Thursday, January 28, 2010

Understanding a Classic: Fowler's Modern English Usage

I've said before that every writer needs five resources to help her in the writing craft: a dictionary, a thesaurus, a style guide, a usage guide, and resources that offer writing advice. A usage guide helps you determine how specific words and phrases are used or what word is wanted, such as whether you want less or fewer or what the proper positions are for adverbs.

One of the heavyweights in this category is A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H. W. Fowler. It was such a big hit when it first appeared that, according to the introduction to the latest printing, "within a few years, people no longer felt it necessary even to mention the title and talked simply of 'Fowler'" (vii). The first edition is still revered by language mavens.

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage was first published in 1926, almost 20 years after the idea for it was first brought to brothers Frank and Henry Fowler's attention. The dictionary was written during a rise in prescriptive grammar: language experts were telling speakers how they should speak, prescribing how language should work, as opposed to describing how language speakers used language. And their ranks were swelling. So a book that told you how to use this word or that phrase was just the thing. Henry and his brother Frank worked on their dictionary while James Murray was working on the Oxford English Dictionary, and they kept tabs on that project (check out The Meaning of Everything, which gives a history of the OED). Ironically, the OED's goal was, and remains, to describe all the words in the English language. It gives not just the current definition of a word but all previous definitions of that word back to its first appearance in print.

Frank and Henry started planning the book in 1911, though Frank was actively working on the Pocket Oxford Dictionary until his death in 1918 while fighting in the war. Henry then finished the POD and picked up his usage dictionary work again, finally completing it in 1926.

The dictionary was revised in a second edition in 1965 by Sir Ernest Gowers. I've never seen this edition, but according to the New York Times, Gowers "gave it a light going-over, preserving both the spirit and the substance of the original." The book was revised again in 1996 by Robert Burchfield. This edition is generally regarded as heavily edited and more of Burchfield's work than Fowler's. It was this edition I was introduced to and it worked well enough for me, until I found Garner's.

Now Oxford has seen fit to re-release the original Fowler, restoring it to its former glory, as it were.

So is it worth slapping down $20 or $30 for another book that will gather dust on your shelf?

First, Fowler shouldn't be the only usage book on your shelf, particularly if you’re writing for a US audience. Fowler is undoubtedly a man of his place. His dictionary covers modern English usage, not American usage. He’s also a man of his time. There’s a revealing, if outdated, essay on "feminine designations”"(175-176):
This article is intended as a counter-protest. The authoress, poetess, & paintress, & sometimes the patroness & the inspectress, take exception to the indication of sex in these designations … These ladies neither are nor pretend to be making their objection in the interests of language or of people in general; they object in their own interests only; this they are entitled to do, but still it is lower ground, & general convenience & the needs of the King's English … must be reckoned of more importance … With the coming extension of women's vocations, feminines for vocation-words are a special need of the future.
Yikes. Did Fowler really say that we need words like murderess and edtriss (both listed in the entry)? Yup, he did. (Shudder.)

Fowler also reflects the his times in that he is sometimes prescriptive and sometimes descriptive. In his entry on split infinitives (558-561), he addresses people who don't know what a split infinitive is but who care about not splitting them:
These people betray by their practice that their aversion to the split infinitive springs not from instinctive good taste, but from tame acceptance of the misinterpreted opinion of others; for they will subject their sentences to the queerest distortions, all to escape imaginary split infinitives ... the havoc that is played with much well-intentioned writing by failure to grasp that distinction is incredible ... After this inconclusive discussion, in which, however, the author's opinion has perhaps been allowed to appear with indecent plainness, readers may like to settle for themselves whether, in the following sentence, "either to secure" followed by "to resign", or "to either secure" followed by "resign", should have been preferred
Fowler concludes that split infinitives are grammatical in English and should be allowed.

But at "elemental, elementary" (133), Fowler describes the situation without making comment:
The two words are now pretty clearly differentiated, the reference of -al being to "the elements" either in the old sense of earth, water, air, & fire, or as representing the great forces of nature conceived as their manifestations ... & that of -ary being to elements in the more general sense of simplest component parts or rudiments.
Fowler does, indeed, have wisdom to impart, a wisdom that has held up for almost 85 years. In addition to the split infinitive conclusion (one largely held now to be the correct position), check out the entry for "affect, effect" (13):
These verbs are not synonyms requiring differentiation, but words of totally different meaning, neither of which can ever be substituted for the other. Affect ... means have an influence on, produce an effect on, concern effect a change in: effect means bring about, cause, produce, result in have as a result.
It's worth noting here that Burchfield kept this entry in his version but substituted his own essay for the split infinitives entry -- and came to a different conclusion.

No one usage manual can do all things. Have more than one. Compare one's advice to another's and think about what truly lies in these entries. Fowler's classic first edition should be one of those -- for its advice that stays current and for the place in language history it illustrates.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Weekly Vocab Builder: Getting Canned

It's happened to most of us at one time or another: your company no longer wants you to work for it and it terminates you. But did you ever notice how many different words we use to avoid saying it straight out? This week's list explores some euphamisms that are meant to soften the blow. They all mean the same thing, though: you're fired.

  • Reduction in workforce. The XYZ Co. will make a reduction in its workforce during the first quarter.
  • Right-sized. Gargantuan Real Estate Pros right-sized its workforce to balance its budget.
  • Transitioned employee. I became a transitioned employee of Silly Services Inc. when the HR rep handed me my things in a box and walked me to the door. 
  • Heave-ho. Thomas got the old heave-ho from Newsy Newspapers when he was caught napping on the job.  
  • Pink slip. Sandy was pink-slipped from her job just before Christmas.
You can find even more euphamisms on my Wordnik list. Share your favorites in the comments below or on my Wordnik list. And follow me on Twitter to get the Vocab Builder every Monday through Friday.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Writing Groups: Eliminate the Isolation

Here in New England, winters can be long, isolating seasons. As a writer, you're already somewhat isolated: it's just you and that stupid blinking cursor on the screen, shouting at you that you've written nothing, nothing, nothing! Sure, you probably talk to others in the course of your research, but when it comes time to write, it's just you and a white expanse of nothingness.

You visit The Writing Resource and other places for help with grammar, vocabulary, and other tools of the trade to improve your writing. Your editor can guide you in the right direction and help correct what you missed (don't have an editor? Let me help). But sometimes you just need to talk to another writer. You want to ask someone's opinion on where to go next with your manuscript. You want to connect with someone who truly gets your troubles. To hear how others solve their dilemmas. To be encouraged, rather than corrected, and to do the same for others.

Enter the writing group.

Whether in person or online, a writing group is a place to try out new ideas, sharing what you've written with fellow writers who can offer healthy feedback. It's a place to grow your writing skills through exercises, events, sharing, and listening. It's a community that offers encouragement and understands the ups and downs of being a writer.

What kind of writing group should you look for? It should be a group that meets regularly, whether physically or virtually, at a time you can commit to. People will count on you to participate; you need to show up physically and mentally. Other than that, your group could be based solely on location, offering a serendipitous variety of writers. You could look for a group of writers who write on the same topic (e.g., science or science fiction) or in the same media (e.g., novelists, poets, or bloggers). I searched on "writing groups massachusetts" and came up with several groups in Massachusetts and a few online ones that are organization based on location. I even found a writing group in my city: Phoenix Writers.

You can also check out writing sites and periodicals for lists of writing groups looking for new members. offers a long list of writer organizations. The New Hampshire Writers' Project is a wonderful organization to belong to, even if you don't live in New Hampshire. Besides holding events and helping writers organize writing groups, it has a Web site that lists writing opportunities and an informative newsletter about, you guessed it, writing. I particularly enjoy the columns about the craft. Though I have to admit my bias: NHWP has been a client for a few years, and when I started this blog I became a member.

And if you can't find a group near you or you just want to start your own? There are resources for that, too.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill offers the thorough Writing Center Guide to Writing Groups. The Writing Groups Start Kit is invaluable. The handouts do a great job of helping members set expectations and organizing meetings so they are useful rather than a waste of time. The 6' Ferret Writers' Group is another site offering advice on starting your own writing group. It also offers writing exercises for individuals and groups, ideas for writing events, a suggested reading list, and more.

If those don't work for you, try the old standby: search on "starting a writers group." The Web is nothing if not prolific on just about every topic.

It's a new year. Make a new commitment to your writing by engaging with others like you. Take a break from the isolation and gather with other writers.

Let me know how it goes.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Weekly Vocab Builder: Loanwords

This week's Vocab Builder focuses on loanwords, words borrowed from other languages. If you want to add a foreign flair to your writing, waking your readers up to what you're saying, try one of the following:
For more loanwords, check out these links:
  • Spanish. Some of these surprised me, as I wasn't aware of some of Spanish's influence.
  • French. I always think things sound better, more elegant in French. I admit, though, that I'm biased, having some French in my mongrel background.
  • Irish. Another bias of mine, I admit. (Didn't see that coming, with my first name, right?)
  • Words loaned in the 20th century. This page gives words from several languages that English has borrowed in the 20th century.
What are your favorite borrowed words? List them in the comments!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Words of the Year Roundup, 2009

Language is an organic system. It grows and changes to meet its speakers' needs. You can learn a lot about a society by watching the words it uses. Many dictionaries and other word experts catalog words that are in vogue. As a writer, you can leverage this information to help your writing meet its goals. Choose words that are popular to connect with your readers or avoid them to set yourself apart.

Let's take a look at what 2009's most popular words were.

2009 Word of the Year

The New Oxford American Dictionary (OAD) named unfriend its word of the year. This social media term means to remove someone from a social media network (see this Vocab Builder post for more on OAD's choice).

The OAD wasn't the only dictionary to choose a word of the year, however. Another heavyweight dictionary publisher, Merriam-Webster (M-W), chose admonish ("to express warning or disapproval") as its word of the year. M-W bases its choice on searches made on its dictionary and thesaurus sites. Admonish was searched for the most often over the shortest period during the year.

Webster's New World College Dictionary chose distracted driving as its word of the year. Editor-in-Chief Mike Agnes briefly outlines why New World made this choice:

Word Lists

The Global Language Monitor tracks words and phrases used online (including blogs and social media) and in print media. Its proprietary algorithm popped up the following as the most popular words for 2009:
  • Twitter
  • Obama
  • H1N1
  • Stimulus
  • Vampire
  • 2.0
  • Deficit
  • Hadron
  • Healthcare
  • Transparency 
Hmm, I wonder what we were preoccupied with in 2009? is a repository of local words, resposited (yup, that's a word) by its readers. Want to add local flavor to your writing? Start here. You'll discover that New York claims schlep (one of my favs, meaning to carry stuff for a long distance) and slice (a slice of cheese pizza; if you want pepperoni, don't ask for "a slice" in NYC), while Boston claims clicka (a remote control) and carriage (a shopping cart).

Local Words of the Year celebrates "local words that highlight the unique culture of American cities. While each of the five words was selected for its own distinct reasons, each is in some way representative of the local culture from which it comes and is not (yet) widely known across the country," says CityDictionary. Its picks are:
  • sconnie (Madison, WI): term that describes something related to Wisconsin
  • neutral ground (New Orleans, LA): most commonly used to mean the median of a street
  • polio water (Boston, MA): a puddle of water, usually dirty (I have to admit that I'm unfamiliar with this one)
  • slugging (Washington, DC): a type of hitchhiking in which individuals (slugs) line up near the highway (freeway, to some of you) and cars stop to pick up the slugs, thus enabling the driver to use the HOV lane on the highway
  • meat raffle (Minneapolis, MN): a charity event that often takes place in Minnesota bars, and raffles off, you know, meat (yeah, that's not where my mind went on that one. Hey, a dirty mind is a valuable quality in an editor; you need to think dirty to catch double entendres before they publish and embarrass the writer)
But my favorite list is Lake Superior State University's (LSSU's) Banished Words. LSSU receives nominations throughout the year for words to be banished from "the Queen's English for Mis-Use, Over-Use and General Uselessness." This tongue-in-cheek list is great fun and gets a lot of publicity. Getting people to actually stop using the words, however, is probably a pipe dream. 1988's list included my bad and Generation X, both of which are still popular. Below are the list and my opinions. You've been warned.
  • shovel-ready: This term implies "that a project has been completely designed and all that is left to do is to implement it...however, when something dies, it, too, is shovel-ready for burial," said one nominator. I actually think this is a good call. It was meaningless to me until I searched out a definition. Besides, how useful is a term if you don't know whether the project is ready to implement or dead?
  • transparent/transparency: The comments indicated that people are tired of politicians using these words when they are being anything but transparent. I'm all for transpar-, uh, being clear.
  • czar: Interestingly, George W. Bush appointed 47 people for 35 czar positions. Barack Obama has (thus far) appointed 8 people for 38 czar positions. Mr. President, would you help ban czar by appointing people to positions not labeled as czar? Language mavens everywhere will appreciate it. Thanks.
  • tweet: This includes all tweet's variants, including tweetaholic, retweet, twitterhea, twitterature, and twittersphere. I have to argue against this one. You can read the comments to ban it for yourself, but it seems to me that those commenting don't actively use Twitter. I do, and I know a lot of others who do too. If you say you tweeted something, I know you posted something specifically on Twitter. If you say you retweeted something, I know you reposted someone else's tweet, giving them credit. If you say you posted an update (three words rather than one, mind), I wouldn't know if you posted something on Facebook, FriendFeed, or some other social media site or microblog. Do the variations get silly? Certainly. But those will be weeded out over time. Tweet and retweet will hang around as long as Twitter does, maybe longer, especially as the platform becomes more popular.
  • APP: I was surprised to see this in all caps. "App" is a shortened form of "application," much as "bus" is for "omnibus." (If someone can explain to me why it's capped, I'd appreciate it.) And I think it'll stay. People tend to shorten longer words they use a lot; applications are part and parcel of technology in general. Good luck banning it, folks.
  • Sexting: to send sexual text messages and pictures via cell phone. I have seen this term a few times but haven't had any cause to use it (maybe I'm just not writing about sexy enough topics). If the act becomes mainstream in any way, though, this word will stick around. If someone's doing it, we need a word to describe it. Sorry, folks.
  • Friend: to make someone a part of an online social network. I see nothing wrong with this word. Befriend may sound better to some people, but friend creates a picture in my mind of an online relationship, perhaps even restricted to online (though I wouldn't count on it staying online only).
  • Teachable moment: Otherwise called a lesson. If you're raising or teaching kids, I would think every moment is one in which you can teach. Lesson is a perfectly good word. No need to get all snooty about it. Unless, of course, there is a need to get snooty about it. It's all about knowing your audience.
  • In these economic times: Yup, I'm over this phrase. What I'm really over (and what is really overdone) is story after story about the economy. I know it's bad; I've checked my wallet. And I know it's affecting everyone, because I talk to other people. Are you really going to rehash what we all know is going on? Must you tell us something we already know...again? Say something new or I'll move on.
  • Stimulus: Another overdone topic. I've tuned it out.
  • Toxic assets: The image in my mind is of a rusty oil barrel with oozing, bubbling green yuck. It's a good image. But if it's the 10th or 100th time your reader has seen it, it becomes meaningless. If you want to emphasize how bad the stocks were, try being original about it.
  • Too big to fail: The concept makes me -- and lots of other people -- angry. If your goal is to anger readers (and it might be), keep using this phrase.
  • Bromance: Admittedly, I had to look this one up as I'd never heard of it before. According to Wikipedia, it's "a close but non-sexual relationship between two (or more) men, a form of homosocial intimacy." Um, can't guys having loving friendships without everyone getting their knickers in a twist about what kind of love it is? Geez, guys, get over it.
  • chillaxin': If chilling means relaxing, what are you doing if you're doing both? Are you extra chilled? Extra relaxed? It is overkill to sound cool and fails miserably.

Your Turn

Words come and go, fashionable one minute, gauche the next. Now you know what the coolest, and not so cool, buzzwords are. Sprinkle them liberally throughout your writing or ban them forever more. Just don't say I didn't warn you.

And if you want to add your own two cents, vote for's Word of the Year.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

2010: The Year You Connect to Your Audience

Welcome writers to 2010, the year you make contact...with your audience! If your goal this year is to improve your writing, you'll want to visit this blog often. In addition to spicing up your writing with some great words, you'll also improve your writing with short grammar and usage lessons and quizzes (don't worry, I'll always post the answers), build your reference library with book reviews, and get an opportunity to ask advice on your toughest writing conundrums.

Make sure you don't miss a post by adding this blog to your RSS feed (use the button on the right) or follow me on Twitter or Facebook. Share your favorite posts with others with the Sociable gadget to the the right. And be sure to use the comments section below to tell me what you want to see in this blog.

Happy New Year!