Fowler for the 21st Century


Fowler's latest editionOn the desk of every writer, every reporter, every editor, every PR director and every communications officer is a small library of reference books. A good dictionary (Oxford, American Heritage, Merriam Webster, Random House but gods forbid, never a generic Webster’s). A thesaurus (likely Roget’s). A style guide (CP for Canadians, or AP for Americans… Canadians likely have both).  A dictionary of quotations (because the print version is reliable as a source, and the Internet isn’t). And a usage guide.

That’s de rigeur for these professions, and the very minimum that they likely have in front of them every time they write or edit. To ignore these authorities or their guidance would be unprofessional and most professionals will have more of such titles than these basics.

There are many of the latter usage guides to choose from. Strunk and White. Partridge. Gowers. Flesch. Garner. Follett. Wallraff. Pinker. Dozens of books about grammar also fit the bill. The real language wonks have the encyclopedic Chicago Manual of Style (the latest 16th edition…). But Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage will likely hold pride of place. After all, it’s THE guide. We all have at least one copy of it. Writers and editors, that is.

Fowler’s has been the go-to guide for writers and editors since its first publication in 1926, now more a bit of linguistic paleontology than a working guide. It was revised in 1937. It’s still in print, though, nearly a century later. It was revised and edited by Ernest Gowers in the famous second edition, first published in 1965, revised in 1983 and reprinted many times. That’s the version most of my generation used and it’s still a workhorse. But it’s now more than 50 years old, and ,a bit fusty, but Gowers was also a canny wordsmith. As he wrote of Fowler in his introduction:

The truth is that the prime mover of his moralizing was not so much grammatical grundyism as the instincts of a craftsman. ‘Proper words in proper places’, said Swift, ‘make the true definition of a style.’ Fowler thought so too; and, being a perfectionist, could not be satisfied with anything that seemed to him to fall below the highest standard either in the choice of precise words or in their careful and orderly arrangement.

He knew, he said, that ‘what grammarians say should be has perhaps less influence on what shall be than even the more modest of them realize; usage evolves itself little disturbed by their likes and dislikes’. ‘And yet’, he added, ‘the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible. He has had his reward in his book’s finding a place on the desk of all those who regard writing as a craft, and who like what he called ‘the comfort that springs from feeling that all is shipshape’

Grundyism? Doesn’t that make you want to read it? If so you can find it online in PDF format. Or open your own, well-thumbed edition to page 19.

In 1996, Robert Burchfield edited a major third edition (the “New Fowler’s,” revised in 2004) and, of course, every writer, editor and reporter worth his/her salt had to have it. After all, it was Fowler’s. The de facto authority. Both the 1996 and 2004 editions found a place on the desks (hint: if you visit the office of any writer, reporter, editor or communications person and you don’t see a Fowler’s anywhere, then you’re surrounded by amateurs).

Burchfield was, admittedly, controversial because, as it says in a review on World Wide Words, he…

…dared to base many of his recommendations on the way people actually used English rather than the way over-careful and traditional users thought it ought to be used.

But that made his edition all the more appealling. Language doesn’t stay in place like an insect in amber. It evolves, changes, grows and reaches. Not just neologisms; usage changes. And there are always those stuffing their fingers into the dam trying to hold back the flood. They groused about Burchfield’s modernistic style and his willingness to bend or even break Victorian-era rules.

Then in 2015, Jeremy Butterfield edited a fourth edition: Fowler’s for the 21st century. New, just no longer called “new” in the title. And it follows Burchfield deeper into the vernacular, at least as deep as the realities of publishing hardcopy will allow.

As Jenny Roberts wrote for the Society for Editors and Proofreaders:

Although this edition is bang up to date, no usage book can keep up with the constant changes in fashion for new words and phrases.

Like with the third edition, writers and editors damn well had to get a copy for their desktop libraries. Fowler’s, after all, is like the OED in its authoritative stance. It’s the bible of usage. World Wide Words noted of this new edition:

A significant change, and one to be welcomed, is the replacement of much of the rather fusty and outmoded language of the first edition — unchanged by later editors who were perhaps too much in awe of H W Fowler’s prose — by fresh and warmly conversational text leavened by humour, if sometimes a little heavy-handed, and the occasional burst of sarcastic grumpiness. He comments in the introduction that every editor of Fowler has brought personal “preferences, tastes, habits, and bugbears” to his writing and Fowler wouldn’t be the same without them. Almost every entry provides an example of his personal style.

Much the same could be said of Burchfield’s edition. Many a happy hour have I spent comparing Burchfield’s comments to Gowers’ when trying to assess which style or form was most appropriate. Now I get to compare Burchfield and Butterfield.

(FYI, the Daily Mail groused about the latest edition, calling it a ‘grumpy old man’s dictionary’. Maybe if Butterfield had put some women in bikinis in it, they would have approved…)

Anyone worthy of the name writer, editor or reporter keeps up-to-date with all the core works like Fowler, OED, CP Stylebook, the CMOS and so on. It’s just part of doing your job well. No excuses for not having the latest edition.

I have no reason to doubt that even our local reporters feel that urge to stay current, stay polished, stay on top of their game. They have surely kept their own reference libraries up-to-date while my own has, sadly, aged in place. For that I envy them. I have tried to stay current with many titles, the OED in particular, but my CMOS is the previous 15th edition and I haven’t bought a new thesaurus for at least a decade.

My Stunk and White is up to date, and I make it a habit still to read through it at least once a year. Every professional does. Not that every rule in S&W is necessarily unbreakable, but you cannot break a rule if you don’t know what it is in the first place.

Okay, I admit that since I became semi-retired, I haven’t always kept up with the latest editions of every dictionary, thesaurus, style and usage guide I own. I’m no longer in the media and my need to be au current in style and usage isn’t as desperate as it was when I was in the business. Plus I can’t afford every new edition. My collection is still fairly robust, but a few titles are getting long in the tooth.

Imagine a car mechanic who didn’t know anything about cars built after 1990. An accountant who hadn’t read tax laws since 2000. A doctor who hadn’t followed medical trends since the 1970s. A municipal politician who wasn’t aware of changes to the Municipal and Planning Acts (okay, that includes most of Collingwood Council, but they’re an exception…). Writers, reporters and editors who don’t stay current with language style and usage would be just like these. So of course they have bought and read the latest edition of Fowler’s. Not to do so would be to shirk their responsibility to their audience.

Not to own and read this material would be as big a gaffe, as big a professional failing as using a generic Webster’s dictionary instead of an authoritative one like the OED or Merriam Webster. Or relying on the internet click-bait sites for your quotations.

Yet I admit my failure: until this week, my own Fowler’s was out of date. I clung to my third edition, despite the controversy of Burchfield’s editing, because it simply suited my purposes. I tried to stay current with the trends in our language through online forums, through magazine articles and blog posts, but face it: if you’re in the writing business, even casually, you have to have the latest Fowler’s. Period.

So I rectified my oversight and bought the new edition. I am absolved.

Butterfield, too, is controversial in that he (as it notes in the Spectator ) whistles around the issue of impersonal pronouns rather than taking the horns and accepting “they” as a suitable form. But language is like that: replete with alternatives, challenges, opportunities and complexities. I’ll accept that the definitive answer has yet to be determined, but it would have gone a long way had he made a decision.

Now you might think that editors and writers turn to a book like Fowler’s merely as a reference, opened only when the need or question arises. Like when they’re debating whether to use ‘try and’ or ‘try to.’ Afterwards, it sits like a doorstop on the desk. Not so! Intrepid professionals read these books regularly for insight, ideas and explanations, not simply solutions. And they read them to renew and strengthen their hold on the language. Writer Alan Taylor noted in his review in The Herald:

To wordsmiths such as myself, Fowler’s is akin to the Koran or the Bible. Rarely a day goes by without me dipping into it. I like to open it at random and, no matter how stressed I feel, I find its sage advice calming and reassuring. Where else, for instance, can one learn that fraenum is “a fold of mucous membrane or skin, esp. under the tongue” or that ‘hoi polloi” ought not to be prefaced with the definite article “the”?

As World Wide Words also notes this edition is entertaining:

…the new Fowler is worth consulting even by writers who think they know the language well. Butterfield has created a guide that is readable for entertainment as well as enlightenment.

Yes, Fowler’s is as entertaining bedtime reading as many a novel (and certainly more fun than the political histories I’ve been reading of late). Not the first two editions, mind you, but both Burchfield and Butterfield are. No, don’t smirk: try them and you’ll see. what the writing and editing pros already know. No reason you shouldn’t share their delight. Try it: you might be surprised at how much fun language can be.

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