The King’s English by H.W. and F.G. Fowler17 September 2007
Today’s book is a delightful romp through the fields of English grammar and syntax.
If that hasn’t put you off already, feel free to keep reading.
The King’s English by H.W. and F.G. Fowler
In 1906, Henry Watson Fowler and Francis George Fowler published a book that began with following declaration:
Any one who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.
A simple and sensible-sounding statement, true, and a fitting introduction to the Fowler brothers’ complex and often contentious study of ‘the King’s English’ — perhaps the earliest style guide to good writing practices. And the recent Oxford University Press reprint of the original 1906 edition, with a few notes from later editions and a sparkling introduction by Matthew Parris, is a witty and welcome reminder of where the ever-changing English language has been and a hint of where it is likely to go.
Recent commentaries on the state of the English language have left me rather underwhelmed. I don’t have many good things to say about Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves, for instance, mainly because I found her authorial voice to be snide and more than a little off-putting. By contrast, the Fowler brothers manage to maintain a tone that usually stays on the side of gentle but pointed correction, as they quote example sentences and passages from newspaper articles and the works of popular authors (Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, George Eliot) and show how certain grammatical mistakes are common but nonetheless avoidable with a little rewriting and careful attention to detail. Along the way, they delve into facets of the English language that have all but fallen out of use today — there’s a lengthy section on the proper placement, conjugation, and uses of shall and will, for instance. And as might be expected from a book that is more than a century old, quite a few of the style choices that the Fowler brothers regarded as ‘vulgarisms’ or other forms of improper grammar in 1906 have become standard and conventional forms in acceptable writing today. Yet the emphasis throughout The King’s English is on the overall improvement of writing style and expression by eliminating or rewriting cliched turns of phrase, malapropisms, misused metaphors or quotations, stilted syntax…in general, the hallmarks of a lazy writer.
Nearly twenty years later, Henry Fowler would write A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, the style guide that would simply be known as Fowler’s and would set the tone for future style guides like the Chicago Manual of Style. In that context, comparing The King’s English to Fowler’s is like comparing a writing textbook to a style guide. Both will likely tell you what you need to know and refresh your memory if you have questions on proper use and usage, but the former is better for study and the latter is better for reference. Regardless, both volumes have a place of honour on this editor’s bookshelf.