Book of the Month
The King's English

Publisher: Wordsworth Reference
Author: H.W & F.G. Fowler

ISBN 9-781853 263040


Fowler is famous for his Modern English Usage, but this is in many ways a more enjoyable book. It may seem odd to describe any book which discusses the proper usage of grammar and syntax as an enjoyable read, but this book certainly is. This is because the brothers Fowler care passionately about the English language and use it superbly. They make their points about misuse with a fine mixture of sarcasm and irony, and with an expert's understanding of the language. However, there are two warnings for anyone who is considering buying this book. The title 'The King's English' warns readers that this is a reprint of a book first published almost a century ago, though updated since. (The cover picture is of Edward the Seventh, King of England when the book first came out.) The second is that the authors of the book expect their readers to be almost as competent in the language as they are themselves. Even advanced students will find this text hard - but rewarding - work. This opening to a section describing the correct usage of 'Who', 'That' or 'Which' gives some idea of the flavour of the book.
      'That' is evidently considered by many writers as nothing more than an ornamental version of 'who' or 'which', to be used, not indeed immoderately, but quite without discrimination ...

This book is not a comprehensive grammar - that would be impossible with a paperback of only 383 pages. Instead it assumes that users are familiar with basic English usage and grammar and now want to improve it to masterclass standard. In fact the opening section gives some basic guidelines for writers which are highly relevant to anyone writing an exam essay. 'Prefer the familiar word to the far-fatched. Prefer the concrete word to the abstract. Prefer the single word to the circumlocution. Prefer the short word to the long.' As well as the standard chapter headings of 'Vocabulary', 'Syntax' and so on, there is a typically Fowleresque interjection of a chapter called 'Airs and Graces' which looks at matters such as humour in writing, use of archaic English and other idiosyncratic usages. It contains gems such as this description of a cliché 'It is no longer legal tender in writing, and marks a low point in conversation'.
It is generally easy to find a particular grammatical topic, for each chapter has over a dozen sub-headings, and there is a ten-page index at the back. Throughout there are extensive quotations from contemporary newspapers and texts giving examples, usually of some mis-usage which the authors want to point out. There is also a sub-section on 'Americanisms' which points out that American English usages and vocabulary are different, but not inferior. The authors consider the word 'fall' superior to 'autumn' for a number of reasons, but say that 'autumn' is now the modern English word and to use 'fall' in its place is 'nothing short of larceny'.

Who is this book for? The ideal reader is a competent English user who wants to become highly competent, and appreciates being amused and entertained while being educated. This book is not recommended for those who have difficulty with even advanced modern texts, but those who enjoy a challenge will find this book very worthwhile. Bear in mind that the language has moved on in the seventy or so years since the book was last updated, and so check that any advice which seems strange is still relevant. On the other hand, the book gives examples of both journalistic style and the flavour of events a century ago, and these add an extra layer of depth and interest.

Verdict: It will improve the English of those already good.
Assessment 6/10
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