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  • Happy Birthday, Henry Fowler: inventor of that/which rule is 150 today

    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.

    Welcome, English teachers

    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.

    Portrait of Robert Lowth
    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 on prepositions

    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 Fowler picture

    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.

i.m.tieken@let.leidenuniv.nl Mar 9, 2008 5:57 am

Congratulations from me too! It would also have been their 100th wedding anniversary if the Fowlers had lived that long!

But to make two important points about Lowth: he did not write his grammar as a bishop, for the grammar was published in 1762 (he had started it in 1757, and it was finished in 1761, so yes, he does seem to have written it in his spare time), and he became bishop of Oxford in 1766 and bishop of London in 1777. Before he was nominated bishop of Oxford, the grammar had already gone through five editions!

Another common misconception is that Lowth is usually prescriptive in his approach to grammar and usage. His discussion of preposition stranding neatly illustrates that this is not the case. The way he phrases the stricture (very carefully!) also coincides with his own usage in the diferent styles of his private letters, so it was most definitely a descriptive rule. The stricture was only made more prescriptive by his followers, such as Lindley Murray (1795), who copies Lowth verbatim and then adds "but it is better to ..."!

Lowth Short Introduction was a proper grammar, not a usage guide, though this was how his readers made use of it and how modern linguists tend to see it. The first usage guide was written by Robert Baker, in 1770, so well after Lowth, but Baker never read the grammar. It is a completely independent work, and shows that the two movements (grammars vs. usage guides) were quite distinct.

Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade (Leiden, The Netherlands).

rrhersh@yahoo.com Mar 13, 2008 10:02 pm
Very nice, but Fowler didn't invent the that/which rule. The earliest source I know of this rule is the mid-19th century grammarian Goold Brown. Alfred Ayres also was quite enchanted by it, to the extent of going back and "correcting" his edition of Cobbett's grammar from the early 19th century. Fowler undoubtedly is responsible for popularizing the rule, but it was not of his creation. Richard Hershberger
pbpub@bigpond.com Mar 16, 2008 11:08 pm

1. Fowler as a world leader. I believe following a religion is not only a waste of time, but dangerous. The only religion the world needs, but doesn't have, is Fowlerism.

2. Fowler as comedian. Fowler was very funny. People don't realise that. Here are a few things he said:

“The reserve of modern assertions is sometimes pushed to extremes in which the fear of being contradicted leads the writer to strip himself of almost all sense and meaning”.

‘Mrs Malaprop is the patron saint of those who go wordfowling with a blunderbuss’.

‘Needless substitution of the abstract for the concrete is one of the surest roads to flabby style’ .

‘[Miocene] A typical example of the monstrosities with which scientific men in want of a label for something, and indifferent to all beyond their own province, defile the language’.

mot juste is an expression which readers would like to buy of writers who use it, as one buys one’s neighbour’s bantam cock for the sake of hearing it

‘Those who talk in mathematical language without knowing mathematics go out of their way to exhibit ignorance’.

3. His book has only one problem. The only thing wrong with his book is that you can't find the thing you want. To fix this problem, I read every word of it and wrote an index. I am one of the few who can put my finger on "aviatrix" straight away.

Paul Bennett Publishing

i.m.tieken@let.leidenuniv.nl Mar 25, 2008 3:25 am

Yes, I've noted Fowler's humorous approach, too. Much of it is edited out of the later editions though.

The idea of an index to Fowler is quite interesting. I take it it's an index to the first edition? What I'd like to know is if Fowler ever refers to Lowth. Could you let me know if he does?

Ingrid Tieken-Boon van Ostade (Leiden).

pbpub@bigpond.com Apr 7, 2008 3:03 am

Yes, I wrote one, but it's for the 2nd edition because that's the one that was in circulation when I wrote it. Furthermore, I like the 2nd edition more than I like the 3rd.

It took me two years. I even got a spot on ABC "Radio National" with my phone number but the only call I got was from my mum asking me how many calls I'd got.

It has about 11,000 entries, but it's not a comprehensive index. It certainly helps you find a word that's not already a headword. So, my "index" does not list "double passives" because Fowler already has an article calledthat. But it does list "clergyman" because that word does not appear under "c" in Fowler.

pbpub@bigpond.com Apr 4, 2009 1:53 am

I am embarrassed to see that I made two typing mistakes in my little story, "Fowlerism" on your site. Please fix them like this:

1. Please replace the sentence beginning "mot juste" with this correctly copied one: "mot juste is an expression which readers would like to buy of writers who use it, as one buys one’s neighbour’s bantam cock for the sake of hearing its voice no more."

2. Please replace the Mrs Malaprop piece with this one, correctly typed: ""She [Mrs Malaprop] is now the matron saint of all those who go wordfowling with a blunderbuss."

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