Fowler, the ‘instinctive grammatical moralizer’

Shortly before H. W. Fowler’s renowned Dictionary of Modern English Usage appeared, almost a century ago, excerpts from it were published in the tracts of the Society for Pure English (Fowler was a member) and subject to critical commentary. One entry proved especially contentious, sparking a lively exchange with linguist Otto Jespersen.

These two grammatical heavyweights disagreed over what Fowler called the fused participle (aka possessive with gerund, or genitive before a gerund): a phrase like it led to us deciding, instead of the possessive form that Fowler would insist on: it led to our deciding.

When Fowler scorned the construction as ‘grammatically indefensible’, Jespersen (also in the tracts) defended it on historical principles and called Fowler’s piece ‘a typical specimen of the method of what I call the instinctive grammatical moralizer’.

Fowler’s reaction is described in The Warden of English, Jenny McMorris’s enjoyable and solidly researched account of the lexicographer’s life and work:

Henry was upset by this attack but felt bound to reply. ‘He greatly disliked controversy, and was disturbed by it,’ a friend recorded, but the assault could not be allowed to pass unchallenged and Henry’s paper replying to Jespersen was also published in the Tracts. In it Henry pointed out that much of Jespersen’s argument was based on a misquotation of a passage from the original piece, ‘an oversight of his in abridging’, as Henry generously put it. He accepted the title ‘instinctive grammatical moralizer’, examining it word by word and turning what had been intended as an insult into a compliment, going on to demonstrate the differences between his own work and that of Jespersen as a historical grammarian; ‘the ability to distinguish between the right and wrong of speech does seem to me much more a matter of instinct than of history.’ The two men clearly approached the business from completely different standpoints and would never agree.

That Fowler found grammaticality judgements more rooted in instinct than history is telling, but at least he framed it as a ‘does seem to me’. For centuries grammarians could not agree on which form was best or even whether one or the other was acceptable. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU) summarises:

The earliest commentators, including Lowth 1763, were distinctly hostile to the possessive case. Campbell 1776 thought the possessive ought not to be repudiated, Priestley in 1768 allowed either form, Murray 1795 favored the possessive, Noah Webster in Dissertations on the English Language (1789) prescribed the possessive as the true form of the idiom.

Modern authorities side more with Jespersen (sometimes qualifiedly so), generally accepting that the weight of historical and literary usage establishes the fused participle as standard English.

The descriptive MWDEU notes that ‘the same authors commonly use both constructions’ – Dickens, Boswell and Flannery O’Connor among them – so it is ‘simply not a matter of right and wrong’. The more conservative Garner’s Modern English Usage finds that ‘no one today doubts that Fowler overstated his case’, but that he had a ‘stylistic if not a grammatical point’ – and that the possessive is particularly appropriate in formal contexts.

Oliver Kamm, in Accidence Will Happen, concludes: ‘This is a controversy where the pedants once again confuse their own preferences with grammatical rules. You should do what sounds more euphonious.’ Kenneth Wilson’s Columbia Guide to Standard American English concurs: both forms are standard, and native speakers can ‘trust their ears.’


Fowler loved skating. The caricature is by music teacher Ralph St John Ainslie.

Before reading McMorris’s book I knew little about Fowler’s life and background (these are outlined in Louis Menand’s review at the New Yorker), and was happily surprised to learn he was an enthusiastic amateur poet who believed poetry should always be read aloud, ‘even when the reader was alone’. When Robert Bridges published The Testament of Beauty, Fowler ‘dashed off impetuously a long letter to the poet admiring the work’ – and querying its metre.

Most of the poems reproduced in The Warden of English were written by Fowler to his wife, Jessie Marian Wills, on such occasions as birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, and moving house. He would leave the verses, which he described as ‘mostly playful, perhaps rather childish’, under her pillow. After Jessie’s death he collected some into a volume intended as ‘a broken-hearted tribute’.

Here is one:

My wife and I we disagree
On every mortal matter;
The Sprats, ’tis said, were odd; but we
Are infinitely spratter.

Of fifty Aprils she’s the sum,
Sunshine and showers together,
While fifty-three Novembers come
In me to sober weather.

Her fitting throne an easy chair,
Her joy a motor-car is;
For me a stool, or Shank’s mare,
A fitter mount by far is.

Words are my study, life is hers;
We go to different teachers;
I learn from books, while she prefers
To learn from living creatures.

Yet (though you’d say words had their use
In speech, as legs in walking)
A sentence rarely I produce,
And she does all the talking.

A crowning discord only can
Solve discords so inhuman:
She says the world to her’s one man,
To me it is one woman.

A friend of Fowler’s, Gordon Coulton, verified the penultimate verse when he compared Jessie’s ‘eternal loquacity’ with her husband’s ‘natural taciturnity’. McMorris quotes Coulton describing a visit chauvinistically: ‘It was good, at their table, to watch him listening to her irresponsible and entertaining babble, with glistening eyes that wandered from guest to guest, saying most plainly “Isn’t this capital fun?”’


7 Responses to Fowler, the ‘instinctive grammatical moralizer’

  1. astraya says:

    Was Fowler really a “grammatical heavyweight” (whatever else he was in usage and style)?

    • Stan Carey says:

      Well, he wasn’t heavyweight champion of the world, but in the familiar figurative sense ‘influential, important, or experienced in a certain area’, I think he was a grammatical heavyweight. It’s a debatable point, but not one to be taken seriously.

  2. Thanks for this interesting post, Stan. Also, I really love this line: “The Sprats, ’tis said, were odd; but we/
    Are infinitely spratter.”

  3. […] and it is ‘desirable that in making new words the two languages should not be mixed’. H. W. Fowler later compiled the following ‘ill-favoured list, of which all readers will condemn some, […]

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