Tilting Against Established Perversions

Non-writers might be unaware of the narrow little category of books devoted to “English usage,” i.e., the right best way to use the language, from fine points of grammar to the correct definitions of commonly misused words. No mere textbooks, these works usually take the form of a collection of essays (some “mini” and some not so) that argue for the various usages the author prefers (and it is sometimes simply a matter of well-argued opinion).

Between the covers of such books, you can learn-for example-the difference between “cheerful” and “cheery”: “The cheerful feels and perhaps shows contentment, the cheery shows and probably feels it.”

That example comes from the most famous of these books, Henry Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern Usage, usually called “Fowler’s” by aficionados.

If the first thing such books make you think of is all the times someone else has corrected your grammar, rest assured that that’s not what Fowler wanted. From an essay by Jim Holt in the New York Times, occasioned by the re-release of the first edition of Fowler’s by Oxford University Press:

“For all his classicist rigor, [Fowler] was a tolerant man who realized that “tilting against established perversions . . . is vanity in more than one sense.” His ideal was a democratic one, a natural, unaffected and humbug-free English summed up in the word “idiom.” And if idiom and grammar are in conflict, so much the worse for grammar. Thus he was cheerfully lax about “who & whom” and the placement of “only,” and he mocked the pains people go through to avoid ending their sentences with prepositions. When it came to the notorious split infinitive (e.g., “to boldly go where no man . . .”), he observed that those English speakers who neither know nor care about them “are to be envied” by the unhappy few who do.”

Good to know. Personally, I’m more of a Garner man myself, which is to say that I rely on Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage for help avoiding “Titular Tomfoolery”[1] or deciding whether “online” needs a hyphen in the middle.[2]

I learned about Garner from a review by David Foster Wallace. As usual, Wallace’s review is not just a review but a genuinely useful little work of philosophy:

“[I]t is indisputably easier to be dogmatic than Democratic, especially about issues that are both vexed and highly charged. I submit further that the issues surrounding “correctness” in contemporary American usage are both vexed and highly charged, and that the fundamental questions they involve are ones whose answers have to be “worked out” instead of simply found.

A distinctive feature of ADMAU is that its author is willing to acknowledge that a usage dictionary is not a bible or even a textbook but rather just the record of one smart person’s attempts to work out answers to certain very difficult questions. This willingness appears to me to be informed by a Democratic Spirit.”

To be honest, I only consult Garner maybe five times a year, which I’m relieved to learn is in keeping with Holt’s recommendations regarding Fowler and, presumably, all such books:

“[O]ne shouldn’t spend too much time in Fowler’s company. … [H]eightened self-consciousness about usage is the enemy of vigor. One sees this not infrequently in Fowler’s own prose, which can be crabbed and intricate to the point of unintelligibility. One sees it also in disciples of Fowler, who turn out pedanti­cally correct little essays in his honor ….

Hey, here’s a fun little activity: find the usage errors I intentionally[3] sprinkled throughout this post, and I’ll send you a quarter![4]
1. “[E]ven titles of authority [which “are properly capitalized before a person’s name”] … are not capitalized when used as appositives following the name (e.g., George Pataki, governor of New York).”

2. “[T]he hyphen [in on-line] is probably doomed to disappear. The closed form is already dominant, whether the word is used as an adjective or an adverb.”

3. Not really. I’m actually just assuming I made some mistakes. Writing correct is hard!

4. No, I won’t. That offer was for entertainment purposes only!

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