A life without participles dangling

H.W. Fowler literally wrote the book on English usage

In the world of words, where Webster stands for dictionary, Fowler stands for English usage. So it's not surprising that when Oxford published a completely revised reference on usage a few years ago, it was labeled "The New Fowler's Modern English Usage."

But the original text by H.W. Fowler, long admired by language mavens, was gone. The debate about evolving English usage, sparked by his work, goes on, however. The language is alive and growing. Should experts try to proscribe what's wrong or only describe what's current?

Those who fondly recall the noted lexicographer's quirky, idiosyncratic, often intimidating dictums and want to know more about him will find Jenny McMorris's biography of Henry Fowler, "The Warden of English," informative, thoughtful, and sympathetic. It's perhaps a bit dry as well, like her subject.

A well-educated scholar, Fowler was a schoolmaster for 17 years before he turned to writing and editing. He lived on the island of Guernsey and worked with his brother Francis on his first publishing success, "The King's English," as well as compiling the Oxford Concise English Dictionary. The Fowlers based their work on the then still unfinished Oxford English Dictionary. Later, for "Modern English Usage," Fowler often used citations from newspapers as examples of mistakes!

Henry married, apparently quite happily, at 50, and began writing sometimes witty but generally banal verse to his beloved wife, Jessie. Short, but something of an athlete - he ran and swam every day - he managed to enlist in World War I by lying about his age. So did Francis. They never served on the front lines, and their experiences of bureaucratic snafus were exasperating and draining.

After the war and Francis' death, Henry worked alone on his long-projected usage compendium. When finally published in 1926, it was an instant success - beyond his or anyone else's dreams - and it remained a standard reference for most of the rest of the century.

His wife's health failed, and then his own declined. Despite the loss of an eye, Henry continued to plug at his final major project, the Oxford Dictionary of Modern English. He never finished it, and despite the continuing work of another lexicographer, the publisher finally dropped it.

More comprehensive than the brief bios of Fowler previously available, "The Warden of English" is a loving portrait of a kindly but crusty curmudgeon. Fowler fans will be glad at last to see the man behind the words.

Ruth Johnstone Wales is editor of the Monitor's International Edition.

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