Cats, Vets and English Usage

My veterinarian and I call ourselves language purists – and we love to discuss English usage whenever I bring my cats in to see him.

While he’s examining my furry felines’ eyes, vaccinating against rabies or checking for fleas, we engage in animated debates on the correct and incorrect forms and uses of English words, expressions and grammar.

Sure, we recognize that language is fluid and ever changing – and that certain usages become accepted over time, while others become obsolete – but that doesn’t mean we agree.

How language “should” be versus how it actually “is”

Some might call us “prescriptivists”- folks who say how language should be and lament its changing. That’s the opposite of “descriptivists” who simply observe and describe current language usage and how it changes over time.

We reaffirmed our steadfast prescriptivist views during a recent cat appointment when I gave my animal doc my extra copy of  H.W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.

Henry Watson Fowler (1858 – 1933) was an English schoolmaster, lexicographer and commentator on English usage. When he was middle-aged, his schoolmaster career ended and he became a freelance writer and journalist – albeit not a very successful one. During this time he and his younger brother, Frank, started publishing books on grammar, style and lexicography. Aside from his work on A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Fowler contributed to the Concise Oxford Dictionary.

By today’s standards Fowler’s dictionary on “modern” English is outdated. Nevertheless, it makes for some intriguing reading on how English has evolved – if you have the time and patience for it.

Despite Fowler’s partiality for word economy and precision, he could get quite long-winded and meandering by today’s business writing standards. Take for example his description of the simple word “clause” as it refers to grammar:

“It conduces both to clearness and to brevity if the word in its grammatical sense is applied only to what is sometimes called a subordinate clause and never either to a complete sentence or to the framework of the sentence, which is often called the main or principal but may equally well be called main sentence. The definition of a clause, then, should be ‘subordinate words including a subject and predicate, but syntactically equivalent to a noun or adjective or adverb’; in this book the word is always to be understood thus.”

Whew, did you get that?

Not everyone agreed with Fowler. Some of his critics and peers could be downright unkind, asserting that he was simply writing his own preferences. But Fowler could be just as uncompromising in describing misuses of words, as the following example attests:

eas(il)y. Easy as an adverb, instead of the normal easily, survives only as a vulgarism and in a few phrases, mostly colloquial: stand easy, easy all, take it easy, easy come easy go, easier said than done.

Breaking the rules

Fowler probably wouldn’t take too kindly to the way we modern-day content marketers and journalists write.

We often take liberties with language, use colloquialisms generously, and play with words to make the message interesting, engaging and easy to understand. There are times when we may concede on a grammar or style point in order to make the writing connect more easily with the reader. And, yes, all of us have probably used the word easy colloquially in one of the ways that Fowler points out.

That can be a bit of a struggle for me. My prescriptivist side knows I’m breaking some of the rules, but I always wonder if the reader knows I know this. Will they think I don’t know better? What if they complain to the managing editor or the publisher? Worse, what would Fowler think of me?

So I declare here that if you come across a piece of my writing that has a word, phrase or sentence of which Fowler would disapprove, be assured I know better.

Just ask my vet!