Fowler on the Long (Wrong) Word

One of the year's great reading pleasures (at least for those of us who might fairly be called "word nerds") has arrived -- the newly restored "first edition" reprint of H.W. Fowler's A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, with an introduction and notes by the linguist David Crystal  (this article by Liam Julian in Policy Review does a nice job running down the history of Fowler's book, and the rise and fall of its influence over time).


It's continued usefulness as a guide for writers and editors aside, it's also just a joy to dip into, on nearly any page.  Fowler's witty, opinionated dicta might have seemed overbearing to young writers of his day.  But at this remove, they come as a bracingly direct, and magnificently knowledgable antitode to the relatively colorless style guides we've grown used to.


As a holiday gift to our fellow style-phyles over the next week, we'll offer a few choice excerpts from our browsing.   Here's a bit of what Henry F. had to say on the destructive "Love of the Long Word":


'The better the writer, the shorter his words' would be a statement needing many exceptions for individual persons & particular subjects,; but for all that it would, & especially about English writers, be broadly true.  Those who run to long words are mainly the unskillful & tasteless; they confuse pomposity with dignity, flaccidity with ease, & bulk with force...when a word for the notion wanted exists, some people (1) forget or do not know that word, & make up another from thesame stem with an extra suffix or two; or (2) are not satisfied with a mere current word, & resolve to decorate it, also writing with an extra suffix, or (3) have heard and used a longer form that resembers it, & are not aware that this other form is appropriated to another sense.

Fowler goes on to give examples of  what he means by categories (1) and (2):

....administrate (administer); assertative (assertive)...dampen (damp, v.)...

...and my favorite, "extemporaneously" for the Latin "ex tempore".   He also frowns on "wastage" for "waste" -- and would doubtless have been unimpressed with the modern "signage" for "signs."


His examples for (3) are also arresting:


Wrong use of longer forms due to confusion:  advancement (advance);  alternative (alternate)....definitive (definite)...estimation (estimate)...partially (partly).

It's my estimation that I will continue to make many of these errors.   May I partially blame society?





April 18: "[W]ould it be too bold to imagine that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament…?"

Books, CDs, DVDs to know about now
Poems That Make Grown Men Cry

And women too.  Luminaries from Colin Firth to Nick Cave and Jonathan Franzen chose the poems that bring them to tears, and the result is a stunning collection of poignant verse from writers like Auden, Whitman, Bishop, Larkin, Neruda and many others.  Warning: choking-up hazard.

The King of Pain

Trapped beneath his entertainment system, reality TV mastermind Rick Salter reflects on his life and tries to piece together the events of the previous evening. Seth Kaufman’s romp is an outrageous meditation on pain and entertainment in a deranged world in which the two are often interchangeable.

The Good Inn

Frank Black, frontman for the Pixies, has written a transgressive historical fiction with shades of Thomas Pynchon (focused as it is on the history of explosives and cinematic pornography), all set in a hallucinatory Edwardian Europe.