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

Comments 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).

Reply to at 5:57 am 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

Reply to at 10:02 pm 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

Reply to at 11:08 pm 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).

Reply to at 3:25 am 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.

Reply to at 3:03 am 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."

Reply to at 1:53 am