Stacey Mason/Mark Bernstein
Liam Julian hails Oxford’s reprint of the original Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H.W. Fowler. The piece recounts the evolution of Fowler’s and its successor edittions. Julian demonstrates why the 1996 reprint of Fowler’s didn’t capture the original spirit and gives great examples of the Fowler we know and love:
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 & condemn; (4) those who know & approve; & (5) those who know and distinguish.
Many if not most textbook-authors and teachers of Fowler’s time, and ours, belong in the third group, the dire condemners. But Fowler sides with the fifth, a club, he writes, that believes “that a real s.i., though not desirable in itself, is preferable to either of two things, to real ambiguity, & to patent artificiality.” Writing should be clear and smooth, and if maintaining the contiguity between to and its verb occasions an unclear or jarring sentence, the infinitive in question should be split.
The tremendous influence of Fowler specifically, and grammarians generally, on US newspapers and magazines is not very well appreciated. British publishers either went to good schools, and knew how to use words, or they went to bad schools and didn’t give a damn. In the US, you got anomalies like Ross, a high-school graduate from Utah who showed up in New York and found himself running The New Yorker as it became the centerpiece of American prose. Ross felt he didn’t really know how to write (or act). He was famously fanatic for Fowler’s.