Fowler’s Modern English Usage; Bryson’s The Mother Tongue

A linguist’s blog on the most annoying grammar mistakes has inspired me to review two of my favourite books (see my page called Favourite Things).

I am surprised by how many language fans are not familiar with the classic by H.W. Fowler – Modern English Usage, and I am dismayed because they are missing a wonderful thing . I don’t expect you to read it cover-to-cover, but it is an excellent choice for the bathroom browsing.

As a general filter to determine your potential as a Fowler fan, consider his comments on split infinitives, which could easily be applied to any topic of grammar. He says,

“The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish. Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are happy folk, to be envied…”

If you fall into group (1) above, then you would  probably be happier to reread my last post than to stay with this one. If you fall into groups 2 through 5, please read on…

Now, go look at (and preferably read) the Wikipedia summary. If you enjoy the Quotations there, then you will love the book – but ONLY the 1965 or 1926 editions.

If you are still with me, here’s an example of Fowler’s wit and wisdom, with respect to the use of they/their/them instead of “he or she”.  He favoured the generic use of “he” while admitting that it “is an arrogant demand on the part of male England,” and concluded that “everyone must decide for himself (or for himself or herself, or for themselves).”

On my mother’s pet peeve… Fowler says that “‘Between you and I’ is a piece of false grammar which, though often heard, is not sanctioned, like its opposites ‘It’s me’ and ‘That’s him’, even in colloquial usage. But it has distinguished ancestry. Shakespeare wrote ‘All debts are cleared between you and I’, and Pepys ‘Wagers lost and won between him and I.'”

Mainly just to argue with my mother, I pretend to be tolerant of this solecism. I tell her that rules of English grammar are mainly an art form, which some of us happen to love, but not everyone does, and the power of English is shown by how badly we can mangle the rules and still be understood. Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue: English And How It Got That Way should be required reading before anyone is allowed to moan about bad usage and the decline of the English language.

Oddly, not one of my kids has ever shown the slightest interest in arguing with their mother about grammar. They don’t (GASP) seem to care much.

4 thoughts on “Fowler’s Modern English Usage; Bryson’s The Mother Tongue

  1. I think English grammar is important for precision and clarity. However the ultimate purpose is to communicate so if the point is adequately made in a sloppy manner one should simply take the proffered information and forget about the teaching moment. As I once said to my mother “if you ever want my new [first] husband to open his mouth in this house you should stop correcting my scrambled pronouns”. That certainly stopped her in her tracks. And the husband certainly did not let a little thing like pronouns get in his way.

  2. [My mother is reluctant to develop any kind of internet identity that might lead to theft of her own, so she sent me an email making remarks on my blog. So I will hijack her identity and post it anyway. No, Mom, the googlebugs/viruses won’t know where you live. I might add that the Anonymous comment above was submitted by another one of her offspring, so the “mother” referred to is the one and only.]

    She said…
    “To clear my name of the aspersions(?) cast upon it, I’ll have to read Bill Bryson’s The Mother Tongue when time allows! I enjoyed your July 17th blog about Fowler’s Modern English Usage; I’ll try to stop complaining – at least about grammatical mistakes.”

  3. I hummed and hawed about entering into this discussion. Although English is my first language and I went through school in the olden days when grammar was a major part of the curriculum, there were too many other exciting subjects to capture my interest. I studied Latin and Greek, thoroughly enjoyed the stories and history but really, I only needed to remember the grammar long enough to pass the exams, then I would thankfully forget it. Now, most of the time I really don’t care, in fact in the workplace I have the reputation of being an eloquent and interesting speaker. However, compared to my family I consider my self a mumbling clutz. Why is this? Well ……. the fact that we are having this blog discussion explains much …..

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