Fowler on the Long (Wrong) Word

One of the year’s great reading pleasures (at least for those of us who might fairly be called “word nerds”) has arrived — the newly restored “first edition” reprint of H.W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, with an introduction and notes by the linguist David Crystal  (this article by Liam Julian in Policy Review does a nice job running down the history of Fowler’s book, and the rise and fall of its influence over time).

It’s continued usefulness as a guide for writers and editors aside, it’s also just a joy to dip into, on nearly any page.  Fowler’s witty, opinionated dicta might have seemed overbearing to young writers of his day.  But at this remove, they come as a bracingly direct, and magnificently knowledgable antitode to the relatively colorless style guides we’ve grown used to.

As a holiday gift to our fellow style-phyles over the next week, we’ll offer a few choice excerpts from our browsing.   Here’s a bit of what Henry F. had to say on the destructive “Love of the Long Word”:

‘The better the writer, the shorter his words’ would be a statement needing many exceptions for individual persons & particular subjects,; but for all that it would, & especially about English writers, be broadly true.  Those who run to long words are mainly the unskillful & tasteless; they confuse pomposity with dignity, flaccidity with ease, & bulk with force…when a word for the notion wanted exists, some people (1) forget or do not know that word, & make up another from thesame stem with an extra suffix or two; or (2) are not satisfied with a mere current word, & resolve to decorate it, also writing with an extra suffix, or (3) have heard and used a longer form that resembers it, & are not aware that this other form is appropriated to another sense.

Fowler goes on to give examples of  what he means by categories (1) and (2):

….administrate (administer); assertative (assertive)…dampen (damp, v.)…

…and my favorite, “extemporaneously” for the Latin “ex tempore”.   He also frowns on “wastage” for “waste” — and would doubtless have been unimpressed with the modern “signage” for “signs.”

His examples for (3) are also arresting:

Wrong use of longer forms due to confusion:  advancement (advance);  alternative (alternate)….definitive (definite)…estimation (estimate)…partially (partly).

It’s my estimation that I will continue to make many of these errors.   May I partially blame society?

-BILL TIPPER