Today, March 10, 2008, is the 150th birthday of Henry Watson Fowler, high school Latin teacher, lexicographer, and author of the Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), the most important book on English usage of the 20th century (sorry Strunk and White, you lose hands down).
So here’s my e-card to the man who single-handedly invented the difference between that and which and convinced thousands of copy editors that Druids had carved it on an ancient pillar at Stonehenge.
My e-card to Henry Fowler on the occasion of his 150th birthday
Actually, Fowler never hid the fact that he wasn’t given the that/which rule on Mt. Sinai. Quite the opposite: he insisted that “the relations between that, who, & which have come to us from our forefathers as an odd jumble, & plainly show that the language has not been neatly constructed by a master-builder” (Modern English Usage, 1926, that, s.v.; I’m not going to recount Fowler’s rule here, because it’s too complicated, requiring a discussion of restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses that’s not particularly entertaining).
So Fowler decided to improve this jumble because, as he put it, “the temptation to show how better use might have been made of the material to hand is sometimes irresistible.”
And that, to be simple and direct, is where most usage books go wrong: their goal is not to teach beginning writers the secrets of the pros, but to improve the language of amateurs and experts alike.
The first English usage guides began popping up in the 18th century. In 1762, Robert Lowth wrote a grammar book in which he alternately condemned aspects of modern usage and aspects of traditional usage, while he gleefully pointed out the grammatical lapses of such highly-regarded English writers as Addison, Congreve, Dryden, Hobbes, Milton, Pope, and Swift, not to mention Shakespeare and the King James Bible, the book Lowth consulted regularly in his day job – he was Bishop of London.
Robert Lowth, by day Bishop of London, wrote one of the most influential grammars of the 18th century in his spare time
Like Fowler, Lowth invented rules when it pleased him to. He found sentence-final prepositions natural in English, but he recommended sentences that didn’t end in prepositions as “more graceful as well as more perspicuous.” Just as Fowler’s that/which invention became a rule, generations of Lowth’s faithful readers turned his prepositional preference into a thou-shalt-not command.
Lowth thought ending sentences with prepositions natural but not very formal. His readers turned that preference into a rule
At least Lowth’s Short Introduction to English Grammar was short, and he squirreled his critiques of writers away in footnotes so readers could skip them if they wanted to. But Fowler doesn’t believe much in nutshells. In fact, he spends almost six double-column pages explaining exactly how his that/which rule is a simple system of crystal-clear distinctions and not a jumble.
In contrast, it takes Fowler only seven columns to sort out the differences between shall and will, because these distinctions are innate for those “to the manner born” and only have to be explained to the Irish, the Scots, and those speakers of “extra-British idiom” even farther removed from England, like Americans, Indians and New Zealanders.
Henry Watson Fowler, who turns 150 today, doesn’t look his age
Most readers of usage books don’t have the time or the inclination to sort out such niceties. They want to be told what to do, no ifs, ands or buts, no thats, whos or whiches. They’re not looking for subtlety and nuance, they just want to know where to put the commas. They want prescription, and they want it easy to swallow. They want to hear, “Take two commas, three times a day, and you’ll be fine.”
But that doesn’t mean people who consult usage guides will actually take direction. There’s a basic paradox at work here: everybody wants to be correct, but nobody wants to be corrected.
In the end, readers either ignore Lowth, Fowler, Strunk and White, or whatever usage bible they’ve glommed onto, or in their eagerness they misapply what they read, creating new errors for the writers of the next generation of usage guides to correct, and a new market of insecure writers clamoring for the latest advice, because like diet books, the old ones didn't seem to do the trick.