Arm in arm with Fowler

MEET H.W. Fowler - preserver of the King's English, promoter of style. Fowler, the fellow who - when necessary - splits infinitives and concludes with prepositions; but who sniffs like a schoolmaster if ``flaunt'' is used for ``flout'' or ``fleshy'' for ``fleshly.'' Henry Fowler - what a man! Someone to really enjoy. Someone, in fact, to spend a lifetime with. His wife is rumored to have been very happy. Fowler's ``A Dictionary of Modern English Usage,'' 62 years old, is now in paperback. Respectfully revised by Sir Ernest Gowers, it has become available at a low price to ordinary citizens, people who used to put off writing term papers or letters to the finance company because of their panic about when to use ``which'' and when ``that'' and why sometimes neither and who's on first. On seeing the paperback Fowler, educators give thanks to the Oxford University Press, so tireless in its efforts to improve us all.

But ``Modern English Usage'' is not merely a grammar book. It is also a collection of essays written by a gentleman reporter who invites you along on his curious prowls. The crimes he investigates are sloppiness, haste, and pretentiousness. The perpetrators are Us.

In Slipshod Extension, for instance, a miscreant writhes who used the high-sounding word ``feasible'' when he should have used ``probable.'' (``Feasible,'' Fowler warns us behind his hat, means only ``do-able.'' There is no such thing as a feasible candidate.) In Pleonasm the repetitious prate and gabble, using words that mean the same as words they've already used. Among Incompatibles stands, shamefaced, anyone who ever wrote ``rather unique,'' or ``more preferable,'' or ``somewhat amazing.''

Fowler pokes fun at the Genteel - those who inquire where the lingerie is purveyed, rather than asking where the underpants are sold; and he shakes his pencil at the Incongruous, who say ``nigh'' and ``to wit'' and ``haply''; but he would really rather reveal than reprove. In his most entertaining articles he explores all the meanings and uses and extensions and possibilities (though not feasibilities) of a structure or a word or a syllable. He points out romantically that ``that'' doesn't like to be parted from its antecedent. He tracks down six kinds of verbless sentences. He explains that effective irony presumes the presence of two audiences: outsiders who take what is said at face value, and insiders - you and I, love - who know better.

Henry Fowler was born in 1858. He was educated at Oxford. After university he served for almost 20 years as master in a public school. He then moved to London and tried unsuccessfully to make a living as an essayist. He removed to Guernsey and began to work as a lexicographer. He served in World War I (he had to lie about his age).

Fowler worked on the ``Usage'' first with his brother, who died in 1918; afterward he labored alone. The first edition came out in 1925. Its immediate success must have made up somewhat for the London disappointments. The book has never been out of print. Teachers recommend it. Editors consult it. And people who love right words in their right order - they honor it.

But who are these honoring people? Would they fill more than one lifeboat?

``It has become fashionable to speak disrespectfully of grammar,'' wrote Fowler; `` - a natural reaction from the excessive reverence formerly paid it.'' Half a century ago, Fowler hoped that grammar would become respected again. It has not. Syntax and diction have surrendered to self-expression. Figurative language has flown out the window. Students are not trained to recognize the devices of rhetoric nor of prosody (though they are alert to racist, sexist, and ethnic innuendo). Those who worry about the difference between ``which'' and ``that'' are outnumbered by those who don't know that there is a difference, or that there is a Fowler. One can no longer identify a young person's social, economic, or educational class by his language. Everybody speaks like a churl.

Regrettable. But to what extent regrettable? If loose, infelicitous, ambiguous, and boring locution is to be the locution of the classless, nonexploitative society - if we can't have the second without the first - then I, for one, am willing to slog along, participles dangling, antecedents unknown.

But just in case we can have egalitarianism and exactness, too, I'm keeping close to Fowler. At a moment's notice, he is ready to entertain the solitary reader. With her hand safely tucked into his elbow, he takes her on a stroll through his territory, talking with enormous charm about interesting and unpainful things.

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