Saturday, December 12, 2009

A new edition of Fowler

Early in my academic writing career, I met Fowler.

I was putting together the first edition of Writing for the Mass Media and was looking for some basic writing references and somehow -- I don't remember how -- came upon Fowler. It was, the parlance of that day, the real thing.

Fowler is an "it," as well as a "he."

He is Henry Fowler. It is A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, or as Jim Holt notes in his essay in the New York Times, "among its devotees it is known, reverentially, as 'Fowler.' ”

Holt tells the interesting story of how Fowler became "Fowler." Henry Fowler was a former school teacher and amateur wordsmith who lived on the island of Guernsey with his younger brother Frank. In the first decade of the 20th century, Henry and Frank published a book titled The King's English, which, despite their amateur status, was a great success. They took on the editing of The Concise Oxford Dictionary and then planned a larger book on the language, but World War I occurred. Frank died of tuberculosis, and Henry barely survived a bout of illness, But when he did, he took up the project that he and his brother had envisioned.

As Holt relates in his essay:
The book was published in 1926, to immediate acclaim and brisk sales. Although language, as the truism goes, is an ever changing Heraclitean river, Fowler was not revised until 1965, when Sir Ernest Gowers gave it a light going-over, preserving both the spirit and the substance of the original. (The same cannot be said of the 1996 third edition, heavily reworked by R. W. Burchfield.) Now Oxford University Press has reissued the classic first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage ($29.95), with an acute new introduction by the linguist David Crystal. It is a volume that everyone who aspires to a better command of English should possess and consult — sparingly. (emphasis mine)
Sparingly, as Holt points out in the rest of his essay, is the key.

You can't take Fowler too seriously because, for one, Fowler doesn't take himself too seriously. The language should be whatever is useful and not laden with a lot of half-wit rules (such as never splitting an infinitive).

The dictionary isn't a dictionary of definitions but rather a collection of short essays on the language. Most of them are short, thought-provoking, delightful and informative.

Fowler/'Fowler' has been a good friend for a quarter of a century, and it's good to know that there is another edition for the next generation.

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