Fowler’s memorable preface

Yesterday was the birthday of Henry Watson Fowler, the man who wrote one of the most famous books on English language, reminded the Writer’s Almanac. I love Fowler’s Modern English Usage. The opening lines are as memorable as anything written by the finest English novelists.

Jane Austen and Charles Dickens wrote probably the most famous opening opening lines in English fiction.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” begins Jane Austen in Pride and Prejudice.

Charles Dickens opens A Tale of Two Cities with the words:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

No less memorable to me are the opening words of the preface to Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Fowler begins by dedicating the book to his younger brother. They worked together, but Charles Francis Fowler, his younger brother, did not live to see the book published. He could have produced a superior book with his brother’s help, says Fowler. Those are his very first words:

I think of it as it should have been, with its prolixities docked, its dullnesses enlivened, its fads eliminated, its truths multiplied. He had a nimbler wit, a better sense of proportion, and a more open mind, than his twelve-year-older partner; and it is matter of regret that we had not, at a certain point, arranged our undertakings otherwise than we did.

Note the lovely phrases, “prolixities docked”, “dullnesses enlivened”. Fowler is a master of English language who finds a refreshing way to say he could have produced a tighter, more lively book with his brother’s help.

HWF – as Henry Watson Fowler signs himself in the preface – recalls how he and his brother used to work together:

In 1911 we started work simultaneously on the Pocket Oxford Dictionary and this book; living closer together, we could, and did, compare notes; but each was to get one book into shape by writing its first quarter or half; and so much only had been done before the war. The one in which, as the less mechanical, his ideas and contributions would have had the much greater value had been assigned, by ill chance, to me. In 1918 he died, aged 47, of tuberculosis contracted during service with the B.E.F during 1915-16.

The present book accordingly contains none of his actual writing; but, having been designed in consultation with him, it is the last fruit of a partnership that began in 1903 with our translation of Lucian.

In three short paragraphs, including one of the loveliest opening lines, Fowler conveys all that he wants to say about the book. And that is:

  • His brother was more gifted than him and would have helped him produce a better book.
  • They had a long literary partnership.
  • But he alone wrote the book as his brother died of illness after serving in the First World War.

Fowler’s Modern English Usage was first published in 1926, eight years after Charles’s death. The BEF mentioned in the preface was the British Expeditionary Force which fought on the Western Front – in France and Belgium – in the First Wold War.

So many new words have come in since Fowler’s day; yet his book remains a classic. I loved the second edition, edited by Sir Ernest Gowers and published in the 1960s. Gowers updated the book to keep pace with changes in the English language, but he did not tamper with the author’s style. He kept the sense of fun and humour with which Fowler wrote the book.

Unfortunately, the third edition, edited by Burchfield and published in the 1990s, was totally different. Burchfield, a former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, completely rewrote the book, taking away all the fun and humour.

Fowler was a schoolmaster and Burchfield, a scholar, had no patience with what he called “the veneer of humour and idiosyncrasy” with which Fowler wrote his book. He thought the titles of Fowler’s articles – “pairs and snares”, “between two stools”, “airs and graces” – were archaic and changed them.  He wanted the titles to be more “transparent” and self-explanatory.But, as he acknowledged in his preface, they were what endeared the book to Fowler’s devotees. They had a charm of their own.

With all the alterations he made, Burchfield completely changed the character of the book. He wanted to make it more useful for present-day readers. He wanted to make it easier for them to quickly look up a word or an article and turned it into a dry reference book.

But the original was more than a reference book; what Fowler had written was something to savour and linger over. To go back to the opening sentence, where Fowler speculates on how his brother would have helped him produce a better book, with “its prolixites docked, its dullnesses enlivened”, it is as pensive as a poem by Robert Frost. There is the same quiet introspection yielding a harvest of words that stay in your memory.

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