• Email
  • Print

The Language Barrier

The Careful Writer

by Theodore M. Bernstein
Atheneum, 487 pp., $7.95

A Dictionary of Usage and Style

by Roy H. Copperud
Hawthorn, 452 pp., $6.95

We and the Americans have much in common, but there is always the language barrier.” I suppose the little joke—it is Oscar Wilde’s—still gets its little laugh. Whenever two countries, or two regions or two classes for that matter, share a single language, they will inevitably become hyperbolic if in this or that detail the other’s linguistic identity is less than complete. But British English and American English have got used to each other since Wilde’s day. We are not even particularly funny to each other any longer, although our respective accents—the great stand-by of the comic raconteur when I came to Harvard as a graduate student nearly forty years ago—cannot have changed very much.

The real paradox of the Anglo-American relationship is not the language barrier but the absence of a language barrier. The American “professional writers, reporters, editors, teachers and students,” for whom Roy H. Copperud has compiled his useful Dictionary of Usage and Style, will almost always find the same solutions to problems of verbal expression or punctuation whether they consult his work or, in Copperud’s own words, “that British oracle on usage, Fowler”—which, as it happens, is now available in a second edition where Sir Ernest Gowers, the author of that first-class manual Plain Words, brings the oracle up to date. And in England we can now turn with almost equal edification either to Gowers-Fowler or to Copperud or to Theodore M. Bernstein’s sensible dictionary The Careful Writer—whose subtitle incidentally is also “A Modern Guide to English Usage.” The language we agree on both sides of the Atlantic to call English is essentially the same, even if there are some words and idioms we use or are aware of that the British writer thinks of as Americanisms (Sir Ernest lists 108—from apartment to witness stand—in his revision of Fowler) and the American as “Briticisms” (Copperud’s term à propos of in future).

The Fowler enthusiast (“addict” is perhaps the properer word)—who belongs to a sect headed in America by Jacques Barzun and in London by The Times Literary Supplement—will deplore any tampering with the text of Modern English Usage. Poor Sir Ernest Gowers in the eyes of the true Fowlerian is a sort of Nahum Tate, who, it will be remembered, gave King Lear a happy ending by resurrecting both Cordelia and the King himself. To these pious souls every word of the 1926 text is sacred. It is not difficult to imagine Fowler’s snorts if he were still alive. The virtue that Fowler incarnated supremely was intellectual honesty—he gave up a housemastership at Repton because though an agnostic he was still expected by the headmaster to prepare his boys for Confirmation—and he would have had little sympathy with the cant that a work of reference, however excellent, should not be brought up to date because the flavor of its original compiler’s personality will then be lost. A dictionary of usage exists to be used. Gowers’s revision is easier to use than Fowler’s edition because it has more sign posts and cross-references, and he has been remarkably successful, in my opinion, in retaining Fowler’s ipsissima verba while making the minor corrections and qualifications that time has made necessary in some of the entries. As for the new entries they seem to me, as far as I have tested them, helpful, necessary, and discreet.

British English and American English is still for all practical purposes the same language. The question that is not answered in any of these admirable compilations is whether it will remain so, whether indeed any responsible Englishman or American should wish it to remain so. Language and thought are inextricably intertwined: though Englishmen and Americans still talk and write the same language their thinking is not the same. Hitherto the historical rule has been that a nation-state aspiring to world-power—as distinct from a Switzerland or a Belgium—must have a language of its own to assert its political identity. Now when the French, Italian, and Spanish empires came into being their languages had effectively broken away from the Latin parent. Can the United States, the political giant of the modern world, hope to assert its international identity in a language that is not its own? Or alternatively should the imminent universality of the English language, which is already spoken by a quarter of the world’s inhabitants, be read as a sign that the nation-state as we have known it hitherto is already a moribund institution?

These are large questions, questions that obviously resist any precise or easy answer, but some clues to possible answers are, I believe, to be found in dictionaries of modern usage such as these three. Usage after all is different in its social implications from speech. You look up a word in a Webster or one of the Oxford dictionaries to discover what it means; you look up a word or mode of construction in Gowers-Fowler or Copperud or Bernstein to learn whether you are using it, or about to use it, correctly—in the right way, as the Joneses use it. And whereas a good dictionary is expected to list every word and form that is in regular use, a dictionary of modern usage confines itself to the dangerous words and idioms, the ones we are not sure about, the ones we are only too likely to get wrong.

From this point of view then Fowler and Gowers are the keepers of the British linguistic conscience, just as Bernstein and Copperud are the keepers of the American linguistic conscience. Their function is to help us to choose between what is, verbally, right and wrong. If British and American are to diverge into two different languages in a not too distant future, the usagists, whose linguistic antennae are so much more sensitive than those of most of us, are likely to provide between their lines just the evidence upon which preliminary predictions may be made. Alternatively, if we are all heading for a universal English (“World-Speech”), the general nature of that language may perhaps be predicted if we project the minor differences that already distinguish British and American usage and then magnify them.

Fortunately for he linguistic inquirer the original edition of Fowler can be used as a standard of comparison here as both Bernstein and Copperud obviously had a copy of Modern English Usage open on the table as they went to work. All three in fact begin with a, an, whose problems Fowler had managed to compress into 85 words (Gowers expands it to 108):

A is used before all consonants except silent h (a history, an hour); an was formerly usual before an unaccented syllable beginning with h (an historical work), but now that the h in such words is pronounced the distinction has become pedantic, and a historical should be said and written; similarly an humble is now meaningless and undesirable. A is now usual also before vowels preceded in fact though not in appearance by the sound of y or w (a unit, a eulogy, a one).

This simple story is inflated by Bernstein into 185 words and by Copperud into 230 without anything essential being added except imprecision. Thus Fowler’s “silent h” becomes ‘an unsounded consonant” in Bernstein (which implies an knot, an psalm), and Copperud turns the “unaccented syllable” into “unaccented h’s” (a non-existent category in English). And both omit the w-sounding initial vowel (a one), though they have what Bernstein calls the “yew” (a unit). The superfluous verbiage, as it may seem, is accounted for by their anecdotal manner. The slovenly writer must now be coaxed back into correctness. Bernstein begins:

In Old English there was only an. But anyone who has even heard the kid next door wailing that he didn’t “wanna” do his homework can reconstruct the process that brought a into being over the centuries.

The kid here is supposed to soften the philological blow—though it is a pity the kid’s neighbor hasn’t done his homework: Anglo-Saxon ha no indefinite article and an means “one” in it. A few sentences further on some American writers are introduced by Bernstein who “wouldn’t be caught even in a British pub saying an hotel’ (and yet opt for an historic document).” But what happens to the h in Sun Hotel, Mr. Bernstein? And is there anything wrong in “I don’t care which it is, but I must have an hotel”? he pub has the appearance of a red herring that diverts Bernstein and his clients from this problem of degree of vocal stress.

But Bernstein’s explanatory patter is nothing to Copperud’s For example:

It was formerly the practice to use an before unaccented h’s. In 1909, crotchety Ambrose Bierce wrote, “The contrary use in this country comes of too strongly stressing our aspirates.” Too bad, old boy, it’s all over now; our aspirates have aspired and are beyond aspersion.

And more, much more, in the same appallingly cheery tone of voice.

In both Americans then there is a loss of verbal precision and philological acuteness as compared with Fowler and Gowers, but by way of presumable compensation a great many more jokes and stories, some of doubtful relevance.

This at any rate is the first impression. Of the two Copperud throws the wider net. He will tell you how to spell accordion (no a in the final syllable) and the difference between prostate and prostrate (no prostrate gland). And he is instructive on the origins of gobbledygook (“the turgid language characteristic of bureaucracy”), which was coined by Maury Maverick in The New York Times Magazine, 21 May 1944, and of O.K. Apparently O.K.—which Woodrow Wilson is said to have spelt okeh, under the impression that it was a Red Indian word—goes back to the O.K. Club, a Democratic organization formed in 1840 to re-elect President Van Buren, who was born in Old Kinderhook, N.Y.

Bernstein on the other hand ignores the accordion problem as well as prostate, gobbledygook, and O.K. Generally speaking, he is less interested in Americana and more concerned with grammatical principles, though nearly half of his 2,000 alphabetized entries must in fact be shared with Copperud. They are both old journalists who have risen, if that is the word, to being Professors of Journalism, and Bernstein continues to be an Assistant Managing Editor of The New York Times. A special bee in his bonnet is the preposition to be correctly attached to various familiar verbs: thus “LEAN Takes preposition on, upon, or against.” There must be hundreds of similar adjunctions in The Careful Writer; including the odd noun-and-adjective-taking prepositions, I have counted forty-four under D alone. Usually Bernstein follows the example of Fowler, as Copperud does too, with actual specimens of the various abusages, most of which seem to be from The New York Times; but with the prepositions we just get the unequivocal assertion “Takes preposition x.” And there are no wisecracks or puns to sweeten these pills. Evidently the incorrect preposition is no joking matter in American English.

An Englishman cannot help being impressed by the virtual unanimity of the two dictionaries on the problems that they both discuss—especially as Copperud is a Middle Westerner whose present base is Southern California whereas Bernstein is a lifelong New Yorker. (A minor exception is try and, on which Copperud and I—and incidentally Fowler and his editor—look more favorably than Bernstein.) What is disconcerting is the contradiction between the correctness of judgment on almost all the particular issues—and the general good sense those judgments imply—and the actual practice, the way they both write, in terms of prose style.

The principles governing correct usage as enunciated or implied in the two compilations would have commended themselves to Jonathan Swift:—Avoid redundancy and tautology; cultivate terseness and precision; shun the cliché; write not as they write in Time magazine or on Madison Avenue; be natural and colloquial; trust your ear. These are admirable precepts; but they are only partly carried out in the actual entries, many of which run to several pages and are in effect essays. Copperud is especially down on redundancy, but what could be more redundant than the little jokes and anecdotes with which he and Bernstein pad out their linguistic instructions? And if naturalness and simplicity are the main thing—Bernstein has a special section on “One Idea to a Sentence”—why is the writing, apart from the jokes, so clumsy and imprecise? These are not hippopotamuses picking up peas but hippopotamuses stumbling in a bed of flowers. Copperud in particular commits some minor infelicity in almost every sentence that he writes.

All the same, the meaning does come through and the particular usage that is recommended is almost always the best one. The paradox is the paradox of American English. I speak of what I know here. For the last fifteen years I have been editing a literary journal which has printed a lot of first-class American material—but almost every American article that I have accepted I have had to re-write here or there. “Do you mind if I translate it into English?” I once asked Kenneth Burke when I accepted a brilliant critical piece of his. And to my delight Burke agreed and handsomely admitted, when he saw my revisions, that I had improved the writing a lot. But, of course, I could not have re-written Burke’s clumsy or ambiguous sentences if I had not already understood what they meant.

I may be misinterpreting the evidence as I know it, but the literary conclusion or corollary to which I was already finding myself forced has been confirmed and clinched by the incidental evidence provided in Bernstein’s and Copperud’s dictionaries of usage. It is a double-headed conclusion. At the level of communication, the mere transmission of information, American English is more prolix, less precise, less elegant than contemporary British English. The skeptic need only compare the prose styles of The New York Times (“if you see it in The Times it’s right,” Copperud) and the London Times. But these stylistic defects may well prove to be linguistic advantages when American English has become World Speech. They are the defects of any language—such as the artificial languages Esperanto, Volapuk, and the rest—that is exceptionally easy for a foreigner to learn. British English is already the more difficult of the two.

At the level of expression a different conclusion suggests itself. Even today an American writer finds himself challenged and thwarted by the crudity of his country’s official speech, by those very standards of usage that Bernstein and Copperud are so industriously promulgating. Instinctively he reacts in one of two ways. One is to fabricate a private literary language out of the alien public speech, as in their separate ways Emily Dickinson, Gertrude Stein, E. E. Cummings, and Wallace Stevens did, and their modern experimental successors are attempting to do today in both poetry and prose fiction. But a private language is, strictly, a contradiction in terms. The more interesting literary alternative is to construct images of innocence by exploiting and elaborating the incorrect linguistic usages that the prophets of correctness deplore and castigate. This is precisely what the authors of Huckleberry Finn and The Catcher in the Rye, to take two familiar examples, have already succeeded in doing. Indeed the device of a persona, a speaking voice that is and is not the author’s, is perhaps the principal American contribution to the art of literature. But the device was not chosen simply on aesthetic grounds, as Henry James sometimes mistakenly imagined; it was imposed on American literature by the accident that the natural language, the language everybody had to use, was that of another country—even if that country’s inhabitants and the Americans still have much in common. And the superfluous japes of Bernstein and Copperud and their like excuse themselves for the same instinctive reason: they may not be necessary to us, but they were necessary to them. It is one way of asserting their national identity.

  • Email
  • Print