FROM: "Re: The reason is because ~" Posted 06-10-2005 06:23 AM


Authority: The New Fowler's Modern English Usage edited by R.W. Burchfield. Clarendon Press: Oxford, England. 1996. Used with the permission of Oxford University Press. (under "because")

"authority"; that's a strange word to use when talking about Fowler's. As a source for describing the English language, it is highly suspect.


Professor G Nunberg

Take Modern English Usage, by that good man H. W. Fowler, "a Christian in all but actual faith," as the Dictionary of National Biography called him. Despite a revision in 1965, it is out-of-date, yet it still has a coterie as devoted as the fans of Jane Austen or Max Beerbohm, who prize its diffident irony, its prose cadences, and, above all, the respect it shows for its readers' intelligence and principles.

Here, for example, is Fowler on the insertion of quotation marks or an expression like "to use an expressive colloquialism" to mark off a slang word from which the writer wants to dissociate himself:

"Surprise a person of the class that is supposed to keep servants cleaning his own boots, & either he will go on with the job while he talks to you, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, or else he will explain that the bootboy or scullery-maid is ill & give you to understand that he is, despite appearances, superior to boot-cleaning. If he takes the second course, you conclude that he is not superior to it; if the first, that perhaps he is. So it is with the various apologies to which recourse is had by writers who wish to safeguard their dignity & yet be vivacious, to combine comfort with elegance, to touch pitch & not be defiled. . . . Some writers use a slang phrase because it suits them, & box the ears of people in general because it is slang; a refinement on the institution of whipping-boys, by which they not only have the boy, but do the whipping."

This passage would not be out of place in the company of Addison and Steele. It is apt, amusing, and above all instructive. It obviously has done little to stem the mania for quotation marks (WE ARE "CLOSED," I saw in the window of a shoe-repair shop the other day), but it did at least persuade me to remove the quotes from around the word life-style in a review I was writing, and I am a better person for it.
Dear Ranchhand

I agree.

Kind regards