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Edwin F. Stevens
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Inspired by my acquisition of Fowler's "A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition," I have now embarked on reading it from cover to cover. Up to now, I have randomly read, in tattered volumes, a lot of the first edition, but not the entire, delightful work -- with all its captivating obscurities, clarities, inconsistencies, insights, and sly humor.
Much as I admire Fowler, I know this will not be an easy exercise.
Even other admirers, far better language experts than I, warn of difficulties ahead:
For example, here is admirer Sir Ernest Gowers, the first reviser of "Modern English Usage" in 1965:
"What is the secret of [the book's] success? It is not that all Fowler's opinions are unchallengeable. Many have been challenged. It is not that he is always easy reading. At his best he is incomparable. But he never forgot what he calls 'that pestilent fellow the critical reader' who is 'not satisfied with catching the general drift and obvious intention of a sentence' but insists that 'the words used must ... actually yield on scrutiny the desired sense.' There are some passages that only yield it after what the reader may think an excessive amount of scrutiny -- passages demanding hardly less concentration than one of the more obscure sections of a Finance Act, and for the same reason: the determination of the writer to make sure that, when the reader eventually gropes his way to a meaning, it shall be, beyond all possible doubt, the meaning intended by the writer."
Even worse, nonadmirer Brendan Gill, in "Here at The New Yorker,'" savages Harold W. Ross, founder and first editor of the magazine, for his Fowler idolatry:
"[Ross] had the uneducated man's suspicion of the fickleness of words; he wanted them to have a limited, immutable meaning, but the sons of bitches kept hopping about from one sentence to the next. Ross was a foul-tongued man and he used curse-words to curse words. Nor were the goddam dictionaries the allies he thought they ought to be; they nearly always betrayed him by granting a word several definitions, some of which were maddeningly at odds with others. That was why Ross fell back with such relish upon Fowler's "Modern English Usage" -- the work of a petty tyrant, who imposed idiosyncrasies by fiat. Ross was awed by Fowler; he would have liked to hold the whip hand over words and syntax as Fowler did."
Randomized as my previous reading of "Modern English Usage" is, I still recognize how wrong-headed, and -hearted, Gill is about Fowler. Far from being Gill's "petty tyrant," Fowler often displays a linguist's knowledge and open-mindedness to complement his prescriptive tendencies. Perhaps most important, Fowler, apparently a modest soul, also displays many flashes of subtle, self-deprecating humor that help urge a reader on through even the densest entries in "Modern English Usage."
No wonder linguist David Crystal, in his fair-minded and thoughtful introduction to "The Classic First Edition," insists that only a full reading of the book does it -- and its author -- justice:
" ... to arrive at a balanced assessment of Fowler's contribution to the linguistic history of ideas, we need to retrace his method and his practice as fully as we can. Reading every word of Fowler [in "Modern English Usage"] is an enthralling, if often exhausting experience, but it enables us to go beyond the popular mythology and get a better sense of the intriguing personality and linguistic genius of this remarkable lexicographer."