance, though. Where a usage is widely contested, the controversy is presented, and a competent writer should require no more instruction than that.

Is it all right to write alright? Burchfield doesn't say it isn't, but he does inform the reader that alright is used "hardly ever by writers of standing." That surely says something useful. Is anticipate an acceptable synonym for expect or foresee? The usage has become "widely adopted," he says, and that's a fact. It is also a fact, as he points out, that "Insults about it will continue to be hurled" against those who adopt the usage. A writer whose desire to communicate effectively outweighs any compulsion to assert his stylistic modernity will put such information to good use.

What about hopefully, as in "Hopefully, it won't rain on our parade"? Burchfield here takes the reader to an illuminating article on the sentence adverb, a subject that he calls "one of the most bitterly contested of all the linguistic battles fought out in the last decades of the 20c." From his report of the battle, one may conclude: Sentence adverbs in general are OK in English, and there is no good reason for hopefully in particular to be an exception. With or without good reason, though, the usage continues to be opposed by many. A writer may be justified in ignoring the opposition, but he needs to know it's there, and Burchfield lets him know that it is.

But The New Fowler's, like its predecessors, is far more than just a record of what is acceptable, unacceptable, or optional. The original volume, says Burchfield, "shows what it was like to be linguistically aware" in the early 20th century. His book shows the same for the end of that century.

Indeed, to learn it all would make one far more than just "linguistically aware." Few if any writers, however erudite, could even know all the entry words, let alone use them correctly. I have a pretty good vocabulary, but I'd never heard of florilegium ("an anthology"), logion ("a saying attributed to Christ"), or polemarch (a civilian official in ancient Greece), to mention only three spotted in a quick browse.

For those who care, interesting trivia abound. English speakers were saying flutist more than two centuries before flautist invaded the language from Italy in the mid-18th century. Some bay windows may also be called bow windows. Henry Fairlie did not coin a new meaning for Establishment when he used it in 1955 to mean "the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised." Technology, when the Greeks invented the word, included grammar in its purview.

Some words are listed only to report their correct spelling or pronunciation if their usage is not itself controversial. Numerous prosodic terms are included, most of which I suspect are quite foreign to anyone but serious students of poetry.

For those who love English enough to study it, this book provides a banquet of information. Burchfield has accomplished what he says in his preface was his purpose: "with the aid of quotational evidence drawn from identified sources, to guide readers to make sensible choices in linguistically controversial areas of words, meanings, grammatical constructions, and pronunciations."

He observes that we live in "a time when pessimists are writing gloomily about declining standards, the loss of valuable distinctions in meaning, the introduction of unappetising vogue words and slang." He does not remind the reader that such pessimists have been so writing since long before Henry Fowler, or Noah Webster.

Or Samuel Johnson, justly famous for his comments on the futility of resisting linguistic evolution:

. . . we laugh at the elixir that promises to prolong life to a thousand years; and with equal justice may the lexicographer be derided, who being able to produce no example of a nation that has preserved their words and phrases from mutability, shall imagine that his dictionary can embalm his language . . . .

With this hope, however, academies have been instituted, to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.

Burchfield could have been thinking of Johnson when he concluded his preface:

I am sure that the English language is not collapsing -- more severe changes have come about in past centuries than any that have occurred in the twentieth century -- and in the English language, used well, we still have, and will continue to have, a tool of extraordinary strength and flexibility.

Those of an earlier generation who wished to use this tool to maximum effect had to know Fowler. His Modern English Usage was scarcely more optional for a serious writer than a good dictionary. The next generation will have to know The New Fowler's. Those who would enchain today's syllables imagine as vain a thing as did those of Johnson's day.

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