On Making Oneself Less Unreadable


On Language

A photograph of H. W. Fowler in sporting attire from his biography The Warden of English.

Grammar enthusiasts either love Henry Watson Fowler or they have yet to encounter his work. It is possible to read his Dictionary of Modern Usage (1926) from cover to cover as a weird, wonderful essay; it is impossible to do so without laughing out loud. A few entries from the second edition, revised by Ernest Gowers:

avoidance of the obvious is very well, provided that it is not itself obvious; but, if it is, all is spoilt. [If the reader believes] that you are attitudinizing as an epicure of words for whom nothing but the rare is good enough, or, worse still, that you are painfully endeavouring to impart some much needed unfamiliarity to a platitude, his feelings towards you will be something that is not admiration. The obvious is better than obvious avoidance of it …

Frankenstein. … A sentence written by the creatress of the creator of the creature may save some of those whose acquaintance with all three is indirect from betraying the fact: “Sometimes I endeavoured to gain from Frankenstein the particulars of his creature’s formation; but on this point he was impenetrable” (Frankenstein or the Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley). Frankenstein is the creator-victim; the creature-despot and fatal creation is Frankenstein’s monster … The blunder is very common indeed—almost, but surely not quite, sanctioned by custom: If they went on strengthening this power they would create a F. they could not resist 

if and when. Any writer who uses this formula lays himself open to entirely reasonable suspicions on the part of his readers. There is the suspicion that he is a mere parrot, who cannot say part of what he has often heard without saying the rest also. There is the suspicion that he likes verbiage for its own sake. There is the suspicion that he is a timid swordsman who thinks he will be safer with a second sword in his left hand. There is the suspicion that he has merely been too lazy to make up his mind between if and when

soccer, -cker. Soccer did not deserve its victory in the competition between these alternative spellings …

Born in Kent in 1858, H. W. Fowler was one of our greatest lexicographical geniuses. He led an ascetic life: he was a runner and a swimmer (lakes, rivers, ocean); he lived with his brother in relative seclusion on the island of Guernsey; and he held—and proved—that anyone should be able to subsist on a hundred pounds a year. He devoted his life to literature: he won the fifth prize in the immensely popular competition with which the Encyclopedia Britannica celebrated its tenth edition; he rediscovered and translated Lucian; he took on, almost single-handedly, the herculean project of boiling down the entire Oxford Dictionary to the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, which is, to this day, one of the most widely used reference books in the language. He was a politely outspoken atheist who lost his teaching position for being unwilling to prepare his students for confirmation. During World War I, he refused to collaborate on the recruiting campaign to send young men into harm’s way while he remained safe. Instead, he lied about his age (forty-four), got enlisted, and was sent to the front. After a rather hermitic life, he got happily married when he was in his seventies and died three years after his wife, in 1933. In the words of Ernest Gowers, “The simplicity of his habits has a counterpart in the simplicity of diction he preaches.”

Hackneyed phrases, worn-out humor, and clichés bothered Fowler only as much as novelty hunting, formal words, and any form of officialese (all words in italics are entries in his dictionary). It is no surprise, then, that his main target is the combination of both: exquisite commonplaces and abstruse voids—or, in one word, pretentiousness:

abstractitis. The effect of this disease, now endemic on both sides of the Atlantic, is to make the patient write such sentences as Participation by the men in control of the industry is non-existent instead of The men have no part in the control of the industry … The danger is that, once the disease gets a hold, it sets up a chain reaction. A writer uses abstract words because his thoughts are cloudy; the habit of using them clouds his thoughts further; he may end by concealing his meaning not only from his readers but also from himself, and writing such sentences as The actualization of the motivation of the forces must to a great extent be a matter of personal angularity …

genteelism. By genteelism is here to be understood the rejecting of the ordinary natural word that first suggests itself to the mind, and the substitution of a synonym that is thought to be less soiled by the lips of the common herd, less familiar, less plebeian, less vulgar, less improper, less apt to come unhandsomely betwixt the wind and our nobility …

incongruous vocabulary. Austria-Hungary was no longer in a position, an’ she would, to shake off the German yoke. Be in a position to is a phrase of the most pedestrian modernity; shake off the yoke, though a metaphor, is one so well worn that no incongruity is felt between it and the pedestrianism; but what is an’ she would doing there? … The goldfish an’ cannot live in this sentence-bowl unless we put some water in with it, and gasps pathetically at us from the mere dry air of be in a position. Only a child would expect a goldfish to keep its beauty when out of its right element; and only the writer who is either very inexperienced or singularly proof against experience will let the beauties of a word or a phrase tempt him into displaying it where it is conspicuously out of place …

vogue words. Every now and then a word emerges from obscurity, or even from nothingness or a merely potential and not actual existence, into sudden popularity … Ready acceptance of vogue words seems to some people the sign of an alert mind; to others it stands for the herd instinct and lack of individuality. The title of this article is perhaps enough to show that the second view is here taken … [Some words owe] their vogue to the joy of showing that one has acquired them …

Because his is a usage dictionary, Fowler goes beyond the lexical level. But whether he discusses split infinitives, the use of the subjunctive, or a syntactical problem, he objects, once again, to vacuous pedantries. Grammar should not be confused with the worship of “popular fallacies” (to quote from the title of another of his books) or with idées reçues fossilized into unquestioned rules:

superstitions. “It is wrong to start a sentence with ‘But’ … The word should either be dropped entirely or the sentence altered to contain the word ‘however’.” That ungrammatical piece of nonsense was written by the editor of a scientific periodical to a contributor who had found his English polished up for him in proof, and protested. Both parties being men of determination, the article got no further than proof. It is wrong to start a sentence with “but”! It is wrong to start a sentence with “and”! It is wrong to end a sentence with a preposition! It is wrong to split an infinitive! See the article fetishes for these and other such rules of thumb and for references to articles in which it is shown how misleading their sweet simplicity is; see also substitute for an illustration of the havoc that is wrought by unintelligent applications of an unintelligent dogma … Well, beginners may sometimes find that it is as much as their jobs are worth to resist their editors’ edict, as the champion of “But” did. On the other hand, to let oneself be so far possessed by blindly accepted conventions as to take a hand in enforcing them on other people is to lose the independence of judgement that would enable one to solve the numerous problems for which there are no rules of thumb.

Some of Fowler’s grievances remain uncannily current, after ninety years:

literally. We have come to such a pass with this emphasizer that where the truth would require us to insert with a strong expression “not l., of course, but in a manner of speaking”, we do not hesitate to insert the word that we ought to be at pains to repudiate; cf. veritable. Such false coin makes honest traffic in words impossible. If the Home Rule Bill is passed, the 300,000 Unionists of the South and West of Ireland will be l. thrown to the wolves … / Our eyes were l. pinned to the curtain / Marie Corelli, when she settled in Shakespeare’s native town, l. took the bard to her bosom …

literary critics’ words. … The better the critic, the fewer literary critics’ words he uses. The good critic is aware that his public wants to understand, and he has no need to convince it that he knows what he is talking about by parading words that it does not understand. With the inferior critic the establishment of his status is the first consideration … The reader is to have it borne in upon him that a more instructed person than himself is talking to him. One mark of the good literary critic is that he is both able to explain his meaning without resort to these lingo words and under no necessity to use them as advertisements.

-tion and other -ion endings. Turgid flabby English is full of abstract nouns; the commonest ending of abstract nouns is –tion, and to count the –ion words in what one has written, or, better, to cultivate an ear that without special orders challenges them as they come, is one of the simplest and most effective means of making oneself less unreadable. It is as an unfailing sign of a nouny abstract style that a cluster of –ion words is chiefly to be dreaded … Writers given to overworking these words would be wise to try doing without them altogether; they would seldom find any difficulty in it, and they would have a salutary exercise in clear thinking. See also abstractitis.

Others haven’t aged so well:

gender, n., is a grammatical term only. To talk of persons or creatures of the masculine or feminine g., meaning of the male or female sex, is either a jocularity (permissible or not according to context) or a blunder.

Still, it really doesn’t matter whether we agree with him or not. Everywhere, even when he is showy—because despite his intolerance for any form of affectation, his could be a rather ostentatious austerity—Fowler’s true love for language is always above his love for himself.

In his Dictionary of English Language (1755), Samuel Johnson famously defined lexicographer as “a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge … ” Johnson himself was the first to prove that there was little in the way of drudgery in the task of the lexicographer. Fowler, one of his heirs, confirmed it.


Hernan Diaz is the managing editor of RHM (Columbia University). His first novel, In the Distance, was published last October.