Mr. Fowler

Thanks for visiting us here. We hope that this Academic Editorial blog will provide a forum for our small group of editors to post favorite language and writing links, quotes, ideas, and musings. We are in different parts of the world right now: Ellen is based in Santa Barbara, California, and Charles and I are in Hong Kong, so we share these things with each other as well as you, dear reader.

I will start with a quote from the wonderful H.W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, first published in 1926:

Terribly. The other day (said I) I read a love scene in a story that went like this: ‘Am I beautiful?’ she asked him. ‘Terribly’ he said. And then he asked her ‘Do you love me?’ ‘ Horribly’ she said. Why (I was then asked) don’t you go home and write something humorous. Don’t you want to? ‘Frightfully’ I replied. (James Thurber).

It is strange that people with such a fondness for understatement as the British should have felt the need to keep changing the adverbs by which they hope to convince listeners of the intensity of their feelings, until, by a process of exhaustion, they have arrived at such absurdities as these, to which might be added dreadfully and fearfully. The early ones of the series, such as consumedly, excessively, mightily, prodigiously, and vastly, however hyperbolical, were reasonable enough to use of pleasurable emotions. The downward path began with awfully, a word now so worn with use as to be reduced to the level of very.

For those of you who may not be familiar with Fowler, his style guide was the standard reference for a generation (or two) of British and American citizens, writers, and editors. Many of his pronouncements continue to be as timely as the one quoted above. Several editors came along and updated the guide, apparently losing some of Fowler’s original voice, but a new edition, which returns to Fowler’s original text, was published by Oxford University Press in November of 2009. For those of you who might enjoy this type of thing, I will link the interview with the new editor, David Crystal, which I found fascinating.


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