Tag Archives: Fowler

The best grammar and English usage books: praise from high places


I’m a big fan of these books about English usage and grammar. And I’m in good company: each book has enjoyed its own celebrity or high-profile endorsements — some surprising, and some surprisingly witty, given the subject matter of the texts. But even the best linguists can’t please everyone, and a couple of critics were happy to prove this point too …

H. W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage:

“Why must you write intensive here? Intense is the right word. You should read Fowler’s Modern English Usage on the use of the two words.'” — Winston Churchill, in a letter to the Director of Military Intelligence about the plans for the invasion of Normandy

“Reading Fowler provides instruction and knowledge and direction, but the whole of it is a sensual delight.” — William F. Buckley

“[Fowler] has afforded me endless amusement and instruction through my very long life.” — Jessica Mitford

Strunk and White: The Elements of Style

“If someone wants to toss it in the box with me when I go six feet under, that would be fine; it might actually assure my passage through the Pearly Gates, since Saint Peter no doubt is a gentleman of impeccable grammatical taste, not to mention style.” — Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post‘s book critic

“An aging zombie of a book . . . a hodgepodge, its now-antiquated pet peeves jostling for space with 1970s taboos and 1990s computer advice.” — Boston Globe, reviewing The Elements of Style Illustrated in 2005

Paul Brians: Common Errors in English Usage

“Let’s just say that Common Errors in English Usage is the most cheerfully useful book I’ve read since the Kama Sutra.” — Scott Simon, host of NPR’s Weekend Edition

Bryan Garner: Garner’s Modern American Usage

Garrison Keillor has called it one of the five most influential books in his library.

Mark Davidson: Right, Wrong, and Risky

“When I was nineteen I traveled by bus to New York with a copy of Roget’s Thesaurus on my lap, educating and delighting myself along the way. Now with Mark Davidson’s wonderful Right, Wrong, and Risky, I long for a similar trip in which to instruct my mind and free my spirit.” — Ray Bradbury

Lynne Truss: Eats, Shoots & Leaves

“If Lynne Truss were Roman Catholic I’d nominate her for sainthood.” — Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes

“Of course, I knew how it would appear to other people. ‘At the age of 48, she wrote a book on punctuation.’ If you were to read that thumbnail sketch in a novel, you would know everything you needed to know about this character’s tragic lack of ambition (and ignorance of the book trade).” — Lynne Truss, on writing her own runaway bestseller

“An Englishwoman lecturing Americans on semicolons is a little like an American lecturing the French on sauces. Some of Truss’s departures from punctuation norms are just British laxness.” — Louis Menand, New Yorker

Which or that: the ongoing debate (and a Brit-Yank divider?)


I stumbled on something interesting in the Oxford English Dictionary. It contradicts itself on the subject of which and that, using the relative pronoun which in a definition for which it (the OED) — in its own definitions of which and that — prescribes that. This seems to be symptomatic of a larger ongoing debate about the two relative pronouns that divides not just individual grammar commentators (both lay and professional) but also, apparently, two nations.

First, here’s a brief primer on the original (but now sometimes disputed or diluted) difference between which and that. According to the dictionary mentioned above — specifically the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (the 1993 edition): which (when used as a relative pronoun) is defined as “introducing a clause describing or stating something additional about the antecedent, the sense of the main clause being complete without the relative clause.” The same dictionary gives the relative pronoun that a different role in the sentence, “introducing a clause defining or restricting the antecedent, especially a clause essential to the identification of the antecedent (and thus completing its sense).”

An earlier Glossophilia post explains and illustrates this difference a little more simply: “‘That’ … qualifies or identifies the noun preceding it, pinpointing which one of two or more nouns is being referred to. ‘Which’ … simply adds extra but non-identifying information about the preceding noun. A good rule of thumb is this: if the that/which clause can be taken away and you still understand the reference, it must be a which. If you take it away and you’re unsure about what is being referenced, it must be a that.” (See the earlier post for examples.)

Now let’s go to the iffy definition in question: here is the noun prequel defined by the NSOED quoted above:

“A book, film, etc., portraying events which precede those of an existing work.”


According to its own definition of which, the “which clause” presented here about prequel (“which precede those of an existing work”) should be additional to the main clause (“a book, film, etc., portraying events”) and the sense of that main clause should be complete without it. So, technically, “a book, film, etc., portraying events” should stand alone as a complete and understandable clause in its own right. Hmmm … I don’t think so. That second clause is absolutely necessary to complete the definition, and therefore should be started by the word that, which (according to the OED, as noted above) introduces a clause “essential to the identification of the antecedent (and thus completing its sense)”. The definition should therefore read: “A book, film, etc., portraying events that precede those of an existing work.” At least that’s as prescribed by the historical/original respective uses of which and that, which have in the last century become rather murky — especially on the eastern side of the Atlantic.

I have noticed especially in recent years that the British (but not the Americans — at least not to the same extent) have shown a tendency to substitute that with which, as the OED has done in the prequel definition above. And almost as if to justify the switch (or what some might regard as the error),  they remove the comma that normally precedes which in its traditional role as a  non-identifying pronoun. Curiously it’s never done the other way around: ie. that is never used instead of which. Let’s look at the following examples:

“I gave him the red coat, which my mother had worn earlier.” Here, the which clause is not defining, and the main clause is therefore complete in itself: “I gave him the red coat.”

“I gave him the coat that suited him best.”  The that clause is defining (ie. it is identifying the coat in question), so the clause is essential for the sentence to make sense; without the that clause, it wouldn’t be clear which coat is being referred to.

Now the Brits might well write: “I gave him the coat which suited him best.” They are using which instead of that to start the defining clause (“which suited him best”) and removing the comma before it to make the substitution easier on the ear. But they would be unlikely to write: “I gave him the red coat, that my mother had worn earlier.”

This interchangeability or substitution is heard much less frequently on American shores, where that and which tend to retain their traditional respective identifying and non-identifying roles.

My father, Brian Barder (a staunch Brit linguistically as well as in other ways), argues that both Robert Burchfield and Roger Fowler, two of the world’s most respected authorities on language usage, were tolerant of and relaxed about what and that being interchangeable, with both of them noting that some of the best writers tend to disregard any historical difference between the relative pronouns. Here is what Barder explains:

“Burchfield/Fowler (MEU 3rd ed.) in section 3 of the that entry says that most of the time which and that are interchangeable without any “offence to any rule of syntax”, and quotes the original Fowler as ‘wisely’ observing in 1926 that  ‘if writers would agree to regard that as the defining relative pronoun and which as the non-defining, there would be much gain in lucidity and in ease.  Some there are who follow this principle now;  but it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice either of most or of the best writers.’

“I am pretty sure that the distinction has been much further eroded since 1926.

“Burchfield continues with a longish piece about additional complications when either relative pronoun is preceded by a comma, the fact that that can’t idiomatically be preceded by a preposition whereas which can, that that has no possessive form (unlike which), circs in which that is leading a defining clause can often be omitted and understood, but not when it leads a non-defining clause …  and more.  It’s on p 774 of my edition.”

But I think it’s safe to argue that Americans are just different from the British on this particular issue of tolerance and acceptability. Curiously, in this case it’s the Americans who are being the traditionalists — when it’s so often the other way round. It’s also a clear indication to me that I’ve truly joined the ranks of the Americans, at least on this one usage issue.



Fowler & Fowler on prepositions, idiom and the art of language



Fowler & Fowler’s complex article on prepositions in their book The King’s English (first published in 1906) is worth reading if only for the opening paragraph. Though characteristically pompous in tone, the introduction can be read as a more general treatise on language and writing, with its assertion that a true command and understanding of preposition usage (read language) is acquired not from the study of dictionaries and grammars, but by sheer instinct, feel, and “good reading with the idiomatic eye open”. More than a century after these words were set down in their formal Edwardian prose, they remain as wise and pertinent today, and probably ring true for many modern editors, linguists, language commentators — and writers themselves — who understand that good writing and language composition are elusive skills that can’t easily be taught or explained.

“In an uninflected language like ours these [prepositions] are ubiquitous, and it is quite impossible to write tolerably without a full knowledge, conscious or unconscious, of their uses. Misuse of them, however, mostly results not in what may be called in the fullest sense blunders of syntax, but in offences against idiom. It is often impossible to convince a writer that the preposition he has used is a wrong one, because there is no reason in the nature of things, in logic, or in the principles of universal grammar (whichever way it may be put), why that preposition should not give the desired meaning as clearly as the one that we tell him he should have used. Idioms are special forms of speech that for some reason, often inscrutable, have proved congenial to the instinct of a particular language. To neglect them shows a writer, however good a logician he may be, to be no linguist — condemns him, from that point of view, more clearly than grammatical blunders themselves. But though the subject of prepositions is thus very important, the idioms in which they appear are so multitudinous that it is hopeless to attempt giving more than the scantiest selection; this may at least put writers on the guard. Usages of this sort cannot be acquired from dictionaries and grammars, still less from a treatise like the present, not pretending to be exhaustive; good reading with the idiomatic eye open is essential. We give a few examples of what to avoid.”


Farewell Queen’s English Society: who will care now?


H. W. Fowler, William Safire, Strunk & White, Henry Higgins: what associations do these names evoke in our age of texts and tweets, lols and omgs? How many teenagers have even heard of those people, let alone read and relished what they wrote or talked about? (Well, perhaps the fictional one might have filtered through …) Granted, language pedants and advocates don’t generally ooze humor, glamor or sex appeal – although Lynne Truss proved to be a refreshing exception with her funny and accessible book  “Eats, Shoots & Leaves”, which made it to the bestseller lists. Who are the popular standard-bearers and advocates of our language nowadays?

The Queen’s English Society is now defunct. It might have stood its ground if it had changed its name  and branding. Let’s face it: who still speaks what we think of as “the Queen’s English”, other than Her Majesty herself and her Firm? Given that most English-speakers don’t want to talk with proverbial (or literal, in the case of poor Eliza Doolittle) marbles in their mouths, the idea of preserving, promoting or identifying with the voice of the hoity-toities is not just unpopular or ‘un-PC’, but broadcasting companies and casting agencies are apparently using reverse discrimination when it comes to hiring voices, and public figures are ‘dumbing down’ the way they speak (Tony Blair is thought to have done just that during his tenure at No. 10).

But we’re not talking about accents and elocution, getting away with it at Ascot or impressing foreign princes here. It’s more about the clarity and usefulness of our most sophisticated  and highly-developed form of communication, and whether its sheer functionality is being eroded as its policing declines and there’s no-one upholding its laws. The political correctness of the liberal linguists is taking a firm hold, and there are persuasive arguments that the constant evolution and ever-changing usage of our language keeps it limber, pertinent, dynamic and even beautiful. But there’s also a danger that with fewer old-fashioned custodians keeping our tongues, pens and iPhones in check, we’ll not only lose a historic monument of living, breathing art, but more importantly we’ll find it increasingly difficult to communicate with each other at the subtle and complex level that our language – until now – has enabled us to do. The laws of language – grammar, punctuation, and even spelling – are there to prevent ambiguity and ease understanding. Without them, we’ll be left with a lawless, anarchic mess of meaningless words.

Here are two articles – in The Telegraph and The Independent respectively – about the Queen’s English and the Society that struggled to protect it.


It is easy to mock the Queen’s English Society – but our language will be poorer without them


June 6th, 2012

Now the Queen's English Society is gone, will we see more grocer's apostrophes? (Photo: Geoff Pugh)

Now that the Queen’s English Society is gone, will anybody even care about grocers’ apostrophes? (Photo: Geoff Pugh)


The Queen’s English Society is dead. After just 22 people attended their annual meeting, and nobody put themselves forward to become the next chairman, the society was wound up. Liberal linguists will no doubt celebrate with a riot of misplaced apostrophes, misspelt homophones and randomly positioned capital letters.

Read the full article here.


Bernard Lamb offered an impassioned defence for the upholding of the Queen’s English a couple of years ago in The Independent.

God save the Queen’s English: Our language is under threat from ignorance,

inverted snobbery and deliberate ‘dumbing down’

Far from being outmoded, the correct use of our language is more important than ever, argues Bernard Lamb

Thursday 07 October 2010

The Queen’s English is correct, conventional, standard British English. It is the most authoritative and easily understood form of the language. One finds it in non-fiction and fiction, in textbooks in almost all subjects, in newspapers, in government and business documents, and in public and private correspondence.

Departures from the Queen’s English do get noticed. The head of an online graduate recruitment agency wrote that they reject one third of all job applications from graduates with good degrees from good universities, because errors in English in their CVs and covering letters show ignorance, carelessness and a bad attitude.

The term “the Queen’s English” dates back to 1592, Queen Elizabeth I’s time, but using the Queen’s English is not the prerogative of royalty or any class, group, region or country. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as: “the English language as regarded as under the guardianship of the Queen; hence, standard or correct English”.

Read the full article here.


Henry Hitchings looked at the misuse of apostrophes and other questions about punctuation’s future in the Wall Street Journal in October 2011:

Is This the Future of Punctuation!?

On the misuse of apostrophe’s (did your eye just twitch?) and our increasingly rhetorical language

By Henry Hitchings

Punctuation arouses strong feelings. You have probably come across the pen-wielding vigilantes who skulk around defacing movie posters and amending handwritten signs that advertise “Rest Room’s” or “Puppy’s For Sale.”

People fuss about punctuation not only because it clarifies meaning but also because its neglect appears to reflect wider social decline. And while the big social battles seem intractable, smaller battles over the use of the apostrophe feel like they can be won.

Read the full article here.


We like to like like Tina Charles loves to love

And I’m not, like, talking about kids who, like, can’t get through a sentence without, like, saying like. That scourge is so, like, 20th-century.

No, I’m talking about when the word like is used before a clause (as a conjunction).

The universally accepted and undisputed usage of like is as a preposition (ie. governing nouns and pronouns): “She looks like her daughter.” “He sounds like a bird.”

It’s when like is used as a conjunction (ie. connecting two clauses) that swords are drawn, tempers start to flare, and trans-Atlantic disagreement comes into play.  In the US, the colloquial use of like as a conjunction is now reasonably commonplace and accepted, especially when like simply replaces as (which more appropriately governs phrases and clauses). “We now have brunch every Sunday like we did in Sweden.” Such a sentence generally grates on English ears, which prefer, “We now have brunch every Sunday as we did in Sweden.”

Fowler, in his Modern English Usage, tackled this “most flagrant and easily recognizable misuse of like,” referring to the OED which similarly and roundly condemned the misuse as “vulgar or slovenly”.  The OED colorfully used a sentence written by Darwin (“Unfortunately few have observed like you have done”) to illustrate the abuse.

More egregious – and even more grating to British English speakers – is when like replaces as if or as though, masquerading even more  boldly as a conjunction. Fowler cites this lovely OED example: “The old fellow drank of the brandy like he was used to it.” Nowadays, the Oxford American Dictionary recognizes the “informal” usage of like as a conjunction to replace as; however, it clearly forbids using the word to mean as if or as though.

If you want to delve into the even more complicated arguments about the use and misuse of this overused word that we love to like (especially once we get into ‘disguised conjuntional use’, when there is no subordinate verb), Fowler’s your man.

Meanwhile, Strunk and White summarize the tussle over ‘like’ in their characteristically eloquent fashion, using it as a case study to argue more generally about the evolution of language:

“The use of like for as has its defenders; they argue that any usage that achieves currency becomes valid automatically. This, they say, is the way the language is formed. It is and it isn’t. An expression sometimes merely enjoys a vogue, much as an article of apparel does. Like has long been widely misused by the illiterate; lately it has been taken up by the knowing and the well-informed, who find it catchy, or liberating, and who use it as though they were slumming. If every word or device that achieved currency were immediately authenticated, simply on the ground of popularity, the language would be as chaotic as a ball game with no foul lines. For the student, perhaps the most useful thing to know about like is that most carefully edited publications regard its use before phrases and clauses as simple error.”