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Not really Fowlerian
on 3 May 2004
Unlike the second edition of this venerable classic, this, the third, is thoroughly revised and brought up to date by R. W. Burchfield whose distinguished credentials include having been the Chief Editor of the Oxford English dictionaries from 1971 to 1984 and an editor of the Cambridge History of the English Language. The problem is that in doing so he has greatly lessened the prescriptive intent of Mr. Fowler and offended many readers.
Let's begin with the Preface in which he has the temerity of damning H.W. Fowler himself with faint praise and something close to dismissal. Burchfield asks: "Why has this schoolmasterly, quixotic, idiosyncratic, and somewhat vulnerable book...retained its hold on the imagination of all but professional linguistic scholars for just on seventy years?" (p. ix) One gets the sense that Burchfield is going to straighten matters out forthwith. He adds, "Fowler's name remains on the title-page, even though his book has been largely rewritten..." In the next sentence he refers to Fowler's book as a "masterpiece," but adds that "it is a fossil all the same" while intimating that its scholarly scope did not extend beyond "the southern counties of England in the first quarter of the twentieth century." (p. xi)
From there we go to the entries themselves and find on page one that the suffix "-a" is now
being printed more and more to present the sound that replaces "of" in rapid (esp. demotic) speech, as in "kinda" (=kind of), loadsa, sorta.
The problem with this is there is no acknowledgment that such usage, especially in written English, is substandard. Even in the entry on "demotic English," Burchfield merely notes that such formulations as "gotta," "shoulda," etc. are becoming more common.
Or consider his entry for "didn't ought" which includes this designation:
A remarkable combination of the marginal modal "ought" and the periphrastic negative auxiliary "didn't."
Huh? Burchfield reveals here that he has lost the thread of Fowler's intent. Instead of writing for a general educated public that would like some guidance in matters of usage, he is instead addressing scholars, linguists and others whose interest in such matters is professional and not practical. He goes on to allow that "didn't ought" is "[a]lmost certainly of dialectal origin" (I give that a "duh, dude") that "has made its way into novels of the 19c and 20c and into informal speech as a typical construction used by rustic or sparsely educated speakers."
Such is his way of "labeling," and it isn't very effective. True, he avoids outright condemnation, but forces the reader to closely examine his prose in order to realize, after some perusal, that if it is "a typical construction" of "rustic or sparsely educated speakers," it is probably substandard and ought to be avoided. Much of the book suffers from such circumlocutious expression and is entirely inimical to the spirit of Fowler who believed in concise, straightforward English.
Okay let's look at that favorite of English usage mavens around the world: "infer" versus "imply." Well, I think I'd have to be a lawyer to be certain that Burchfield got it right (although I don't doubt that he did) since I had to wade through several hundred words of qualification and extraneous example ("imply" used correctly; "infer" used correctly; "infer" illogically used for "imply"...) so that the most important distinction to be made between the words is lost, not to mention that by the time I had finished I felt like I needed to reread the passages and take notes.
What Burchfield is at pains to do is walk a fine line between being what Bryan A. Garner (who wrote the very fine Garner's Modern American Usage (2003) which I highly recommend) calls "describers" and "prescribers." As a compiler and editor of dictionaries, Burchfield leans toward the descriptive mode. He records usage and tries not to pronounce from on high what is or isn't right. The problem with this approach is that in a usage book the entire point is to make distinctions between what is acceptable and what is not, between what is effective and what is not. Burchfield's reluctance to be more prescriptive defeats the intent of a usage dictionary. Note that I am NOT suggesting that Burchfield doesn't know what he is talking about or that he lacks in any way the authority to write a usage dictionary. On the contrary.
Note also that Burchfield (who also wrote The New Zealand Oxford Pocket Dictionary) has not confined himself to BrE but has incorporated AmE and examples of usage from all around the world into Fowler's once more restrictive volume. This is actually to the good in my opinion, but certainly suggests that this book ought to be called something other than "Fowler's..." For this perhaps we can blame the Oxford University Press itself which clearly wanted to take advantage of Fowler's name and reputation. This book might be better appreciated if we were not forced to compare Burchfield with Fowler, which is somewhat like comparing Neil Simon to Ben Johnson.
Bottom line: a little stuffy, a little long-winded, somewhat pretentious, but for the careful reader, as authoritative a book on English usage as one could want.