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182 of 197 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not really Fowlerian, 3 May 2004
This review is from: Fowler's Modern English Usage (3rd Revised Edition) (Hardcover)
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.
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 9 Oct 2010 01:40:55 BDT
[Customers don't think this post adds to the discussion. Show post anyway. Show all unhelpful posts.]

In reply to an earlier post on 9 Oct 2010 05:20:35 BDT
I did swallow a dictionary, but it was only a paperback.

By the way, I channeled Agatha Christie and she says she's not sure she is flattered by your use of her name. I told her to buck up, all publicity is good.

Posted on 3 Jul 2012 09:32:49 BDT
DNACowboy says:
This excellent review, which has convinced me (probably) to stick with the previous edition. Dennis Littrell appears to come from the school of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", although he is generous in his praise of Burchfield, where it is due. I was always an admirer of Fowler's prescriptive tone and would not want this diluted by modern (ab)usage. This seems to veer dangerously towards the lowest common denominator and rules of grammar dictated by popularity; this is what has given rise to a widespread acceptance of the mis-pronunciation of the word 'dissect' as 'dye-sect'. Just because 70% of the population pronounce it so, does not make it correct!

In reply to an earlier post on 5 Nov 2013 21:31:59 GMT
Last edited by the author on 5 Nov 2013 22:23:48 GMT
@Martin J. Schwartz

I agree with you -- it was an excellent review, and I am very sympathetic to your take on things too. Thank you. But that affirmation is not my purpose here.

My view is that the main point of owning a copy of Fowler is not to improve one's use of English as such -- that's merely a happy bonus -- but to improve one's point scoring in the fun game of linguistic oneupmanship!

And it is in that noble spirit that I offer the following. :)

One often hears reference to "the lowest common denominator." I can't lay my hands on my dog-eared copy of Fowler right now so I don't know what he says about it -- in any case I think(?) it stems from the 1960s at the earliest -- but in general its usage constitutes a first-class howler!

Since the term is used invariably in a pejorative sense, very often accompanied by a witless air of superiority on the part of the wielder, it is probably the words 'lowest' and 'common', and the damning sounding 'de' in the word 'denominator' -- whose meaning most people have forgotten, if they ever knew it in the first place -- that provide the bait for the unwary.

But what fun!

The nice thing here -- for the oneupman, that is -- is that although the number is a lower bound, that lower bound is at least as GREAT as the any of the numbers in the set of numbers of which it is a property. In other words its actual meaning is quite the OPPOSITE of what is intended. Its use therefore backfires deliciously on most wielders, but especially so if the intended purpose is a snooty put down. Haha!

But it gets better, especially so in the case of the über-snobbish wielder. 'Lowest common denominator' is a term one meets in its proper setting only in mere schoolboy mathematics and then only in the lowly context of the arithmetic of so-called 'fractions'*. It is therefore hardly the kind of term a grown man should be heard using lest he display his own lowest-common-denominator level of educational attainment, so to speak!

A lowest common denominator is a particular, contextual (when 'doing' fractions) instance of what is more generally know as a least common multiple, or lowest common multiple -- the terms favoured by adults for it. Although they embody the desirable 'least' or 'lowest', these terms don't quite have that put-down ring to them that 'lowest common denominator' does. Moreover, while we can safely say that nobody knows what a denominator is -- and it sounds perhaps to be the kind of thing no one would want anyway -- EVERYBODY knows what a multiple is, and it sounds rather positive. So that definitely won't do then! :)

But it gets even better! If one really insists on employing an arithmetical reference, then the correct related term that should be used is 'greatest common divisor'. For this, I'm sure, is what is ACTUALLY intended: it is a number at least as low (a 'good' word in this context) as all the numbers in the set of numbers to which it applies. 'Common' is very nice, and 'divisor' hmmm maybe, but 'greatest' REALLY won't do! Oh no! So the technically correct term, although embodying conceptually the right pejorative connotations, is wholly inappropriate on grounds of its lack of ostensibly disparaging linguistic qualities.

Haha. Hard cheese!

Incidentally, the resulting delightful schadenfreude on the part of the informed listener -- moi, for instance -- is best had when the expression is heard on the lips of a haughty Minister of State for Education or some other semi-numerate, puffed-up, self-important PPE windbag. :)


In all this I intend nothing against you -- none of it was aimed at you. You simply provided me an opportunity once more to succumb to temptation. :)

Best wishes,

* Real mathematicians call these 'rationals' and wouldn't be caught dead calling them 'fractions'. That's a slight exaggeration, but not much. :)

Posted on 27 Nov 2014 18:44:10 GMT
Last edited by the author on 27 Nov 2014 19:54:18 GMT
A round of applause, with hats doffed, for Capstan, who is way over Fowler and everyone else's heads (neither Fowler nor Gowers mention denominators of any social standing)
Dissect doesn't really trouble me. I guess it's American in origin, like other horrors. My bugbear is covert, which came in with the Gulf War and proved ineradicable. (It's Scots for covered, stoopid.) Of course some horrors (rabid, respite, flaccid) we dream up for ourselves
I take it with 'circumlocutious' DL was having a stab at facetiousness. The preferred term is circumlocutionary, Littrell. A hundred lines

Posted on 27 Nov 2014 23:35:39 GMT
Last edited by the author on 27 Nov 2014 23:37:35 GMT
I've just clocked DL's reference to Garner's Modern American Usage (2003) (actually 1998, 3rd edn 2009) which piqued my interest as I recently acquired Wilson Follett's Modern American Usage (1966, and itself updated, I now learn, in 1998, year of Garner's début). The plot positively coagulates (what's the collective noun for pundits?); do I want to go there? (Though one reviewer did say she appreciated Garner's catty tone!)
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