The rhythms of prose

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!

12 responses to this post.

  1. Here in the United States we have Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage [edited and completed by Jacques Barzum]. While not as venerable as the early Fowler, Follet is a contemporary to the Second Edition of Fowler so they are both fun and educational reading.

    I also have a perpetual subscription to Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Vocabula Review [online at to remind me of how little I know of the nuances of my own language.


    • Thanks for that, Mike – I hadn’t known of the Wilson Follett volume. I’ll have alook for it when I’m next on a booskhop browsing visit.

      Of course, we are all fairly familiar with American English on this side of the Pond, as we all watch American films and television programmes. In teh multi-national company I work for, the communications tend to be in US ENglish ratherthan UK English. I notice also that when non-English speakers learn ENglish, it’s the US version they learn, so they’re likely to say “vacation” rather than “holiday”, or, say, “sidewalk” rather than “pavement”. It all gets rather interesting when it comes to translations. Slang and colloquial expressions have to be presented as slang and colloquial in the target language, and these do vary significantly by region; and so, Tolstoy’s Russian peasants speaking in some rural English dialect is likely to strike the American reader as a bit odd. But then again, if they were to speak in an American dialect, that would strike the English reader as odd also! This is particularly significant when it comes to translatiosn of drama. I have seen criticisms of translations of Chekhov plays on the grounds that the characters sound “too English”, but the alternative would surely be tomake them sound too American! And while the former naturally seems odd to an American audience, the latter will similarly seem odd to a British audience. I wonder whether we’re heading for different translations for different countries.

      All this is food for thought for another post, I suppose!

      Cheers for now, Himadri


  2. I love reading books like that and I own quite a few. I hope that my own writing will achieve a flow and rhythm that makes it easy for the reader to glide through my prose. And I love the single masterpiece from one of my favorite books ever.


    • Hello Sharon,

      Whenever I come across good prose, I find myself re-reading passages and wishing I could write like that!

      And who were those masters of the English language who worked on the King James Bible? I understand that much of the King James Bible is taken from William Tyndale’s version, but Tyndale did not complete all the books of the Old Testament. It has often been conjectured that they brought in the well-known poets of the day to work on the King James Bible, and I for one like to imagine that Shakespeare and Donne may have been among them!

      All the best, Himadri


      • Though I like the story of Shakespeare’s hand in one of the Psalms, I think it highly unlikely, as we know who was in each of the six committees involved and which books of the Bible they translated. Shakespeare also lacked the profound knowledge of ancient languages of most of these scholars – Lancelot Andrewes, for example, head of the London committee which translated Genesis, had mastered at least fourteen languages or dialects; and the members of one committee were very sniffy about the inclusion of one particular scholar because he’d left university without a degree, until his obvious brilliance changed their opinion of him. Even so, I suppose such things are never finally proveable, and some of the men in the two London companies may easily have had some connections with the poets of their day.

        Concerning great prose, have you read any Jeremy Taylor? He was very popular with the Romantics, especially Coleridge, though he is not much mentioned these days, no doubt because religious devotions and words such as ‘vanity’ and ‘sin’ are now so unfashionable and offputting. Sad really, as his writing is full of beautiful metaphors and the most majestic sentences, all building up in great periods or clauses, one after the other. The opening of Holy Dying, for example, is a breathtaking piece of prose. Here it is, via the magic of googlebooks (sorry, I don’t know how to format the link):

      • Hello Chris, I am sorry to say I do not know of Jeremy Taylor at all. I shall certanly have to look it him up. That link certainly whets the appetite.

        Generally, I love 18th century prose: there is a wonderful senseof balance and of consonance. The prose of Johnson’s Rasselas, for instance: it’s a sheer delight just speaking those sentences to oneself, so perfectly are they structured.

        And you’re right about Shakespeare and the Bible, of course. It is indeed highly unlikely that Shakespeare, Donne, etc had a hand in this book. But it does make me wonder why people who could write prose of such quality did not extend their literary genius into other areas!

  3. I really enjoy your essays on whichever book you happen to be reading, Himadri, and am always forced to overcome an immediate impulse to buy it. I did once own the Fowler, but sold it off with a thousand or so other books after moving to a smaller flat, and so I am now forever making lists in my head of the books I wish I’d kept. (Fowler has now been added!) Obviously you meant Modern English Usage, by the way, as Usage and Abusage is Eric Partridge’s similar book on grammar, as I’m sure you know. This book I did keep, and Partridge describes it in his preface as a supplement and complement to the Fowler, though less ‘Olympian’ and ‘austere’. It even has the same interesting double-column layout.

    By coincidence, I was reading a review of a book about contemporary British art only the other day and was struck immediately by how badly written it was. William Empson once described the introduction to most contemporary art catalogues as ‘a steady, iron-hard jet of absolutely total nonsense’, so it seems this particular sphere of writing has always had a bad reputation. Here’s a sample from the review:

    Stallabrass’ problem lies with his inability to grasp how the ideological exhaustion of post-cold war capitalism can coexist with its relative economic stability (hence his over-reliance on economically determinist arguments), and how an art which is populist, as well as steeped in post-modern nihilism, can so readily be transformed into the official culture.

    Just awful, isn’t it? When I read things like this I confess I lose all sight of what is being said and picture rather an industrial-sized shed full of turkeys all gobbling away. It’s not so much rhythmless as relentless, an unvarying assault of adjective-noun adjective-noun. Ugh!

    I think I’m going to have to get the Fowler back.


    • Oh good heavens! – Of course, it’s Modern English Usage rather than Usage and Abusage! It doesn’t say much for my recommendation when I can’t even remember the name of the book I am recommending! Thanks for the correction. (I won’t make the correction in my post: it might as well stand as evidence of my absent-mindedness!) Mind you – that Partridge book is very good as well…

      There’s an awful lot of very bad writing around, often by professional writers. And the worst of it is that no-one seems to notice. That sentence you quote is truly abysmal, but writing such as this seems quite often to be the rule rather than the exception.


  4. There’s no reply button for some reason under the post above, so I’ll make this a separate post.

    Generally, I love 18th century prose: there is a wonderful senseof balance and of consonance. The prose of Johnson’s Rasselas, for instance: it’s a sheer delight just speaking those sentences to oneself, so perfectly are they structured.

    And you’re right about Shakespeare and the Bible, of course. It is indeed highly unlikely that Shakespeare, Donne, etc had a hand in this book. But it does make me wonder why people who could write prose of such quality did not extend their literary genius into other areas!

    They did write sermons, of course, often of a highly literary kind, and many other religious tracts. It was a sermon of Andrewes which inspired Eliot’s poem The Journey of the Magi, and his collected works extend to eleven volumes. But sermons and abstruse religious disputes and religious works generally are all very out of fashion now, unlikely to return, and so most of their writings are out of print.

    I still have never read Rasselas, though I’ve read quite a few of the Lives of the Poets, as well as the Preface to Shakespeare and various other essays, so I know exactly what you mean: that magisterial eloquence, as though there’s little in life or history that he doesn’t know about, and he will come to it all in due time and place it humanly and judiciously – in perfectly balanced sentences, as you say. Johnson is one of those writers who, the more you read of him, the more you come to love him.

    I’m on a bit of blast at the moment for the different styles of English prose, which is why your post struck such a chord with me. I’m also reading Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise, in which he offers a distinction between two basic styles: the vernacular (deliberately plain and clear) and what he terms the ‘Mandarin’ (consciously sophisticated, rhetorical):

    The Mandarin style at its best yields the richest and most complete expression of the English language. It is the diction of Donne, Browne, Addison, Johnson, Gibbon, de Quincey, Landor, Carlyle and Ruskin as opposed to that of Bunyan, Dryden, Locke, Defoe, Cowper, Cobbett, Hazlitt, Southey and Newman. It is characterized by long sentences with many dependent clauses, by the use of the subjunctive and conditional, by exclamations and interjections, quotations, allusions, metaphors, long images, Latin terminology, subtlety and conceits. Its cardinal assumption is that neither the writer nor the reader is in a hurry, that both are possessed of a classical education and a private income. It is Ciceronian English.

    The difference is not always quite so clear cut, as he himself admits, but it’s an interesting distinction. I wonder if you’re supposed to prefer one or the other, but I find myself enjoying the qualities of both.


    • That certainly is an interesting distinction. I don’t know that I necessarily have a preference: either style can be done well, or done badly. I don’t think anyone wrote better English prose than Bunyan, for instance, whereas the insipidity of so much modern prose in the “vernacular” manner is frankly distressing. And similarly for the “mandarin” style, which spans the gamut all the way from Nabokov to his pale, contemporary imitators.

      I had said in my post that I didn’t want to name names, but it does become difficult to remain quiet when authors are well-regarded who cannot write. Recently, in the Guardian, a number of contemporary authors were asked to pen a few paragraphs of the subject of failure. the ideal opportunity, one would think, of writers displaying their wares in a showcase. And yet, with a few exceptions, the quality of writing is atrocious. Julian Barnes turns in a simple but engaging character study, written in unobtrusive “vernacular”, to use Cyril Connolly’s terminology; and Howard Jacobson does have a talent for putting together his sentences in a witty and engaging manner. But as for the rest… The Will Self contribution is a prime example of “mandarin prose” attempted by a writer who clearly has no gift for it. Booker prize winner Anne Enright seems to have difficulty distinguishing singular from plural:

      The zen of it is that success and failure are both an illusion …

      (And can you imagine a self-respecting prose stylist coming up with something so utterly meaningless as “the zen of it…”?)

      Meanwhile, the much admired Margaret Attwood offers us this:

      Failure is just another name for much of real life: much of what we set out to accomplish ends in failure, at least in our own eyes. Who set the bar so high that most of our attempts to sail gracefully over it on the viewless wings of Poesy end in an undignified scramble or a nasty fall into the mud?

      Just look at that last sentence: where does one start? The quotation from Keats clumsily inserted for no apparent reason? The failure to realise that one “flies” rather than “sails” on wings? The tin ear for rhythm? Does no-one even notice this is bad writing?

      I frequently browse various contemporary titles in bookshops, and these examples above aren’t by any means isolated examples.

      I’m sorry – I went off on a rant again: I really didn’t mean to!

      All the best for now,


      • Just came across this little article by classicist Peter Jones and I thought you might fight interesting. It was written ten years ago, which only goes to show how little things have changed:

      • Business-speak is absolutely horrendous. There are various words and phrases people feel they have to use simply because they are writing a business document. Sadly, I have to read through a lot of these, and I do wonder how much valuable work time is lost because people are struggling to make sense of badly written documents. Clear communication is not a particularly salient feature of the corporate world!

        what struck me about those Guardian pieces, though, is that we have here a collection of feted contemporary writers. And not only do most of them seem incapable of writing well, it’s also that no-one appears to notice, or to care! Scanning through the below-the-line comments, no-one appears to have picked up on this, and I am left wondering whether I am the only one who is appalled by the quality!

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