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Its first edition is seven hundred and forty-two pages long, and much of it has to do with small questions of spelling and pronunciation.

Fowler’s true subject, however—his heart’s home—is a set of two general principles, clarity and unpretentiousness, that he felt should govern all use of language.

Why should we let some old Protestant men tell us how to write our language?

Also on the level of taste and tone, the books seemed to some readers—for example, Hitchings—provincial and small-minded.

English has always been a ragbag, and that encouraged further permissiveness.

In the past half century or so, however, this situation has produced a serious quarrel, political as well as linguistic, with two combatant parties: the prescriptivists, who were bent on instructing us in how to write and speak; and the descriptivists, who felt that all we could legitimately do in discussing language was to say what the current practice was.

This 2,662-page revised edition of the standard unabridged dictionary of American English was emphatically descriptivist. In the words of its editor, William Morris, the book was written to provide “that sensible guidance toward grace and precision which intelligent people seek in a dictionary.” Intelligent people, dictionary consulters: that’s not everybody. Here, for instance, is the entry on “ain’t”: “Nonstandard. So this was an élite that you might be able to join. In making the case for the language as it was spoken, the descriptivists did one great service: they encouraged studies of the vernacular.The book’s fame derives from the articles he wrote in relation to those matters—“genteelism,” “mannerisms,” “irrelevant allusion,” “love of the long word,” to name a few.Fowler defines “genteelism” as “the substituting, for the ordinary natural word that first suggests itself to the mind, of a synonym that is thought to be less soiled by the lips of the common herd, less familiar, less plebian, less vulgar, less improper, less apt to come unhandsomely betwixt the wind & our nobility.” As is obvious here, Fowler was dealing not just with language but with its moral underpinnings, truth and falsehood. “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage” sold sixty thousand copies in its first year.Hence their ease, their wit, and their willingness to prescribe.None of them had any interest in telling steelworkers how to use English.

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