H.W. Fowler (1858¨C1933).  The King¡¯s English, 2nd ed.  1908.

Chapter I. Vocabulary


  1. AS a natural link between this section and the last, the practice of taking French words and spelling them as English may stand first. With French words that fill a definite blank in English, the time comes when that should be done if it can. With some words it cannot; no one has yet seen his way to giving ennui an English look. With dishabille, on the other hand, which appears in the dictionary with spellings to suit all tastes, 1 many attempts have been made. This word, however, well illustrates the importance of one principle that should be observed in borrowing from French. Unless the need is a very crying one, no word should be taken that offers serious difficulties of pronunciation. In d¨¦shabill¨¦ are at least two problems (h, and ll) of which an Englishman fights shy. The consequence is that, though its English history dates back some centuries, it is very seldom heard in conversation; no word not used in conversation becomes a true native; and dishabille is therefore being gradually ousted by n¨¦glig¨¦, which can be pronounced without fear. As dishabille is really quite cut off from d¨¦shabill¨¦, it is a pity it was not further deprived of its final -e; that would have encouraged us to call it dish-abil, and it might have made good its footing.

    Naïvet¨¦ is another word for which there is a clear use; and though the Englishman can pronounce it without difficulty if he chooses, he generally does prefer doing without it altogether to attempting a precision that strikes him as either undignified or pretentious. It is therefore to be wished that it might be disencumbered of its diaeresis, its accent, and its italics. It is true that the first sight of naivety is an unpleasant shock; but we ought to be glad that the thing has begun to be done, and in speaking sacrifice our pride of knowledge and call it navity.

    The case of banality is very different. In one sense it has a stronger claim than naivety, its adjective banal being much older in English than naïve; but the old use of banal is as a legal term connected with feudalism. That use is dead, and its second life is an independent one; it is now a mere borrowing from French. Whether we are to accept it or not should be decided by whether we want it; and with common, commonplace, trite, trivial, mean, vulgar, all provided with nouns, which again can be eked out with truism and platitude, a shift can surely be made without it. It is one of those foreign feathers, like intimism, intimity, femininity, distinction and distinguished (the last pair now banalities if anything was ever banal; so do extremes meet), in which writers of literary criticism love to parade, and which ordinary persons should do their best to pluck from them, protesting when there is a chance, and at all times refusing the compliment of imitation. But perhaps the word that the critics would most of all delight their readers by forgetting is meticulous.

    Before adding an example or two, we draw attention to the danger of accidentally assimilating a good English word to a French one. Amende is good French; amends is good English; but amend (noun) is neither:

    Triviality and over-childishness and naivety.¡ªH. Sweet.

    Agrippa himself was primarily a paradox-monger. Many of his successors were in dead earnest, and their repetition of his ingenuities becomes banal in the extreme. Bercher himself can by no means be acquitted of this charge of banality.¡ªTimes.

    It is significant that the only authorities for banality in the Oxford Dictionary are Sala, Saintsbury, Dowden, and Browning; but the volume is dated 1888; and though the word is still used in the same overpowering proportion by literary critics as opposed to other writers, its total use has multiplied a hundredfold since then. Our hope is that the critics may before long feel that it is as banal to talk about banality as it is now felt by most wellbred people to be vulgar to talk about vulgarity.

    His style, which is pleasant and diffuse without being distinguished, is more suited to the farm and the simple country life than to the complexities of the human character.¡ªTimes.

    His character and that of his wife are sketched with a certain distinction.¡ªTimes.

    And set to look back over the whole is to feel that in one case only has she really achieved that perfection of intimism which is her proper goal.¡ªTimes.

    The reference to the English nonconformists was a graceful amend to them for being so passionate an Oxonian and churchman.¡ªMorley.

    And in her presentation of the mode of life of the respectable middle classes, the most meticulous critic will not easily catch her tripping.¡ªTimes.

  2. Formations involving grammatical blunders. Of these the possibilities are of course infinite; we must assume that our readers know the ordinary rules of grammar, and merely, not to pass over the point altogether, give one or two typical and not too trite instances:

    My landlady entered bearing what she called 'her best lamp' alit.¡ªCorelli.

    This seems to be formed as a past participle from to alight, in the sense of to kindle. It will surprise most people to learn that there is, or was, such a verb; not only was there, but the form that should have been used in our sentence, alight, is probably by origin the participle of it. The Oxford Dictionary, however, after saying this, observes that it has now been assimilated to words like afire, formed from the preposition a- and a noun. Whether those two facts are true or not, it is quite certain that there is no such word as alit in the sense of lighted or lit, and that the use of it in our days is a grammatical blunder. 2

    But every year pleaded stronger and stronger for the Earl's conception.¡ªJ. R. Green.

    Comparative adverbs of this type must be formed only from those positive adverbs which do not use -ly, as hard, fast. We talk of going strong, and we may therefore talk of going stronger; but outside slang we have to choose between stronglier¡ªpoetical, exalted, or affected¡ªand more strongly.

    The silence that underlaid the even voice of the breakers along the sea front.¡ªKipling.

    Lie and lay have cost us all some perplexity in childhood. The distinction is more difficult in the compounds with over and under, because in them -lie is transitive as well as -lay, but in a different sense. Any one who is not sure that he is sound on the point by instinct must take the trouble to resolve them into lie over or lay over, &c., which at once clears up the doubt. A mistake with the simple verb is surprising when made, as in the following, by a writer on grammar:

    I met a lad who took a paper from a package that he carried and thrust it into my unwilling hand. I suspected him of having laid in wait for the purpose.¡ªR. G. White.

    A confusion, perhaps, between lay wait and lie in wait.

    I am not sure that yours and my efforts would suffice separately; but yours and mine together cannot possibly fail.

    The first yours is quite wrong; it should be your. This mistake is common. The absolute possessives, ours and yours, hers, mine and thine, (with which the poetic or euphonic use of the last two before vowels has nothing to do) are to be used only as pronouns or as predicative adjectives, not as attributes to an expressed and following noun. That they were used by old writers as in our example is irrelevant. The correct modern usage has now established itself. We add three sentences from Burke. The relation between no and none is the same as that between your and yours. In the first sentence, modern usage would write (as the correct no or but a few is uncomfortable) either few or no, or few if any, or no rays or but a few. For the second we might possibly tolerate to their as well as to your own; or we might write to their crown as well as to your own. The third is quite tolerable as it is; but any one who does not like the sound can write and their ancestors and ours. It must always be remembered in this as in other constructions, that the choice is not between a well-sounding blunder and an ill-sounding correctness, but between an ill and a well sounding correctness. The blunder should be ruled out, and if the first form of the correct construction that presents itself does not sound well, another way of putting it must be looked for; patience will always find it. The flexibility gained by habitual selection of this kind, which a little cultivation will make easy and instinctive, is one of the most essential elements in a good style. For a more important illustration of the same principle, the remarks on the gerund in the Syntax chapter (p. 120) may be referred to.

    Black bodies, reflecting none or but a few rays¡ªBurke.

    You altered the succession to theirs, as well as to your own crown.¡ªBurke.

    They and we, and their and our ancestors, have been happy under that system.¡ªBurke.

  3. Formations violating analogy.

    And then it is its panache, its careless a-moral Renaissance romance.¡ªTimes.

    But she is perfectly natural, and while perfectly amoral, no more immoral than a bird or a kitten.¡ªTimes.

    A- (not) is Greek; moral is Latin. It is at least desirable that in making new words the two languages should not be mixed. The intricate needs of science may perhaps be allowed to override a literary principle of this sort; and accordingly the Oxford Dictionary recognizes that a- is compounded with Latin words in scientific and technical terms, as a-sexual; but purely literary workers may be expected to abstain. The obvious excuse for this formation is that the Latin negative prefix is already taken up in immoral, which means contrary to morality, while a word is wanted to mean unconcerned with morality. But with non freely prefixed to adjectives in English (though not in Latin), there can be no objection to non-moral. The second of our instances is a few weeks later than the first, and the hyphen has disappeared; so quickly has The Times convinced itself that amoral is a regular English word.

    There was no social or economic jealousy between them, no racial aversion.¡ªTimes.

    Concessions which, besides damaging Hungary by raising racial and language questions of all kinds, would...¡ªTimes.

    The action of foreign countries as to their coastal trade.¡ªTimes.

    Her riverine trade.¡ªWestminster Gazette.

    It has been already stated that -al is mainly confined to unmistakable Latin stems. There is whimsical; and there may be others that break the rule, though the Oxford Dictionary (-al suffix, -ical suffix, -ial suffix) gives no exceptions. The ugly words racial and coastal themselves might well be avoided except in the rare cases where race and coast used adjectivally will not do the work (they would in the present instances); and they should not be made precedents for new formations. If language is better than linguistic, much more race than racial; similarly, river than riverine.

    What she was pleased to term their superior intelligence, and more real and reliable probity.¡ªC. Brontë (Villette, 1853).

    It is absurd at this time of day to make a fuss about the word. It is with us and will remain with us, whatever pedants and purists may say. In such cases obsta principiis is the only hope; reliable might once have been suppressed, perhaps; it cannot now. But it is so fought over, even to-day, that a short discussion of it may be looked for. The objection to it is obvious: you do not rely a thing; therefore the thing cannot be reliable; it should be rely-on-able (like come-at-able). Some of the analogies pleaded for it are perhaps irrelevant¡ªas laughable, available. For these may be formed from the nouns laugh, avail, since -able is not only gerundival (capable of being laughed at), but also adjectival (connected with a laugh); this has certainly happened with seasonable; but that will not help reliable, which by analogy should be relianceable. It is more to the point to remark that with reliable must go dispensable (with indispensable) and dependable, both quite old words, and disposable (in its commoner sense); no one, as far as we know, objects to these and others like them; reliable is made into a scapegoat. The word itself, moreover, besides its wide popularity, is now of respectable antiquity, dating at least from Coleridge. It may be added that it is probably to the campaign against it that we owe such passive monstrosities as 'ready to be availed of' for available, which is, as we said, possibly not open to the same objection as reliable.

    I have heretofore designated the misuse of certain words as Briticisms.¡ªR. G. White.

    Britannic, Britannicism; British, Britishism. Britic?

  4. Needless, though correct formations.

    The sordor and filths of nature, the sun shall dry up.¡ªEmerson.

    As candeo candor, ardeo ardor, so¡ªwe are to understand¡ªsordeo sordor. The Romans, however, never felt that they needed the word; and it is a roundabout method first to present them with a new word and then to borrow it from them; for it will be observed that we have no living suffix -or in English, nor, if we had, anything nearer than sordid to attach it to. Perhaps Emerson thought sordor was a Latin word.

    Merely nodding his head as an enjoinder to be careful.¡ªDickens.

    As rejoin rejoinder, so enjoin enjoinder. The word is not given in the Oxford Dictionary, from which it seems likely that Dickens invented it, consciously or unconsciously. The only objection to such a word is that its having had to wait so long, in spite of its obviousness, before being made is a strong argument against the necessity of it. We may regret that injunction holds the field, having a much less English appearance; but it does; and in language the old-established that can still do the work is not to be turned out for the new-fangled that might do it a shade better, but must first get itself known and accepted.

    Oppositely, the badness of a walk that is shuffling, and an utterance that is indistinct is alleged.¡ªSpencer.

    This, on the other hand, is an archaism, now obsolete. Why it should not have lived is a mystery; but it has not; and to write it is to give one's sentence the air of an old curiosity shop.

    Again, as if to intensate the influences that are not of race, what we think of when we talk of English traits really narrows itself to a small district.¡ªEmerson.

    A favourite with those allied experimenters in words, Emerson and Carlyle. A word meaning to make intense is necessary; and there are plenty of parallels for this particular form. But Coleridge had already made intensify, introducing it with an elaborate apology in which he confessed that it sounded uncouth. It is uncouth no longer; if it had never existed, perhaps intensate would now have been so no longer, uncouthness being, both etymologically and otherwise, a matter of strangeness as against familiarity. It is better to form words only where there is a clear demand for them.

  5. Long and short rivals. The following examples illustrate a foolish tendency. From the adjective perfect we form the verb to perfect, and from that again the noun perfection; to take a further step forward to a verb to perfection instead of returning to the verb to perfect is a superfluity of naughtiness. From the noun sense we make the adjective sensible; it is generally quite needless to go forward to sensibleness instead of back to our original noun sense. To quieten is often used by hasty writers who have not time to remember that quiet is a verb. With ex tempore ready to serve either as adverb or as adjective, why make extemporaneous or extemporaneously? As to contumacity, the writer was probably unaware that contumacy existed. Contumacity might be formed from contumax, like audacity from audax. The Romans had only the short forms audacia, contumacia, which should have given us audacy as well as contumacy; but because our ancestors burdened themselves with an extra syllable in one we need not therefore do so in the other.

    The inner, religiously moral perfectioning of individuals.¡ªTimes.

    She liked the quality of mind which may be broadly called sensibleness.¡ªTimes.

    Broadly, or lengthily?

    M. Delcass¨¦, speaking extemporaneously but with notes, said...¡ªTimes.

    And now, Mdlle St. Pierre's affected interference provoked contumacity.¡ªC. Brontë.

    It is often a very easy thing to act prudentially, but alas! too often only after we have toiled to our prudence through a forest of delusions.¡ªDe Quincey.

    Prudent gives prudence, and prudence prudential; the latter has its use: prudential considerations are those in which prudence is allowed to outweigh other motives; they may be prudent without being prudential, and vice versa. But before using prudentially we should be quite sure that we mean something different from prudently. So again partially, which should be reserved as far as possible for the meaning with partiality, is now commonly used for partly: 3

    The series of administrative reforms planned by the Convention had been partially carried into effect before the meeting of Parliament in 1654; but the work was pushed on.¡ªJ. R. Green.

    That the gravity of the situation is partially appreciated by the bureaucracy may be inferred from...¡ªTimes.

    Excepting, instead of except, is to be condemned when there is no need for it. We say not excepting, or not even excepting, or without excepting; but where the exception is allowed, not rejected, the short form is the right one, as a comparison of the following examples will show:

    Of all societies ... not even excepting the Roman Republic, England has been the most emphatically ... political.¡ªMorley.

    The Minister was obliged to present the Budget before May each year, excepting in the event of the Cortes having been dissolved.¡ªTimes.

    The sojourn of belligerent ships in French waters has never been limited excepting by certain clearly defined rules.¡ªTimes.

    Excepting the English, French, and Austrian journalists present, no one had been admitted.¡ªTimes.

    Innumerable other needless lengthenings might be produced, from which we choose only preventative for preventive, and to experimentalize for to experiment.

    On the other hand, when usage has differentiated a long and a short form either of which might originally have served, the distinction must be kept. Immovable and irremovable judges are different things; the shorter word has been wrongly chosen in:

    By suspending conscription and restoring the immovability of the Judges.¡ªTimes.

  6. Merely ugly formations.


    The termination -cracy is now so freely applied that it is too late to complain of this except on the ground of ugliness. It may be pointed out, however, that the very special ugliness of bureaucracy is due to the way its mongrel origin is flaunted in our faces by the telltale syllable -eau-; it is to be hoped that formations similar in this respect may be avoided.

    An ordinary reader, if asked what was the main impression given by the Short History of the English People, would answer that it was the impression of picturesqueness and vividity.¡ªBryce.

    In sound, there can be no question between vividity with its fourfold repetition of the same vowel sound, its two dentals to add to the ugliness of its two v's and the comparatively inoffensive vividness.

    We conclude with deprecating the addition of -ly to participles in -ed. Some people are so alive to the evil sound of it that they write determinately for determinedly; that will not do either, because determinate does not mean determined in the required sense. A periphrasis, or an adjective or Latin participle with -ly, as resolutely, should be used. Implied is as good a word as implicit, but impliedly is by no means so good as implicitly. Several instances are given, for cumulative effect. Miss Corelli makes a mannerism of this.

    Dr. John and his mother were in their finest mood, contending animatedly with each other the whole way.¡ªC. Brontë.

    Where the gate opens, or the gateless path turns aside trustedly.¡ªRuskin.

    'That's not a very kind speech,' I said somewhat vexedly.¡ªCorelli.

    However, I determinedly smothered all premonitions.¡ªCorelli.

    I saw one or two passers-by looking at me so surprisedly that I came to the conclusion...¡ªCorelli.

    I stared bewilderedly up at the stars.¡ªCorelli.

    It should be added that to really established adverbs of this form, as advisedly, assuredly, hurriedly, there is no objection whatever; but new ones are ugly.

Note 1
The Oxford Dictionary has fourteen varieties. [back]

Note 2
Alit is due, no doubt, to mere inadvertence or ignorance: the form litten ('red-litten windows', &c.), for which the Oxford Dictionary quotes Poe, Lytton, W. Morris, and Crockett, but no old writer, is sham archaism. [back]

Note 3
The use deprecated has perhaps crept in from such phrases as the sun was partially eclipsed, an adaptation of a partial eclipse; and to such phrases it should be restricted. 'The case was partially heard on Oct. 17' is ambiguous; and the second example in the text is almost so, nearly enough to show that the limitation is desirable. The rule should be never to write partially without first considering the claims of partly. [back]