What kind of lunatic would read a book on grammar for fun? Well, me, I guess. And I can’t be the only one. But this is no ordinary book on grammar: it’s Fowler’s once venerated Modern English Usage.
Since I am acquainted only with the second edition of this book, I don’t know how much of what I enjoy I owe to the brothers Fowler, who published the first edition back in 1906, or to Sir Ernest Gowers, whose revised version appeared in 1965. That the first edition lasted so many decades without any change thought to be required is testament enough for the Fowlers’ achievement. There is, I believe, a third edition now on the market, but this, from what I gather, is a completely re-written version rather than a revised edition. I haven’t, I admit, investigated it: in the first place, the version I have serves my needs admirably; and in the second place, I like so much the charm and the elegance of the second that I would not wish to see it replaced.
Yes, charm and elegance: not qualities one normally associates with grammarians, who seem widely regarded as dry-as-dust pedants – oh, how the Fowlers would warn me against using so trite a simile as “dry as dust”! – and as people whose declared aim it is to fetter us to inflexible rules, smothering any spark of creativity we may have. Don’t these grammarians know that language is changing, and that this simple fact, for fact it is, gives us licence to put together any words we choose in any manner we see fit?
But no, charm and elegance are what I meant. Throughout this textbook, one finds these most un-textbook-like qualities in abundance. Added to this is a deep knowledge and a love of the English language itself. And what better companions could one possibly wish for than those who display wit, charm, erudition, and passion?
The Fowlers – or Sir Ernest Gowers, I cannot tell – effectively write miniature, and sometimes not-so-miniature, essays on various aspects of written English, and, far from being pedantic, they advise us to break the rules when breaking the rules aids clarity, or elegance, or both. Typical is their opening paragraph on the entry on “split infinitives”:
The English-speaking world may be divided into (1)those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish.
Each of these five positions is then analysed, with copious illustrative examples showing how injudiciously split infinitives may lead to lack of clarity, and how pedantically undivided infinitives may lead to clumsiness.
This is their approach throughout: the rules are to be applied not slavishly, but judiciously. The purpose of grammar is not to enforce conformity, but to aid both intelligibility and elegance, especially when we are trying to express matters of complexity or of subtlety. And when the rules of grammar evidently do not serve this purpose, they are to be discarded in favour of whatever does. But iconoclasm for its own sake is no more admirable than dogged pedantry.
The advice in this book is not merely on matters of grammar, but also of style: throughout, the authors insist on the qualities of clarity and of elegance. The latter is not something I find too readily in modern prose. I refer here not merely to the Jeffrey Archers and the Dan Browns of this world: such people are all too easy targets to stick the boot into. I refer also to many writers who are highly acclaimed by contemporary literati, and who may even win literary awards, but a mere few paragraphs of whose writing sampled in bookshops make me wonder how people with such tin ears for the rhythms of English prose could even have thought of choosing writing as their careers. But let us stop there before I get on to mentioning names.
The essay in Modern English Usage on the rhythm of English prose is, indeed, among the finest in the volume. Firstly, they explain with the sort of prose I don’t think I’d find in any other textbook, what they mean by “rhythm”:
Rhythmless speech or writing is like a flow of liquid from a pipe or tap; it runs with smooth monotony from when it is turned on to when it is turned off, provided it is clear stuff; if it is turbid, the smooth flow is queerly and abruptly checked from time to time, and then resumed. Rhythmic speech or writing is like the waves of the sea, moving onward with alternating rise and fall, connected yet separate, like but different, suggestive of some law, too complex for analysis or statement, controlling the relations between wave and wave, waves and sea, phrase and phrase, phrases and speech. In other words, live speech, said or written, is rhythmic, and rhythmless speech is at best dead.
There follows a number of hilarious examples of “rhythmless” writing, and for each, there is a lucid explanation of what had gone wrong with the sentence, and what steps may be taken to improve it. But before we go through these examples, we are promised that there will appear, at the end of the article, “a single masterpiece of rhythm”. One wonders why they chose to end this article with this “single masterpiece”: the example chosen was certainly not intended to be exemplary, since even in 1906 no-one would have been expected to write in such a style. I think they chose this “single masterpiece of rhythm” simply because they loved it, and wished to share it with their readers. And it is worth sharing:
And the king was much moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate and wept: and as he went, thus he said: O my son, Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would God I had died for thee, O Absalom, my son, my son!