Henry W. Fowler

Instant Quiz

Can you correct the error in the sentence below? Scroll to the bottom of today’s post for the answer.

When I’m struggling with an upsetting problem, I always call one of my trusted confidents.

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When I was in college and graduate school, a professor would sometimes stray from the  lesson plan to talk about a learning experience, writing task, or research project they’d done. Those impromptu reminiscences turned out to be some of my most cherished memories.

Professional writers sometimes forget that the things they do routinely are a deep mystery to students. It really helps to know that those towering figures sometimes bumbled around like the rest of us!

I vividly remember my own fears that I didn’t have what it takes to be a scholar. It was comforting to think about a former professor wandering around the library, trying to solve some knotty academic problem.

* * * * *

In that spirit, I’m going to talk about this morning. I had a tiring day yesterday. I managed to get through a dance lesson, and I wrote a pretty good newsletter for one of my books. That was about it.

Apparently my psyche thought I needed that day to shut down. Today – whether I liked it or not – was going to be a work day.

And so it came to pass. At three-thirty this morning I decided it was pointless to try to go back to sleep. I played with our cat for a few minutes and then settled down at the computer.

The book I’m writing about Shaw includes several chapters about language. The one I’m working on now – my favorite – is largely about grammar. I’m sure that sounds boring as hell, but I’m having tremendous fun with it.

This morning’s topic was possessives with gerunds. I know that doesn’t sound exciting, but all kinds of issues have come tumbling out, and I’ve been running around crazily trying to chase them down.

This morning I was playing with an idea about possessives with gerunds. Although that grammatical construction was already fading away by the time Shaw wrote Pygmalion, he was doing something interesting with it.

But here’s the rub: how would I prove that a grammatical construction was going out of style in 1914? Was I going to have to do a tedious search through a mountain of reference material? I couldn’t think of a single resource that tracks the comings and goings of grammar rules.

Might as well start with Fowler. Some years ago the library at the college where I worked discarded their copy of Fowler’s Modern English Usage–the best reference book about English rules – and replaced it with the new edition. I snagged the discarded copy.

After some fumbling, I found Fowler’s entry about possessives with gerunds. (Thank you, Henry Fowler!) And – get this – the editor had decided that Henry’s 1906 comments about this obscure rule were worth including in my 1996 copy.

There – on page 609 – was Henry’s complaint that the London Times had stopped bothering with possessives with gerunds – including his examples.

Not only that – some anonymous bibliophile had digitized the entire book. I didn’t even have to retype Fowler’s discussion: I found it online and pasted it into my draft of that chapter. (Later today I’ll paraphrase and shorten it.)

I often think about the researchers who do this kind of work. They must wonder if all that tedious effort is ever going to be useful to anyone.

The answer is yes. Thank you, researchers!

The front cover of Fowler's classic book

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Short Pencil Point Deviant Art ok

Instant Quiz ANSWER

Don’t confuse confident (“secure,” “optimistic”) with confidante – a person you can confide in.

Today’s sentence requires confidante. (It’s a French word that has proved useful enough to enter the English language.)

When I’m struggling with an upsetting problem, I always call one of my trusted confidantes.


What Your English Teacher Didn’t Tell You is available in paperback and Kindle formats from Amazon.com and other online booksellers.
“A useful resource for both students and professionals” – Jena L. Hawk, Ph.D., Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College

“Personable and readable…Jean knows her subject forwards and backwards.” – Adair Lara, author of Hold Me Close, Let Me Go

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