From the Writer’s Almanac

It’s the birthday of lexicographer Henry Watson Fowler (books by this author), born in Tonbridge, Kent, England (1858). He studied at Oxford and taught Latin, Greek, and English at a boys’ school in northwest England for 17 years, then resigned and moved to the island of Guernsey in the English Channel, built himself a one-room cottage, and began living like a hermit. Though he spent all his time writing essays and produced enough to fill two book-length manuscripts, he could not succeed in getting them published. He then came up with the idea to write “a sort of English composition manual, from the negative point of view, for journalists & amateur writers.” Collaborating with his brother on the work for Oxford University Press, he wrote The King’s English (1906), which begins:

“Anyone who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.”

The first chapter, titled “Vocabulary,” lays out the following principles:

“Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched. Prefer the concrete word to the abstract. Prefer the single word to the circumlocution. Prefer the short word to the long. Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.”

The book was a success and he was commissioned to produce The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, which appeared in 1911. His biggest success, however, was A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), a collection of common mistakes in English that Fowler organized into categories, such as “Battered Ornaments,” “Love of the Long Word,” “Sturdy Indefensibles,” “Swapping Horses,” and “Unequal Yokefellows.”

T.S. Eliot said, “Every person who wishes to write ought to read A Dictionary of Modern English Usage … for a quarter of an hour every night before going to bed.”

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