To boldly overhaul the fogey's bible

15th November 1996 at 00:00
Professor Robert Burchfield, editor of the new Fowler's, talks to Susan Young. Fogeys everywhere will be clutching dog-eared copies of Fowler's Modern English Usage protectively to their bosoms. An entirely new version of the linguistic classic has just been published, free of much of the original's dogmaticism over matters such as split infinitives.

Star Trek's non-conformist "to boldly go" introduction may have been dropped in its popular 1990s sequels, but the British worry over split infinitives remains as strong as ever. "No other grammatical issue has so divided the nation since the split infinitive was declared to be a solecism in the course of the 19th century," is how Professor Robert Burchfield, editor of the new Fowler's, introduces this contentious issue. A page of entertaining example and argument later, he concludes the matter with a quotation from one of his earlier books. "Avoid splitting infinitives wherever possible, but do not suffer undue remorse if a split infinitive is unavoidable for the natural and unambiguous completion of a sentence already begun."

The past work of the 73-year-old, New Zealand-born Professor Burchfield includes the editing of the four-volume Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary. A lifetime of studying and savouring the English language has left him happy that it is evolving constantly, a view which permeates the new Fowler's.

This, he admits, is unlikely to endear him to many fans of the 1926 classic. In a revealing passage in the preface, he writes: "People of all kinds continue to tell me that they 'use it all the time' and that 'it never lets them down'. In the space of three weeks a judge, a colonel, and a retired curator of Greek and Roman antiquities at the British Museum told me on separate social occasions that they have the book close at hand at all times.

"They all looked anxious when I mentioned a few changes that I have made in the new edition, including the placing of 20th-century changes in their historical dimension and the introduction of the International Phonetic Alphabet. 'I wish you hadn't told me that,' one commented. The slightly haunted looks they gave me were those of passengers fearing that they were going to miss their connection."

It would be useless to try to prevent changes in the language, says Professor Burchfield. This country has no equivalent to the French Academy and although the BBC is a guardian of spoken Standard English it does not extend linguistic control to weather bulletins or The Archers.

Natural evolution is one thing. Quite another is the intention to force change for reasons such as political correctness: one of the professor's few apparent hobby-horses. "You hear people talk about being vertically-challenged and so on. What a load of cobblers.

"And then there is feminism, which is much more serious. I remember sitting on a committee where the woman insisted on calling herself chair and she at least changed it to chairperson. I asked her why not chairperdaughter? These words are so ugly. They are so uneuphonious and artificial."

Another personal dislike is the constant misspelling of the word millennium. "Please can you get people to put the two n's in it? That drives me mad, " he says.

In principle, he approves of the initiative by Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard to encourage good English in schools and among the population, at least as far as the written forms go. "You'll never get people to speak Standard English because there are so many varieties," he says.

Burchfield's is very much a book about modern usage. The correctness of using "toilet" or "lavatory" is dismissed as a sociological matter. The quibble about the word which should follow "different"? "The commonly-expressed view that different should only be followed by from and never by to or than is not supportable in the face of past and present evidence or of logic."

And then there is the apostrophe, another bugbear of Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. The Burchfield verdict? "Since about 1900, many business firms, institutions and journals have abandoned apostrophes in their titles, eg Barclays Bank . . . Teachers Training College . . .This trend towards the dropping of the apostrophe in such names and titles seems certain to continue. "

He does not believe that it is the mass media which is driving change. Rather, it is the sheer numbers of people speaking the language in countries including the United States, South Africa, Canada and Nigeria. It is changing in a way which has not been so noticeable for two or three centuries. The population of the country when Shakespeare was alive was two or three million and it was an explosive age linguistically.

The last major change in the language happened in the 200 or so years before 1000AD, when English developed from using inflected word endings to prepositions in order to express the relationships between words. Professor Burchfield believes the next thousand years may also see major change, with English gradually splitting into separate regional tongues. "It could happen in the same way that Latin broke down into Portuguese, Latin and French. But it's all wild speculation."

The New Fowler's Modern English Usage, Third Edition, edited by R W Burchfield (OUP Pounds 16.99) is reviewed on page 8, TES2.


Shall and will

The two uses of will and one of those of shall are well illustrated by: "I will follow you to the ends of the earth," replied Susan, passionately. "It will not be necessary," said George. "I am only going down to the coal-cellar. I shall spend the next half-hour or so there." (PG Wodehouse).

From whence

The best policy, perhaps, is to use the simple words hence, thence, whence for the present, not preceded by from, just as a soldier in trench warfare is advised to keep his head below the parapet. Wait for a truce.

Sentence adverb

There has been a swift and immoderate increase in the currency of -ly adverbs used to qualify a predication or assertion as a whole. The -ly adverbs concerned include actually, basically, frankly, hopefully, regretfully, strictly and thankfully. Suddenly, round about the end of the 1960s, and with unprecedented venom, a dunce's cap was placed on the head of anyone who used just one of them - hopefully - as a sentence adverb.

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