H. W. Fowler, the King of English

From The New York Times:

ArticleLarge “To see him fumbling with our rich and delicate language is to experience all the horror of seeing a Sèvres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee,” Eve­lyn Waugh once said of a fellow writer. I sometimes feel like that chimp, and perhaps you do too. When it comes to handling the English language, we are all fumblers — with the possible exception of Waugh himself, who, as Gore Vidal once observed, wrote “prose so chaste that at times one longs for a violation of syntax to suggest that its creator is fallible, or at least part American.” Some care about getting English right; others don’t. For those who do, there is a higher authority, a sacred book, that offers guidance through our grammatical vale of tears. Its full title is “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage,” but among its devotees it is known, reverentially, as “Fowler.”

One such devotee was Winston Churchill, who cared greatly about language, even in wartime. “Why must you write ‘intensive’ here?” Churchill demanded of his director of military intelligence while looking over plans for the invasion of Normandy. “ ‘Intense’ is the right word. You should read Fowler’s Modern English Usage on the use of the two words.” Just who is this Fowler, this supreme arbiter of usage, this master of nuance and scruple, He Who Must Be Obeyed? His full name was Henry Watson Fowler, and he lived from 1858 to 1933. He was educated at the Rugby School and at Balliol College, Oxford, where he failed to take a top degree. For a while he taught classics at a school in Yorkshire (contemporaries there described him variously as “a first-rate swimmer” and “lacking humanity”), but his career as a schoolmaster ended prematurely because of religious doubts. He then tried to make a living as a freelance writer in London, without much luck.

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