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H.W. Fowler (1858–1933). The King’s English, 2nd ed. 1908.

Chapter III. Airs and Graces


  1. Some more trite phrases.The worn-out phrases considered in a former section were of a humorous tendency: we may add here some expressions of another kind, all of them calculated in one way or another to save the writer trouble; the trouble of description, or of producing statistics, or of thinking what he means. Such phrases naturally die hard; even ‘more easily imagined than described’ still survives the rough handling it has met with, and flourishes in writers of a certain class. ‘Depend upon it’, ‘you may take my word for it’, ‘in a vast majority of cases’, ‘no thinking man will believe’, ‘all candid judges must surely agree’, ‘it would be a slaying of the slain’, ‘I am old-fashioned enough to think’, are all apt to damage the cause they advocate. The shrill formula ‘It stands to reason’ is one of the worst offenders. Originally harmless, and still no doubt often used in quite rational contexts, the phrase has somehow got a bad name for prefacing fallacies and for begging questions; it lacks the delicious candour of its feminine equivalent—’Kindly allow me to know best’—, but appeals perhaps not less irresistibly to the generosity of an opponent. Apart from this, there is a correct and an incorrect use of the words. It is of course the conclusion drawn from certain premisses that stands to reason; the premisses do not stand to reason; they are assumed to be a matter of common knowledge, and ought to be distinguished from the conclusion by if or a causal participle, not co-ordinated with it by and.
    My dear fellow, it stands to reason that if the square of a is a squared, and the square of b is b squared, then the square of a minus b is a squared minus b squared. You may argue till we are both tired, you will never alter that. It stands to reason that a thick tumbler, having a larger body of cold matter for the heat to distribute itself over, is less liable to crack when boiling water is poured into it than a thin one would be. It stands to reason that my men have their own work to attend to, and cannot be running about London all day rectifying other people’s mistakes. It stands to reason that Russia, though vast, is a poor country, that the war must cost immense sums, and that there must come a time.—Spectator.
    Just as ‘stands to reason’ is not an argument, but an invitation to believe, ‘the worthy Major’ not amusing, but an invitation to smile, so the sentimental or sensational novelist has his special vocabulary of the impressive, the tender, the tragic, and the horrible. One or two of the more obvious catch-phrases may be quoted. In the ‘strong man’ of fiction the reader may have observed a growing tendency to ‘sob like a child’; the right-minded hero to whom temptation comes decides, with archaic rectitude, that he ‘will not do this thing’; the villain, taught by incessant ridicule to abstain from ‘muffled curses’, finds a vent in ‘discordant laughs, that somehow jarred unpleasantly upon my nerves’; this laugh, mutatis mutandis (‘cruel little laugh, that somehow…’), he shares with the heroine, who for her exclusive perquisite has ‘this man who had somehow come into her life’. Somehow and half-dazed are invaluable for throwing a mysterious glamour over situations and characters that shun the broad daylight of common sense.
  2. Elementary irony.A well-known novelist speaks of the resentment that children feel against those elders who insist upon addressing them in a jocular tone, as if serious conversation between the two were out of the question. Irony is largely open to the same objection: the writer who uses it is taking our intellectual measure; he forgets our ex officio perfection in wisdom. Theoretically, indeed, the reader is admitted to the author’s confidence; he is not the corpus vile on which experiment is made: that, however, is scarcely more convincing than the two-edged formula ‘present company excepted’. For minute, detailed illustration of truths that have had the misfortune to become commonplaces without making their due impression, sustained irony has its legitimate use: tired of being told, and shown by direct methods, that only the virtuous man is admirable, we are glad enough to go off with Fielding on a brisk reductio ad absurdum: ‘for if not, let some other kind of man be admirable as Jonathan Wild’. But the reductio process should be kept for emergencies, as Euclid kept it, with whom it is a confession that direct methods are not available. The isolated snatches of irony quoted below have no such justification: they are for ornament, not for utility; and it is a kind of ornament that is peculiarly un-English—a way of shrugging one’s shoulders in print.
    He had also the comfortable reflection that, by the violent quarrel with Lord Dalgarno, he must now forfeit the friendship and good offices of that nobleman’s father and sister.—Scott. Naturally that reference was received with laughter by the Opposition, who are, or profess to be, convinced that our countrymen in the Transvaal do not intend to keep faith with us. They are very welcome to the monopoly of that unworthy estimate, which must greatly endear them to all our kindred beyond seas.—Times. The whole of these proceedings were so agreeable to Mr. Pecksniff, that he stood with his eyes fixed upon the floor…, as if a host of penal sentences were being passed upon him.—Dickens. The time comes when the banker thinks it prudent to contract some of his accounts, and this may be one which he thinks it expedient to reduce: and then perhaps he makes the pleasant discovery, that there are no such persons at all as the acceptors, and that the funds for meeting all these bills have been got from himself!—H. D. Macleod.
    Pleasant is put for unpleasant because the latter seemed dull and unnecessary; the writer should have taken the hint, and put nothing at all. The climax is reached by those pessimists who, regarding the reader’s case as desperate, assist him with punctuation, italics, and the like:
    And this honourable (?) proposal was actually made in the presence of two at least of the parties to the former transaction! These so-called gentlemen seem to forget… I was content to be snubbed and harassed and worried a hundred times a day by one or other of the ‘great’ personages who wandered at will all over my house and grounds, and accepted my lavish hospitality. Many people imagine that it must be an ‘honour’ to entertain a select party of aristocrats, but I…—Corelli. The much-prated-of ‘kindness of heart’ and ‘generosity’ possessed by millionaires, generally amounts to this kind of thing.—Corelli. Was I about to discover that the supposed ‘woman-hater’ had been tamed and caught at last?—Corelli. That should undoubtedly have been your ‘great’ career—you were born for it—made for it! You would have been as brute-souled as you are now…—Corelli.
  3. Superlatives without the.The omission of the with superlatives is limited by ordinary prose usage to (1) Superlatives after a possessive: ‘Your best plan’. (2) Superlatives with most: ‘in most distressing circumstances’, but not ‘in saddest circumstances’. (3) Superlatives in apposition, followed by of: ‘I took refuge with X., kindliest of hosts’; ‘We are now at Weymouth, dingiest of decayed watering-places’. Many writers of the present day affect the omission of the in all cases where the superlative only means very. No harm will be done if they eventually have their way: in the meantime, the omission of the with inflected superlatives has the appearance of gross mannerism.
    Our enveloping movements since some days proved successful, and fiercest battle is now proceeding.—Times. In which, too, so many noblest men have … both made and been what will be venerated to all time.—Carlyle. Struggling with objects which, though it cannot master them, are essentially of richest significance.—Carlyle. The request was urged with every kind suggestion, and every assurance of aid and comfort, by friendliest parties in Manchester, who, in the sequel, amply redeemed their word.—Emerson. In Darkest Africa.—Stanley. Delos furnishes, not only quaintest tripods, crude bronze oxen and horses like those found at Olympia, but…—L. M. Mitchell. The scene represents in crudest forms the combat of gods and giants, a subject which should attain long afterwards fullest expression in the powerful frieze of the Great Altar at Pergamon.—L. M. Mitchell. A world of highest and noblest thought in dramas of perfect form.—L. M. Mitchell. From earliest times such competitive games had been celebrated.—L. M. Mitchell. When fullest, freest forms had not yet been developed.—L. M. Mitchell.
  4. Cheap originality.Just as ‘elegant variation’ is generally a worse fault than monotony, so the avoidance of trite phrases is sometimes worse than triteness itself. Children have been known to satisfy an early thirst for notoriety by merely turning their coats inside out; and ‘distinction’ of style has been secured by some writers on the still easier terms of writing a common expression backwards. By this simplest of all possible expedients, ‘wear and tear’ ceases to be English, and becomes Carlylese, and Emerson acquires an exclusive property (so at least one hopes) in ‘nothing or little’. The novice need scarcely be warned against infringing these writers’ patents; it would be as unpardonable as stealing the idea of a machine for converting clean knives into dirty ones. Hackneyed phrases become hackneyed because they are useful, in the first instance; but they derive a new efficiency from the very fact that they are hackneyed. Their precise form grows to be an essential part of the idea they convey, and all that a writer effects by turning such a phrase backwards, or otherwise tampering with it, is to give us our triteness at secondhand; we are put to the trouble of translating ‘tear and wear’, only to arrive at our old friend ‘wear and tear’, hackneyed as ever.
    How beautiful is noble-sentiment; like gossamer-gauze beautiful and cheap, which will stand no tear and wear.—Carlyle. Bloated promises, which end in nothing or little.—Emerson. The universities also are parcel of the ecclesiastical system.—Emerson. Fox, Burke, Pitt, Erskine, Wilberforce, Sheridan, Romilly, or whatever national man, were by this means sent to Parliament.—Emerson. And the stronger these are, the individual is so much weaker.—Emerson. The faster the ball falls to the sun, the force to fly off is by so much augmented.—Emerson. The friction in nature is so enormous that we cannot spare any power. It is not question to express our thought, to elect our way, but to overcome resistances.—Emerson.