Sentences — March 2, 2009, 4:44 pm



Many years ago, I came upon a little book called The Misspeller’s Guide. It listed, alphabetically, commonly misspelled words, under the principle that if one only knew how to misspell a word, one would not know how to find it in a dictionary. Thus went the logic of this obscene little book: one would look up the word one didn’t know how to spell and find it there misspelled, adjoining which misspelling would be… the correct spelling.

A rather roundabout way to get one’s way, and so I thank COMMAND-OPTION-L, which brings up the spellchecker in my word processor, every chance I get. I’m not that strong a speller, and so I don’t for a moment undervalue the idea of a guide, any guide, that should take as its ambition the deepening of a reader’s knowledge of a subject however narrow. And yet, I do want more than bran with my muffin, and expect these good-for-you-guides to offer something in the way of flavor, a flavor very absent from the Soviet-era soup of The Misspeller’s Guide.

fowler_002 Whereas Fowler’s Modern English Usage, in any of its incarnations, is pure pleasure. There’s doubtless a medicinal value to its entries, but they entertain so deeply and purely that it all goes down very sweetly. Over the years, I’m sure I’ve read it more for pleasure than with purpose, less in the hope of resolving a confusion over “pleonasm” than to discover that “pleonasm” was something at all. Where the New Oxford American Dictionary defines the term as “the use of more words than are necessary to convey meaning, either as a fault of style or for emphasis,” Fowler’s, at left, offers a little lesson.

fowler_003 And that’s just the beginning of the entry. It goes on, there, and elsewhere (“see also TAUTOLOGY;” “see also SIAMESE TWINS.”) I love to “see also,” and find there’s enormous pleasure in seeing the confusing and frequently frustrating set of expectations and hesitations we call a language wrestled with, agreeably. Who could resist the little dance of “piteous”?

Yes, spontaneous development has worked badly here, but one can always “See also PLENTEOUS” and watch things work out, if not better, charmingly enough.

(For more about “the seamy underbelly” of such guides, you could do a great deal worse than spend an hour with this.)

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