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…

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