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Fowler, revised: zeugma, with fluidity


"The New Fowler's Modern English Usage," Third Edition, edited by R.W. Burchfield. Oxford University Press. 864 pages. $25.

For the better part of this century, writers and editors of English prose have ceremonially displayed (and sometimes brandished) three great texts: the Authorized Version of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer and Fowler's Modern English Usage. Revision has now caught up with the third.

The limitations of Henry Watson Fowler's "Modern English Usage," published in 1926 and updated by Sir Ernest Gowers in 1965, are plain. It is foremost a manual of British usage. Its citations are dated. The organization is idiosyncratic. The author's views are often quirky.

Even so, what other manual of usage have people ever read for amusement?

Robert Burchfield, a New Zealander and the former editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, has a lexicographer's methods and discipline to keep track of usages. He has made rich use of contemporary sources. He has enlarged the range of citations to include usage in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa as well as Britain and the United States. The citations alone make this edition more immediately helpful than the previous two.

He has, however, adopted a pointlessly condescending tone about his predecessor. The preface sneers Fowler's book is "a fossil" and calls it "an enduring monument to all that was linguistically acceptable in the standard English of the southern counties of England in the first quarter of the twentieth century."

All the same, Burchfield has done a solid job of work. He has followed Fowler's precedent of including terms of prosody and figures of rhetoric. If you need to differentiate the Petrarchan sonnet from the Shakespearean or Miltonic, of if you wish to make use of chiasmus or zeugma, Burchfield will show you the way.

He offers sound advice on dealing with shibboleths and noisy controversies over usage. His article on possessive with gerund will not satisfy the reader looking for a fixed rule for all occasions, but it will impress readers sensitive to the fluidity of the language. In nearly all cases his advice is both sensitive to language and sensible for writers.

Burchfield's entries indulge in the occasional dry remark. With regard to abide, which over the years has lost some of its conjugational forms, he comments, "A verb in retreat does not always show its full plumage." This is a book friendly to the reader.

That said, an American reader might well question the need for this revision. We already have the "Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage," which is longer than Burchfield's book, more typographically inviting and written from the perspective of American usage. The hand that hesitates between the two might do well to choose Merriam-Webster.

The deity of the Old Testament, a quirky and compelling personality, gave way during the Enlightenment to the benevolent but remote Creator whose light shines on all. With Burchfield, we have a light that shines evenly on all users of English. We appreciate that light, but sometimes we long for the old dispensation.

John McIntyre is chief of The Sun's copy desk and an adjunct instructor in the department of writing and media at Loyola College. He studied English at Michigan State University and Syracuse University.

Pub Date: 12/22/96

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