DotW: A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd ed.

When I started writing about dictionaries of the week, I said usage guides didn’t count. But I also said I was going to write about Fowler’s anyway, because I love it. This is at least halfway legitimate, because it has “Dictionary” in the long version of the title and its entries are in alphabetical order.

Fowler’s honestly isn’t a lot of use as to me as a usage guide. For one thing, it’s a little old. The first edition (at left) came out in 1926, so a lot of the advice is out of date, and at 1965, the second edition (middle and right) isn’t much better. Anyway, I’m not much of a usage guide person. I mostly trust my instincts. If I’m not sure, I check the dictionary, then maybe the AP guide. If I get anything terribly wrong, well, there’s always editors.

But Fowler’s is much more fun to read than any of those references. This Henry Watson Fowler fellow had a lot of opinions on words and grammar and he wasn’t afraid to tell you about them. I was delighted when I discovered he thinks it’s perfectly fine to end sentences with prepositions. Here’s an excerpt from the entry titled superstitions:

It is wrong to start a sentence with ‘but’! It is wrong to start a sentence with ‘and’! It is wrong to end a sentence with a preposition! It is wrong to split an infinitive! See the article FETISHES for these and other such rules of thumb and for references to articles in which it is shown how misleading their sweet simplicity is; see also the article SUBSTITUTE for an illustration of the havoc that is wrought by unintelligent applications of an unintelligent dogma.

I love that.

The book is full of excellent advice on writing. I just opened it randomly and found an entry on false scent. I’d never heard that name, but it fits this common writing problem well.

The laying of false scent, i.e. the causing of a reader to suppose that a sentence or part of one is taking a certain course, which he afterwards finds to his confusion that it does not take, is an obvious folly–so obvious that no one commits it wittingly except when surprise is designed to amuse. But writers are apt to forget that, if the false scent is there, it is no excuse to say they did not intend to lay it; it is their business to see that it is not there, and this requires more care than might be supposed.

False scent refers to problems like pronouns with unclear antecedents and missing commas that change the meaning of the sentence. I particularly appreciate his point that it doesn’t matter what the writer meant to say. If the reader is confused, you have a problem.

In addition to the long entries on writing (a full page on hackneyed phrases, four pages on position of adverbs), there are many short entries of the sort you expect from a usage guide. In this case, the guide includes entries for words nobody uses anymore, like this:

 gutta-percha. Pronounce -chă.

Whew. Glad we settled that question. (Since I first encountered it, in 2002, I have actually come across this word a few times in the wild. It’s a kind of natural rubber.)

I learned about this book from Bill Woo, one of the most inspiring professors I ever had. He was a thoughtful man who taught the Opinion Writing class I took in 2002 at Stanford. He’d been the editorial page editor, and eventually the editor, of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and he’d moved to Stanford after being forced out of that position. He started to convince me that my own opinions were actually worth caring about, and told me I should try more of the discursive style of opinion writing. He died in 2006; the New York Times ran an obituary.

Among many other things, Bill Woo told us to read Fowler’s. I don’t know for sure, but I imagine he would have been amused by the same things as me.

I’ve heard that the third edition is to be avoided. I see that Amazon carries a modern reprint of the first edition, but I just buy the second edition every time I see it at a book sale or used-book store and pass it on to friends. Saturday one appeared at my local library’s book sale. It’s a little water-damaged, but it still works. Anybody want it?

Dictionary Stats: A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler (2nd ed.)

date: 1965
Oxford University Press
length: 725 pages
guide words on p. 214
: friar, monk. By the word f. is meant a member of one of the mendicant orders, i.e. those living entirely on alms…. M. is used sometimes of all male members of religious orders including friars, but properly excludes the mendicants…. function. That such and such a thing ‘is a function of’ such another or such others is a POPULARIZED TECHNICALITY: A man’s fortitude under given painful conditions is a f. of two variables….
introduction: In the reprinted preface to the first edition, Fowler dedicates it to his brother, who died in 1918 of TB he’d contracted during the war. “I think of it as it should have been, with its prolixities docked, its dullnesses enlivened, its fads eliminated, its truth multiplied. He has a nimbler wit, a better sense of proportion, and a more open mind, than his twelve-year-older partner; and it is a matter of regret that we had not, at a certain point, arranged our undertakings otherwise than we did.”

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2 Responses to DotW: A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2nd ed.

  1. Pingback: DotW: Origins | Helen Fields

  2. David says:

    I’d gladly take it. That is, if you no longer want it.