I have loved H. W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage ever since I snagged a beat-up copy of the 1926 first edition at a library sale almost forty years ago. I was never interested in the successive revisions, first by Ernest Gowers and then (actually a rewriting) by Robert Burchfield; they diluted Fowler’s dry wit and vigorously stated opinions without producing a guide I considered truly modern and usable. Now Oxford has come out with A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition, of which they were kind enough to send me a copy, and I am happy to report it includes the best of both worlds, keeping Fowler’s original text unchanged while adding a superb introduction and a concluding section of notes updating some 300 entries, both by David Crystal. He begins his introduction with a brief description of the origin of the work, then plunges into an analysis of “the climate of the time”:
The growth of comparative philology in the early nineteenth century had led to an explosion of interest in the history of language and languages, and one of the consequences was the increased study of English and its regional varieties… It was also a great age of individualists. In 1873 Isaac Pitman founded his Phonetic Institute in Bath, advocating the importance of shorthand and spelling reform… The focus on everyday speech in all its bewildering diversity was in sharp contrast to the educational ethos of the period, with its concentration on written texts… Fowler was thus writing at a time when the prescriptive approach to language was beginning to lose its pedagogical dominance and yet was attracting fresh levels of support from the literary elite. Revising his Dictionary for final publication in the early 1920s, he plainly felt the tension between the traditional focus on a small set of words, pronunciations, and grammatical usages, as indicators of ‘correct’ linguistic behaviour, and the diverse and changing realities of the way educated people actually used language in their everyday lives. Many of his entries comment upon it, and, as we shall see, he was not entirely sure how to deal with it.
Crystal says that Fowler is often taken as “the apotheosis of the prescriptive approach,” but points out that “this is a considerable oversimplification. He turns out to be far more sophisticated in his analysis of language than most people realize. Several of his entries display a concern for descriptive accuracy which would do any modern linguist proud.” In the section on pronunciation, for instance, he says “we deserve not praise but censure if we decline to accept the popular pronunciation of popular words.” And, as Crystal writes, “he defends the spelling of halyard ‘not on etymological grounds, but as established by usage’, adding the wry comment, ’tilting against established perversions . . . is vanity in more than one sense’.” But:
The problem in reading Fowler is that one never knows which way he is going to vote. Is he going to allow a usage because it is widespread, or is he going to condemn it for the same reason? … The impression the entries give is that Fowler considers to be idiomatic what he himself uses. Usages he does not like are given such labels as ‘ugly’ (e.g. at historicity) or even ‘evil’ (e.g. at respectively).
He continues with a good deal of acute analysis of Fowler’s choices, prejudices, and insights, presenting some striking examples of contradictions: Fowler sensibly rejects letting etymology define meaning, then turns around and expresses “strong support for the maintenance of earlier meanings of a word, such as at aggravate, transpire, and meticulous (a ‘wicked word’).” The introduction ends with a brief summing up of “the status of Fowler.” Crystal has written the best discussion of Fowler that I have seen or, really, can imagine.
His end notes are very useful, providing pointers to how things have changed since Fowler’s day and, in some cases, when he went astray:
rapport ‘will not be missed in English’
This is an example where Fowler’s sense of usefulness let him down. Far from the word being allowed to disappear, it increased in usefulness. Most of the OED citations are from the twentieth century.
In short, this is not the book to get if you simply want a reliable style guide for current use—that would be Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage—but if you want to explore the ideas of one of the most interesting thinkers about English style in the early twentieth century, guided by a reliable modern linguist, this would be an excellent acquisition.
I have to point out that Crystal himself gets one thing wrong in his introduction: when he says Fowler indulges in the emphatic use of literally that he elsewhere condemns in the negotiate entry, where he writes that a usage “stamps a writer as literarily [sic] a barbarian,” his sic is needless and his point nugatory, because Fowler is not using literally at all. Fowler would never have said that the use of negotiate in the disfavored sense “stamps a writer as literally a barbarian”; he wrote “literarily” and he meant “literarily”: such usage stamps a writer as a barbarian with regard to literary style.