Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The problem with the Fowlerian precepts

The King's English is one of my favourite books.  Written by H W Fowler and his younger brother, F G Fowler, and published in 1906, this epoch-making book has enjoyed a great deal of scholarly attention in the past 106 years.  "It took the world by storm", said The Times about the book, while paying tribute to H W Fowler on the occasion of his death.  This century-old book, which made Fowler a household name in all English-speaking countries, still makes stimulating reading.

A couple of weeks ago, I had occasion to thumb again the yellowing pages of the musty, old copy of The King's English in my college library.  The purpose was to pick up some Fowlerian rules for use in a guest-lecture I was expected to give.  The book was as good a read as it had always been on earlier occasions, but I was not sure whether I could use the Fowler brothers' hand-me-downs in my lecture.  I, therefore, turned to another favourite, Alan Warner's A Short Guide to English Style, and found it a better fit.

Why did the Fowlerian precepts disappoint me?  I will answer the question with reference to four of the Fowler brothers' "practical rules in the domain of vocabulary".

"Prefer the concrete word to the abstract" is one of the precepts.  On the face of it, it is sound advice because abstract words are, after all, enemies of precise expression.  But not quite sound, if you examine it carefully.  We often talk about our – and other people's – attitudes and feelings.  We will not be able to talk about them, if we decide to use only concrete words for joy and sorrow and love and anger.

"Prefer the single word to the circumlocution", say the Fowler brothers.  "No" is certainly preferable to the pedantic "The answer is in the negative."  But there are situations in which "No" would be considered blunt and therefore impolite.  Whether one should use the single word or the periphrasis depends on the context or the occasion.

"Prefer the short word to the long" is the third rule.  I do like short words, but, as a writer, I have often found long words more effective than short words in the expression of emotional ideas.  "Stupendous" and "magnificent" are much more powerful than "large" and "grand".

The last rule is: "Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance."  In other words, avoid Latin derivations where native words can serve the purpose.  It is a lame-duck rule, as Michael Beresford points out in his Modern English.  Even at the time of publication of The King's English, the distinction between the Anglo-Saxon element and the Latin element had ceased to be of any importance.  And now, in the context of what David Crystal calls "World Englishes", the cry for Saxon English or the pedigree of English words would only be a voice in the wilderness.

"Break any of those rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous", said George Orwell, author of Animal Farm, four decades later.  He was a very sensible man.

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