9. The Handling Of Words
From The Complete Plain Words by Sir Ernest Gowers (1954)

"Proper words in proper places make the true definition of style". — Swift

"If language is not correct, then what is said is not what is meant; if what is said is not what is meant, then what ought to be done remains undone." — Confucius

WE must now return to what I called in Chapter 4 "correctness", and consider what it means not in the choice of words but in handling them when chosen. That takes us into the realm of grammar, syntax and idiom — three words that overlap and are often used loosely, with grammar as a generic term covering them all.

Grammar has fallen from the high esteem that it used to enjoy. A hundred and fifty years ago William Gobbett said that "grammar perfectly understood enables us not only to express our meaning fully and clearly but so to express it as to defy the ingenuity of man to give our words any other meaning than that which we intended to express". The very name of grammar school serves to remind us that grammar was long regarded as the only path to culture and learning. But that was Latin grammar. When our mother-tongue encroached on the paramountcy of the dead languages, questions began to be asked. Even at the time when Cobbett was writing his grammar, Sydney Smith was fulminating about the unfortunate boy who was

"suffocated by the nonsense of grammarians, overwhelmed with every species of difficulty disproportionate to his age, and driven by despair to pegtop and marbles".

Very slowly over the past hundred years the idea seems to have gained ground that the grammar of a living language, which is changing all the time, cannot be fitted into the rigid framework of a dead one; nor can the grammar of a language such as Latin, which changes the forms of its words to express different grammatical relations, be profitably applied to a language such as English, which has got rid of most of its inflexions, and expresses grammatical relations by devices like prepositions and auxiliary verbs and by the order of its words. It is more than fifty years since the Board of Education itself declared:

"There is no such thing as English grammar in the sense which used to be attached to the term".

George Saintsbury denounced the futility of trying to

"draw up rules and conventions for a language that is almost wholly exception and idiom".

Jespersen preached that the grammar of a language must be deduced from a study of how good writers of it in fact write, not how grammarians say it ought to be written. George Orwell went so far as to say that

"correct grammar and syntax are of no importance so long as one makes one's meaning clear".

And more recently a teacher of English has written a book (28) in which, after surveying the development of our language from the clumsy and tortuous synthetic beginnings of its Gothic origins to the grace and flexibility of its present analytical structure, he shows how in this great and beneficent reform the hero is what he calls the "lowly man" and the villain the grammarian, who constantly tried to hamper the freedom of the lowly man to go his own way; and he advocates a "grammatical moratorium" in which we may all be free to disregard the rules of grammar and continue the good work.

The old-fashioned grammarian certainly has much to answer for. He created a false sense of values that still lingers. I have ample evidence in my own correspondence that too much importance is still attached to grammarians' fetishes and too little to choosing the right words. But we cannot have grammar jettisoned altogether; that would mean chaos. There are certain grammatical conventions that are, so to speak, a code of good manners. They change, but those current at the time must be observed by writers who wish to express themselves clearly and without offence to their readers. Mr. Sykes Davies himself says that his grammatical moratorium must be preceded by some instruction in the principles of language

"which will not shy from the inescapable necessity of starting from nowhere else than the position we stand in at the moment, conditioned by the past".

In this chapter, then, I shall concern myself with some points of current usage on which I have noticed guidance to be needed.

Strictly, idiom is different from grammar: the two are often in conflict. Idiom is defined by the O.E.D. as

"a peculiarity of phraseology approved by usage and often having a meaning other than its logical or grammatical one".

When anything in this book is called "good English idiom" or "idiomatic", what is meant is that usage has established it as correct. Idiom does not conflict with grammar or logic as a matter of course; it is usually grammatically and logically neutral. Idiom requires us to say capable of doing, not capable to do, and able to do, not able of doing. Logic and grammar do not object to this, but they would be equally content with capable to do and able of doing. At the same time idiom is, in Jespersen's phrase, "a tyrannical, capricious, utterly incalculable thing", and if logic and grammar get in its way, so much the worse for logic and grammar. It is idiomatic — at least in speech — to say "I won't be longer than I can help" and "it's me". That the first is logically nonsense and the second a grammatical howler is neither here not there; idiom makes light of such things. Yet during the reign of pedantry attempts were constantly made to force idiom into the mould of logic. We were not to speak of a "criminal being executed", for a sentence can be executed but not a person; we were not to say "vexed question" for though many a question vexes none is vexed;nor "most thoughtless" for if a person is without thought there cannot be degrees of his lack of that quality;nor "light the fire", for nothing has less need of 'lighting'; nor "round the fireside", for that would mean that some of us were behind the chimney. So argued Landor, (29) a stout and undiscriminating defender of his language against the intrusion of the illogical. In spite of Fowler and Jespersen, some trace still lingers of the idea that what is illogical or ungrammatical "must" be wrong, such as condemnation of under the circumstances and of the use of a plural verb with none. The truth is, as Logan Pearsall Smith says:

Plainly a language which was all idiom and unreason would be impossible as an instrument of thought; but all languages permit the existence of a certain number of illogical expressions: and the fact that, in spite of their vulgar origin and illiterate appearance, they have succeeded in elbowing their way into our prose and poetry, and even learned lexicons and grammars, is proof that they perform a necessary function in the domestic economy of speech.(30)

In this chapter advice will be given about common troubles in the handling of words. After an opening section on the arrangement of words, these troubles will be classified under those with ConjunctionsNegativesNumberPrepositionsPronounsVerbs.

The chapter will end with sections on Some Points of Idiom: Some Common Causes of Confused Expression: and A Few Points of Spelling.