Skip to Main Content

(Still) Groping for Words: Usage and Slang Guides, Revisited: From Fowler to Flesch

by Edwin L. Battistella

From Fowler to Flesch

Usage guides were more popular in the United States than in Britain, perhaps due to Colonial insecurity about language. In the early twentieth century, scores of books on correct English were available in the US. Yet it was an Englishman who set the tone for many twentieth-century usage guides. That man was Henry Watson Fowler, author of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Concentrating on British usage, this volume (commonly known as Modern English Usage, or simply “Fowler”) was encyclopedic, idiosyncratic, and often biting in its advice. First published in 1926, Fowler’s classic had its origins in The King’s English, an earlier collaboration by Henry Fowler and his younger brother, Francis George Fowler. The aim of the collaboration was to illustrate both the rules of English and common errors of the day. Since the illustrative errors were often taken from the British newspapers, The King’s English invited a series of negative reviews in the press, but the book sold well and led Oxford to engage Henry Fowler to write Modern English Usage.

Fowler’s entries on, for example, fetishes, superstitions, and purism (to name just three of many) are ones that modern linguists can endorse. Some of Fowler’s entries are brief, but others run for many pages; he included something for everyone. Although it was certainly more prescriptive than not, Modern English Usage was both condemned and lauded by both conservative and progressive grammarians. As Jenny McMorris’s biography of Fowler, The Warden of English, reveals, Fowler was shy and unpretentious at the same time: his shyness turned him into a grammarian, and his lack of pretension saved him from being a hopeless pedant, a salvation denied many of his imitators.

Henry Fowler’s principal British successors were Eric Partridge, a lexicographer transplanted from New Zealand and Australia, and Sir Ernest Gowers, a British civil servant. Intended to supplement Fowler by drawing on historical studies and grammars (such as those of Danish linguist Otto Jespersen and English grammarian and lexicographer C. T. Onions), Partridge’s Usage and Abusage (which first appeared in 1942 and was revised in 1995 by Janet Whitcut) includes long essays on such topics as slang, standard English, sports technicalities, vulgarisms, war adoptions, and wooliness, and briefer entries distinguishing particular words (e.g., “avenge”/“revenge,” “stair”/“stairs”). Ernest Gowers’s contribution was the compact Plain Words: A Guide to the Use of English, produced in 1948 at the invitation of the British Treasury. Gowers took as his point of departure the idea that verbal complexity was a special cause of weak writing. A 2014 edition of Plain Words reproduces a 1953 edition, adding commentary, annotations, and revisions by Gowers’s great-granddaughter, the writer Rebecca Gowers. Also during the 1940s, poet and novelist Robert Graves collaborated with Alan Hodge to produce The Reader over Your Shoulder: A Handbook for Writers of English Prose. Graves and Hodge offered various principles of clarity and took aim at many of the writers of the day for their haste, distraction, timidity, and dividedness of mind.

The American cousin of Gowers’s Plain Words was Rudolph Flesch’s The Art of Readable Writing. Flesch advocated directness and cautioned against formal rules of writing. He later compiled The ABC of Style: A Guide to Plain English, which offered “a word diet to those who are verbally overweight.” In it he warned his readers away from bookish, stuffy, pompous words and told them not to be “afraid of using shortened words like ad, bra, exam, gas, gym, lab, pro, phone, rhino, [and] vet.” Flesch was best known for devising readability formulas for bureaucratic language and for writing the book that popularized phonics.3