Every Chance of Going Wrong

Some of the different ways things can go wrong for a writer, courtesy of Fowler’s “Dictionary of Modern English Usage” (1968 edition).

leonard-cotte https://unsplash.com/photos/c1Jp-fo53U8
False scent: When the author claims this is lavender, and some readers claim it’s only a picture of lavender.


For Christmas I received from my grandfather-in-law a special present: his lovingly kept second edition of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (revised by Sir Ernest Gowers). Even though I’d heard of Fowler’s, seen it referenced, and perused extracts from its modern entries, I’d never actually held it my hands—until now!

Despite this copy’s notable sixty years of age, its pages are in impeccable condition. Fowler’s advice, his examples, and inherent relevance show some wear, but nothing that the author’s sense of humour doesn’t amply recompense. I speak of this 1968 edition. The few more flavourful entries that I was able to search for in a 1996 edition were either non-existent or effectively bowdlerised. What’s left nowadays is the bland and spartan, but most pragmatic, dictionary-speak.

I understand why—political correctness and modernisation march rightly on—though I think the earlier editions can still be enjoyed, if not as go-to guides, then as historical documents. Quirky and witty ones at that. Although, I warn you: quirk and wit have this charismatic presence that often wins out over straight-laced teachings.

gamze-bozkaya https://unsplash.com/photos/6i5rCzL4wYY
Is swapping horses mid-herd as dangerous as swapping them mid-stream?

Two quotes from Sir Ernest’s Preface to the Revise Edition set the tone for the Dictionary.

The first quote conveys the intention of the entries and exemplifies (wittingly?) the linguistic complexities to come.

There are some passages that only yield [the desired sense] after what the reader may think an excessive amount of scrutiny—passages demanding hardly less concentration than one of the more obscure sections of a Finance Act, and for the same reason: the determination of the writer to make sure that, when the reader eventually gropes his way to a meaning, it shall be, beyond all possible doubt, the meaning intended by the writer.

Once you’ve parsed that, reading Fowler’s is all downhill. (If omit needless words was an autological phrase due to its brevity, this is an autological sentence due to its complexity.)

The second quote comes after an account of Fowler’s life and nails the idiosyncratic nature of his writing. It concerns angels.

Such was the man whose idiosyncrasy so strongly colours his book. The whimsicality that was his armour in adversity enlivens it in unexpected places; thus by way of illustrating the difficulty there may be in identifying a phenomenon he calls ‘the intransitive past participle’, he observes that ‘an angel dropped from heaven’ has possibly been passive, but more likely active, in the descent.

In that one intransitive past participle, I now see fluttering wings, feathers of gold, and the fight against gravity. An inimitable combination lost to anyone reading later editions.

Not the ornaments Fowler had in mind ….

Fowler’s commentary enlivens explanations, making them more memorable, and in some cases, overshadowing them. For example, under object-shuffling—which you may or may not feel bothered by—there’s the following justification:

The conferring of a name on a type of mistake, making it recognizable [sic] and avoidable, is worth while [sic] if the mistake is common.

I agree, and I’m glad that he recognised the necessity for (humane) naming conventions. What’s more, I think most phenomena that are common—so not just mistakes, and also not just within linguistics—should be labelled whenever possible as a way of enriching a person’s mental ecosystem. You can only think about things clearly, or at all, once you can grasp them between tongue and tooth.

(Hence my liberal foisting of personal terminology on the readers of this blog: quoin words, quirk words, olam words, meld-compounds, density of styleetc.)

Under false scent, Fowler dispenses basic advice that most of the internet would be well advised to remember.

The possibilities of false scent are too miscellaneous to be exhaustively tabulated; the image of the reader with the open mind, ready to seize every chance for going wrong, should be always present to the inexperienced writer.

Finally, here are a few brief (incomplete) excerpts from the Dictionary itself.

abstractitis. Addiction to abstract words.

Do you know any sufferers?

avoidance of the obvious. In choice of words the obvious is better than its obvious avoidance.

A basic stylistic point, as discussed last time.

battered ornaments. An introduction to other articles on words and phrases best avoided for their triteness.

Cliché is so cliché. Let us bring in a fresher moniker.

cannibalism. For instance the swallowing of a to by another to in ‘Doubt as to whom he was referring’.

You only think of it when you get into a to-to and the accenting isn’t right (or it looks weird on the page).

false scent. Misleading the reader.

Nor has the writer even the satisfaction of calling his reader a fool for misunderstanding him, since he seldom hears of it; it is the reader who calls the writer a fool for not being able to express himself.


jingles, or the unintended repetition of the same word or similar sounds.

[One example is:] Hardworking folk should participate in the pleasures of leisure in goodly measure.

Why reading your writing aloud matters.

legerdemain. Using a word twice without noticing that the sense required the second time is different from that of the first.


object-shuffling. Such as ‘Instil people with hope’ for ‘instil hope into people’.

Fowler goes on to say, however, that you can inspire courage in a person, or inspire a person with courage. The reason why object-shuffling doesn’t work comes from Latin, but still, it’s reassuring to know there is a reason.

out of the frying pan. Examples of a writer’s being faulty in one way because he has tried to avoid being faulty in another.

Works with more than one jump too. Frying pan, fire, cat’s dinner. There’s no coming back from cat’s dinner—instead try to gain higher ground, a five-millimetre thick Tupperware container perhaps, cat-proof and airtight. Airtight, grammatically, I mean, of course. We’re speaking of linguistic moggies.

swapping horses while crossing the stream, a notoriously hazardous operation, is paralleled in speech by changing a word’s sense in the middle of a sentence, by vacillating between two constructions either of which might follow a word legitimately enough …

Most hazardous when parenthetical interjections float mid-stream (from experience).

trailers. Specimens of sentences that keep on disappointing the reader’s hope of coming to an end.

The bane of infinite (nested) relative clauses.

walled-up object. Such as him in ‘I scolded and sent him to bed.’

Unlike in I shut and locked him in, in which the him isn’t walled-up (or locked in, if you want to be droll).

tikkho-maciel https://unsplash.com/photos/zQgsdQvj1IM
Between the cauldrons of political incorrectness and the fire of sterile dictionary-speak

The eccentricities of Strunk & White—chiefly Strunk’s unabashed grammatical boldness tempered by White’s hard-nosed insistence on (sensible) rules—complement the humorous idiosyncrasies of Fowler’s. Both books were first published in the 1920s; both were first revised about forty years later. Fowler’s runs to seven hundred pages and is meant as much as a style, grammar, and language guide, as a place to look up spelling or pronunciation of certain words. However, were you to strip away the word entries and leave only the horses, the frying pans, and the battered ornaments, I believe you’d get a short booklet, not unlike Strunk & White’s stylistic guide. Has no one attempted such an exercise?

Perhaps it’s down to controversy.

The most controversial aspect White had to edit out of Strunk’s book to make it politically vanilla was advocating masculine pronouns as the generic norm. From the second edition of Fowler’s the editors of modernity have had to excise much more.

To illustrate the point:

Fowler writes that unjustified word order inversions are like stiletto heels—ugly things resorted to in the false belief that artificiality is more beautiful than nature. The 1998 edition has no room for such colourful statements (after all we take our colour as spray-on tan, reality shows, and the news). Like the angels of the intransitive past participle, fallen then forcibly forgotten, word order inversions were required to remove their memorable stiletto heels.

What a shame.

This post is part of a series about the second (1968) edition of Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H. W. Fowler, as revised by Sir Ernest Gowers.

  1. Prefer the Obvious to its Obvious Avoidance: On density of style, and where to find advice on style.
  2. Every Chance of Going Wrong


Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of https://quiverquotes.com

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