An old favourite: A Dictionary of Modern English Usage

Day 14: I wonder if the folks at the Borough Press who promoted this month of prompts about memorable books have noticed that people tend to like favorable opinions more than unfavorable ones. Favorite is today’s broad category, but old doesn’t narrow it down much for those of us who are old. From many possibilities, I chose a book that I cherish but others consider old and outdated in spite of the fact that Oxford University Press went to the trouble of publishing a facsimile edition in 2010: A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by Henry Watson Fowler. It’s a publisher’s job to know that plenty of us love our Fowlers.

A Dictionary of Modern English UsageBarton Swaim wrote a good review of the new edition of the book for The New Criterion. I can’t help but think that only a person with a name like Barton Swaim should have an opinion about Fowler, but then Swaim is a native South Carolinian who lives in Columbia, less than 100 miles from me. Until I moved to this state, no one had ever before greeted me in passing by saying, “Top o’ the mornin’ to ye.” All sorts of traditions have been preserved around here over the centuries.

Swaim’s review includes a few excerpts. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage is designed to help you to decide rather than to tell you how to write. If you were to try to scan an entry to alleviate some confusion about how to use a particular word, you’d be thwarted by something similar to this, which is about 5% of Fowler’s full discussion of “who and whom”:

…the thing to aim at is the establishment of ‘that’ as the universal defining relative, with ‘which’ and ‘who(m)’ as the non-defining for things and persons respectively. That consummation will not be brought about just yet; but we contribute our little towards it every time we write “The greatest poet ‘that’ ever lived,” or “The man ‘that’ I found confronting me,” instead of using ‘who’ and ‘whom.’ Failing the use of ‘that’ as the only defining relative, it is particularly important to see that ‘who’ defining shall not have a comma before it, and ‘who’ non-defining shall.

The section goes on to provide an example with wrong commas, which I won’t include because to my great dismay this new blog theme forces block quotes into all italics. Maddening. Oops, an unfavorable opinion. Sorry. More importantly, Fowler’s examples are instructive and often humorous, and deciphering his explanations is a big part of the fun.

BookADay-The Borough Press

2 Replies to “An old favourite: A Dictionary of Modern English Usage

  1. I notice that in Australia, ‘which’ is used much more frequently than ‘that’, with no differentiation between restrictive and non-restrictive. I still consult my copy of Fowlers but also check the Cambridge Guide to English Usage. The latter is supportive of changes in language because the explanations about language use are based on corpus research rather than tradition.

  2. I must admit that I’d never cite Fowler in a note on a manuscript I was editing, because it wouldn’t simplify anything. Maybe that’s the reason it delights me, because it’s a private fetish.

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