English Library - free literature, short stories, poetry and reference library
Home Classic Literature Short Stories Poetry New Writing Dictionary
Chapter One

The King's English
by H.W. Fowler

Chapter One (continued)


BEFORE classifying, we define a malaprop as a word used in the belief that it has the meaning really belonging to another word that resembles it in some particular.

  1. Words containing the same stem, but necessarily, or at least indisputably, distinguished by termination or prefix.

    'She writes comprehensively enough when she writes to M. de Bassompierre: he who runs may read.' In fact, Ginevra's epistles to her wealthy kinsman were commonly business documents, unequivocal applications for cash.—C. Brontë.

    The context proves that comprehensibly is meant.

    The working of the staff at the agent's disposal was to a great extent voluntary, and, therefore, required all the influence of judicial management in order to avoid inevitable difficulties.—Times. (judicious)

    A not uncommon blunder.

    By all means let us have bright, hearty, and very reverend services.—Daily Telegraph. (reverent)

    Not uncommon.

    He chuckled at his own perspicuity.—Corelli.

    If the writer had a little more perspicuity he would have known that the Church Congress would do nothing of the kind.—Daily Telegraph.

    Perspicuity is clearness or transparency: insight is perspicacity. -uity of style, -acity of mind. Very common.

    Selected in the beginning, I know, for your great ability and trustfulness.—Dickens. (trustworthiness)

    Wise, firm, faithless; secret, crafty, passionless; watchful and inscrutable; acute and insensate—withal perfectly decorous—what more could be desired?—C. Brontë.

    Apparently for insensible in the meaning hardhearted. Though modern usage fluctuates, it seems to tend towards the meaning, stupidly unmoved by prudence or by facts; at any rate acute and insensate are incompatible.

    In the meantime the colossal advertisement in the German Press of German aims, of German interests, and of German policy incontinently proceeds.—Times.

    The idiomatic sense of incontinently is immediately; it seems here to be used for continually.

    I was awaiting with real curiosity to hear the way in which M. Loubet would to-day acquit himself.—Times. (waiting)

    Awaiting is always transitive.

    But they too will feel the pain just where you feel it now, and they will bethink themselves the only unhappy on the earth.—Crockett.

    There is no sort of authority for bethink—like think—with object and complement. To bethink oneself is to remember, or to hit upon an idea.

    And Pizarro ... established the city of Arequipa, since arisen to such commercial celebrity.—Prescott.

    Arethusa arose; a difficulty arises; but to greatness we can only rise—unless, indeed, we wake to find ourselves famous; then we do arise to greatness.

  2. Words like the previous set, except that the differentiation may possibly be disputed.

    The long drought left the torrent of which I am speaking, and such others, in a state peculiarly favourable to observance of their least action on the mountains from which they descend.—Ruskin. (observation)

    Observance is obedience, compliance, &c. The Oxford Dictionary recognizes observance in the sense of watching, but gives no authority for it later than 1732 except another passage from Ruskin; the natural conclusion is that he accidentally failed to recognize a valuable differentiation long arrived at.

    It is physical science, and experience, that man ought to consult in religion, morals, legislature, as well as in knowledge and the arts.—Morley. (legislation)

    Legislature is the legislative body—in England, King, Lords, and Commons. To call back the old confusion is an offence.

    The apposite display of the diamonds usually stopped the tears that began to flow hereabouts; and she would remain in a complaisant state until...—Dickens. (complacent)

    Our Correspondent adds that he is fully persuaded that Rozhdestvensky has nothing more to expect from the complacency of the French authorities.—Times. (complaisance)

    Complaisant is over polite, flattering, subservient, &c. Complacent means contented, satisfied.

    In the spring of that year the privilege was withdrawn from the four associated booksellers, and the continuance of the work strictly prohibited.—Morley.

    Continuation is the noun of continue, go on with: continuance of continue, remain. With continuance the meaning would be that the already published volumes (of Diderot's Encyclopaedia) were to be destroyed; but the meaning intended is that the promised volumes were not to be gone on with—which requires continuation. Again, the next two extracts, from one page, show Mr. Morley wrongly substituting continuity, which only means continuousness, for continuance.

    Having arrived at a certain conclusion with regard to the continuance ... of Mr. Parnell's leadership...—Gladstone.

    The most cynical ... could not fall a prey to such a hallucination as to suppose ... that either of these communities could tolerate ... so impenitent an affront as the unruffled continuity of the stained leadership.—Morley.

    The Rev. Dr. Usher said he believed the writer of the first letter to be earnest in his inquiry, and agreed with him that the topic of it was transcendentally important.—Daily Telegraph.

    Transcendently means in a superlative degree: transcendentally is a philosophic term for independently of experience, &c.

    Until at last, gathered altogether again, they find their way down to the turf.—Ruskin. (all together)

    At such times ... Jimmie's better angel was always in the ascendency.—Windsor Magazine.

    Was in the ascendant: had an ascendency over.

    The inconsistency and evasion of the attitude of the Government.—Spectator.

    Evasiveness the quality: evasion a particular act.

    The requisition for a life of Christianity is 'walk in love'.—Daily Telegraph.

    Requisite or requirement, the thing required: requisition, the act of requiring it.

    We will here merely chronicle the procession of events.—Spectator. (progress or succession)

    I was able to watch the Emperor during all these interviews, and noticed the forcible manner in which he spoke, especially to the Sultan's uncle, who came from Fez especially.—Times. (specially)

    As it stands, it implies that he came chiefly from Fez, but from other places in a minor degree; it is meant to imply that he came for this particular interview, and had no other motive. The differentiation of spec- and espec- is by no means complete yet, but some uses of each are already ludicrous. Roughly, spec- means particular as opposed to general, espec- particular as opposed to ordinary; but usage must be closely watched.

    That it occurs in violence to police regulations is daily apparent.—Guernsey Advertiser. (violation of)

    In the field it aims at efforts of unexpected and extreme violence; the research of hostile masses, their defeat by overwhelming and relentless assault, and their wholesale destruction by rigorous pursuit.—Times. (discovery)

    The object of research is laws, principles, facts, &c., not concrete things or persons. Entomological research, for instance, does not look for insects, but for facts about insects.

  3. Give-and-take forms, in which there are two words, with different constructions, that might properly be used, and one is given the construction of the other.

    A few companies, comprised mainly of militiamen.—Times. (composed of? comprising?)

    The Novoe Vremya thinks the Tsar's words will undoubtedly instil the Christians of Macedonia with hope.—Times. (inspire them with hope? instil hope into them?)

    He appreciated the leisurely solidity, the leisurely beauty of the place, so innate with the genius of the Anglo-Saxon.—E. F. Benson. (genius innate in the place? the place instinct with genius?)

  4. Words having properly no connexion with each other at all, but confused owing to superficial resemblance.

    Mr. Barton walked forth in cape and boa, to read prayers at the workhouse, euphuistically called the 'College'.—Eliot. (euphemistically)

    Euphemism is slurring over badness by giving it a good name: euphuism is a literary style full of antithesis and simile. A pair of extracts (Friedrich, vol. iv, pp. 5 and 36) will convince readers that these words are dangerous:

    Hence Bielfeld goes to Hanover, to grin-out euphuisms, and make graceful court-bows to our sublime little Uncle there.—Carlyle.

    Readers may remember, George II has been at Hanover for some weeks past; Bielfeld diligently grinning euphemisms and courtly graciosities to him.—Carlyle.

    Troops capable of contesting successfully against the forces of other nations.—Times.

    Though there is authority, chiefly old, for it, good general usage is against contest without an object—contest the victory, &c. And as there is no possible advantage in writing it, with contend ready to hand, it is better avoided in the intransitive sense.

    In the present self-deprecatory mood in which the English people find themselves.—Spectator. (self-depreciatory)

    Depreciate, undervalue: deprecate, pray against. A bad but very common blunder.

    'An irreparable colleague,' Mr. Gladstone notes in his diary.—Morley. (irreplaceable)

    No dead colleague is reparable—though his loss may or may not be so—this side the Day of Judgement.

    Surely he was better employed in plying the trades of tinker and smith than in having resource to vice, in running after milkmaids, for example.—Borrow. (recourse)

    You may indeed have recourse to a resource, but not vice versa. You may also resort to, which makes the confusion easier.

    What she would say to him, how he would take it, even the vaguest predication of their discourse, was beyond him to guess.—E. F. Benson. (prediction)

    Predication has nothing to do with the future; it is a synonym, used especially in logic, for statement. The mistake is generally whipped out of schoolboys in connexion with praedícere and praedicare.

  5. Words whose meaning is misapprehended without apparent cause. The hankering of ignorant writers after the unfamiliar or imposing leads to much of this. We start with two uses of which correct and incorrect examples are desirable: provided, where if is required; and to eke out in wrong senses. Provided adorns every other page of George Borrow; we should have left it alone as an eccentricity of his, if we had not lately found the wrong use more than once in The Times.

    Provided is a small district in the kingdom of if; it can never be wrong to write if instead of provided: to write provided instead of if will generally be wrong, but now and then an improvement in precision. So much is clear; to define the boundaries of the district is another matter; we might be wiser merely to appeal to our readers whether all the examples to be quoted, except one, are not wrong. But that would be cowardly; we lay down, then, that (a) the clause must be a stipulation, i. e., a demand yet to be fulfilled, (b) there must be a stipulator, who (c) must desire, or at least insist upon, the fulfilment of it.

    Ganganelli would never have been poisoned provided he had had nephews about to take care of his life.—Borrow.

    There is no stipulator or stipulation. Grammar would have allowed Providence to say to him 'You shall not be poisoned, provided you surround yourself with nephews'.

    The kicks and blows which my husband Launcelot was in the habit of giving me every night, provided I came home with less than five shillings.—Borrow.

    Launcelot, the stipulator, does not desire the fulfilment. If kisses are substituted for kicks and blows, and more for less, the sentence will stand.

    She and I agreed to stand by each other, and be true to old Church of England, and to give our governors warning, provided they tried to make us renegades.—Borrow.

    The stipulators, she and I, do not desire the fulfilment. Not to give warning, provided they did not try, would be English. There is similar confusion between the requirements of negative and positive in the next:

    A society has just been founded at Saratoff, the object being, as the members declare in a manifesto to the Liberals, to use violent methods and even bombs provided the latter do so themselves.—Times.

    In these circumstances the chances are that the direction to proceed to Vladivostok at all costs, provided such instruction were ever given, may have been reconsidered.—Times. (if indeed ... was)

    There is no stipulation; it is only a question of past fact.

    What will the War Council at the capital decide provided the war is to continue?... The longer Linevitch can hold his position the better, provided he does not risk a serious action.—Times. (if, or assuming that)

    There is no stipulation, stipulator, or desire—only a question of future fact. The second provided in this passage is quite correct. The Times writer—or the Russian War Council, his momentary client—insists that Linevitch shall not run risks, and encourages him, if that stipulation is fulfilled, to hold on.

    To eke out means to increase, supplement, or add to. It may be called a synonym for any of these verbs; but it must be remembered that no synonyms are ever precise equivalents. The peculiarity of eke out is that it implies difficulty; in technical language, agreeing with supplement in its denotation, it has the extra connotation of difficulty. But it does not mean to make, nor to endure. From its nature, it will very seldom be used (correctly), though it conceivably might, without the source of the addition's being specified. In the first of the quotations, it is rightly used; in the second it is given the wrong meaning of make, and in the last the equally wrong one of endure.

    A writer with a story to tell that is not very fresh usually ekes it out by referring as much as possible to surrounding objects.—H. James.

    She had contrived, taking one year with another, to eke out a tolerably sufficient living since her husband's demise.—Dickens.

    Yes, we do believe, or would the clergy eke out an existence which is not far removed from poverty?—Daily Telegraph.

    Next, some isolated illustrations of our present heading:

    'There are many things in the commonwealth of Nowhere, which I rather wish than hope to see adopted in our own.' It was with these words of characteristic irony that More closed the great work.—J. R. Green.

    The word irony is one of the worst abused in the language; but it was surely never more gratuitously imported than in this passage. There could be no more simple, direct, and literal expression of More's actual feeling than his words. Now any definition of irony—though hundreds might be given, and very few of them would be accepted—must include this, that the surface meaning and the underlying meaning of what is said are not the same. The only way to make out that we have irony here is to suppose that More assumed that the vulgar would think that he was speaking ironically, whereas he was really serious—a very topsy-turvy explanation. Satire, however, with which irony is often confused, would have passed.

    A literary tour de force, a recrudescence, two or three generations later, of the very respectable William Lamb (afterwards Lord Melbourne), his unhappy wife, Lady Caroline Lamb, and Lord Byron.—Times. (reincarnation, avatar, resurrection?)

    Recrudescence is becoming quite a fashionable journalistic word. It properly means the renewed inflammation of a wound, and so the breaking out again of an epidemic, &c. It may reasonably be used of revolutionary or silly opinions: to use it of persons or their histories is absurd.

    A colonel on the General Staff, while arguing for a continuation of the struggle on metaphysical grounds, admitted to me that even if the Russians regained Manchuria they would never succeed in colonizing it.... The Bourse Gazette goes still further. It says that war for any definite purpose ceased with the fall of Mukden, and that its continuation is apparent not from any military or naval actions, but from the feeling of depression which is weighing upon all Russians and the reports of the peace overtures.—Times.

    We can suggest no substitute for metaphysical. Though we have long known metaphysics for a blessed and mysterious word, this is our first meeting with it in war or politics. The 'apparent continuation', however, seems darkly to hint at the old question between phenomena and real existence, so that perhaps we actually are in metaphysics all the time.

    In a word, M. Witte was always against all our aggressive measures in the Far East.... M. Witte, who was always supported by Count Lamsdorff, has no share in the responsibility of all that has transpired.—Times. (happened)

    As a synonym for become known, 1 transpire is journalistic and ugly, but may pass: as a synonym for happen, it is a bad blunder, but not uncommon.

    It was, of course, Mrs. Sedley's opinion that her son would demean himself by a marriage with an artist's daughter.—Thackeray.

    The actors who raddle their faces and demean themselves on the stage.—Stevenson. (lower, degrade)

    To demean oneself, with adverb of manner attached, is to behave in that manner. The other use has probably arisen by a natural confusion with the adjective mean; one suspects that it has crept into literature by being used in intentional parody of vulgar speech, till it was forgotten that it was parody. But perhaps when a word has been given full citizen rights by Thackeray and Stevenson, it is too late to expel it.

    'Oxoniensis' approaches them with courage, his thoughts are expressed in plain, unmistakable language, howbeit with the touch of a master hand.—Daily Telegraph.

    Albeit means though: howbeit always nevertheless, beginning not a subordinate clause, but a principal sentence. A good example of the danger attending ignorant archaism.

    In a word, Count von Bülow, who took a very rosy view of the agreement last year, now suddenly discovers that he was slighted, and is indignant in the paulo-post future tense.—Times.

    This jest would be pedantic in any case, since no one but schoolmasters and schoolboys knows what the paulo-post-future tense is. Being the one represented in English by I shall have been killed, it has, further, no application here; paulo-ante-past tense, if there were such a thing, might have meant something. As it is, pedantry is combined with inaccuracy.

  6. Words used in unaccustomed, though not impossible, senses or applications. This is due sometimes to that avoidance of the obvious which spoils much modern writing, and sometimes to an ignorance of English idiom excusable in a foreigner, but not in a native.

    No one can imagine non-intervention carried through so desperate and so consequential a war as this.—Greenwood.

    If important or fateful will not do, it is better to write a war so desperate and so pregnant with consequences than to abuse a word whose idiomatic uses are particularly well marked. A consequential person is one who likes to exhibit his consequence; a consequential amendment is one that is a natural consequence or corollary of another.

    Half of Mr. Roosevelt's speech deals with this double need of justice and strength, the other half being a skilled application of Washington's maxims to present circumstances.—Times. (skilful)

    Idiom confines skilled, except in poetry, almost entirely to the word labour, and to craftsmen—a skilled mason, for instance.

    It is to the Convention, therefore, that reference must be made for an intelligence of the principles on which the Egyptian Government has acted during the present war.—Times. (understanding)

    No one can say why intelligence should never be followed by an objective genitive, as grammarians call this; but nearly every one knows, apart from the technical term, that it never is. Idiom is an autocrat, with whom it is always well to keep on good terms.

    Easier to reproduce, in its concision, is the description of the day.—H. James. (conciseness)

    Concision is a term in theology, to which it may well be left. In criticism, though its use is increasing, it has still an exotic air.

  7. Simple love of the long word.

    The wide public importance of these proposals (customs regulations) has now been conceived in no desultory manner.—Guernsey Advertiser.

    We have touched shortly upon some four dozen of what we call malaprops. Now possible malaprops, in our extended sense, are to be reckoned not by the dozen, but by the million. Moreover, out of our four dozen, not more than some half a dozen are uses that it is worth any one's while to register individually in his mind for avoidance. The conclusion of which is this: we have made no attempt at cataloguing the mistakes of this sort that must not be committed; every one must construct his own catalogue by care, observation, and the resolve to use no word whose meaning he is not sure of—even though that resolve bring on him the extreme humiliation of now and then opening the dictionary. Our aim has been, not to make a list, but to inculcate a frame of mind.



MOST people of literary taste will say on this point 'It must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh'. They are Liberal-Conservatives, their liberalism being general and theoretic, their conservatism particular and practical. And indeed, if no new words were to appear, it would be a sign that the language was moribund; but it is well that each new word that does appear should be severely scrutinized.

The progress of arts and sciences gives occasion for the large majority of new words; for a new thing we must have a new name; hence, for instance, motor, argon, appendicitis. It is interesting to see that the last word did not exist, or was at least too obscure to be recorded, when the Oxford Dictionary began to come out in 1888; we cannot do without it now. Nor is there in the same volume any sign of argon, which now has three pages of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to itself. The discoverers of it are to be thanked for having also invented for it a name that is short, intelligible to those at least who know Greek, free of barbarism, and above all pronounceable. As to barbarism, it might indeed be desired that the man of science should always call in the man of Greek composition as godfather to his gas or his process; but it is a point of less importance. Every one has been told at school how telegram ought to be telegrapheme; but by this time we have long ceased to mourn for the extra syllable, and begun seriously to consider whether the further shortening into wire has not been resisted as long as honour demands.

Among other arts and sciences, that of lexicography happens to have found convenient a neologism that may here be used to help in the very slight classification required for the new words we are more concerned with—that is, those whose object is literary or general, and not scientific. A 'nonce-word' (and the use might be extended to 'nonce-phrase' and 'nonce-sense'—the latter not necessarily, though it may be sometimes, equivalent to nonsense) is one that is constructed to serve a need of the moment. The writer is not seriously putting forward his word as one that is for the future to have an independent existence; he merely has a fancy to it for this once. The motive may be laziness, avoidance of the obvious, love of precision, or desire for a brevity or pregnancy that the language as at present constituted does not seem to him to admit of. The first two are bad motives, the third a good, and the last a mixed one. But in all cases it may be said that a writer should not indulge in these unless he is quite sure he is a good writer.

The couch-bunk under the window to conceal the summerly recliner.—Meredith.

The adjective is a nonce-sense, summerly elsewhere meaning 'such as one expects in summer'; the noun is a nonce-word.

In Christian art we may clearly trace a parallel regenesis.—Spencer.

Opposition on the part of the loquently weaker of the pair.—Meredith.


The verberant twang of a musical instrument.—Meredith.

A Russian army is a solid machine, as many war-famous generals have found to their cost.—Times.

Such compounds are of course much used; but they are ugly when they are otiose; it might be worth while to talk of a war-famous brewer, or of a peace-famous general, just as we often have occasion to speak of a carpet-knight, but of a carpet-broom only if it is necessary to guard against mistake.

Russia's disposition is aggressive ... Japan may conquer, but she will not aggress.—Times.

Though aggress is in the dictionary, every one will feel that it is rare enough to be practically a neologism, and here a nonce-word. The mere fact that it has never been brought into common use, though so obvious a form, is sufficient condemnation.

She did not answer at once, for, in her rather super-sensitized mood, it seemed to her...—E. F. Benson.

The word is, we imagine, a loan from photography. Expressions so redolent of the laboratory are as well left alone unless the metaphor they suggest is really valuable. Perhaps, if rather and super- were cancelled against each other, sensitive might suffice.

Notoriously and unctuously rectitudinous.—Westminster Gazette.

Some readers will remember the origin of this in Cecil Rhodes's famous remark about the unctuous rectitude of British statesmen, and the curious epidemic of words in -ude that prevailed for some months in the newspapers, especially the Westminster Gazette. Correctitude, a needless variant for correctness, has not perished like the rest.

We only refer to it again because Mr. Balfour clearly thinks it necessary to vindicate his claims to correctitude. This desire for correctitude is amusingly illustrated in the Outlook this week, which...—Westminster Gazette.

All these formations, whether happy or the reverse, may be assumed to be conscious ones: the few that now follow—we shall call them new even if they have a place in dictionaries, since they are certainly not current—are possibly unconscious:

The minutes to dinner-time were numbered, and they briskened their steps back to the house.—E. F. Benson. (quickened)

He was in some amazement at himself ... remindful of the different nature...—Meredith (mindful)

Remindful should surely mean 'which reminds', not 'who remembers'.

Persistent insuccess, however, did not prevent a repetition of the same question.—Times. (failure)

The best safeguard against any deplacement of the centre of gravity in the Dual Monarchy.—Times. (displacement)

Which would condemn the East to a long period of unquiet.—Times. (unrest)

Mere slips, very likely. If it is supposed that therefore they are not worth notice, the answer is that they are indeed quite unimportant in a writer who allows himself only one such slip in fifty or a hundred pages; but one who is unfortunate enough to make a second before the first has faded from the memory becomes at once a suspect. We are uneasily on the watch for his next lapse, wonder whether he is a foreigner or an Englishman not at home in the literary language, and fall into that critical temper which is the last he would choose to be read in.

The next two examples are quite distinct from these—words clearly created, or exhumed, because the writer feels that his style requires galvanizing into energy:

A man of a cold, perseverant character.—Carlyle.

Robbed of the just fruits of her victory by the arbitrary and forceful interference of outside Powers.—Times.

All the specimens yet mentioned have been productions of individual caprice: the writer for some reason or other took a liberty, or made a mistake, with one expression; he might as well, or as ill, have done it with another, enjoying his little effect, or taking his little nap, at this moment or at that. But there are other neologisms of a very different kind, which come into existence as the crystallization of a political tendency or a movement in ideas. Prime Minister, Cabinet, His Majesty's Opposition, have been neologisms of this kind in their day, all standing for particular developments of the party system, and all of them, probably, in more or less general use before they made their way into books. Such words in our day are racial, and intellectuals. The former is an ugly word, the strangeness of which is due to our instinctive feeling that the termination -al has no business at the end of a word that is not obviously Latin. Nevertheless the new importance that has been attached for the last half century to the idea of common descent as opposed to that of mere artificial nationality has made a word necessary. Racial is not the word that might have been ornamental as well as useful; but it is too well established to be now uprooted. Intellectuals is still apologized for in 1905 by The Spectator as 'a convenient neologism'. It is already familiar to all who give any time to observing continental politics, though the Index to the Encyclopaedia (1903) knows it not. A use has not yet been found for the word in home politics, as far as we have observed; but the fact that intellect in any country is recognized as a definite political factor is noteworthy; and we should hail intellectuals as a good omen for the progress of the world.

These, and the scientific, are the sort of neologism that may fairly be welcomed. But there is this distinction. With the strictly scientific words, writers have not the power to decide whether they shall accept them or not; they must be content to take submissively what the men of science choose to give them, they being as much within their rights in naming what they have discovered or invented as an explorer in naming a new mountain, or an American founder a new city. Minneapolis, Pikeville, and Pennsylvania, may have a barbaric sound, but there they are; so telegram, or aesthophysiology. The proud father of the latter (Herbert Spencer) confesses to having docked it of a syllable; and similarly Mr. Lecky writes of 'a eudaemometer measuring with accuracy the degrees of happiness realized by men in different ages'; consequently there will be some who will wish these long words longer, though more who will wish them shorter; but grumble as we may, the patria potestas is indefeasible. On the other hand, with such words as racial, intellectuals, it is open to any writer, if he does not like the word that threatens to occupy an obviously vacant place, to offer a substitute, or at least to avoid giving currency to what he disapproves. It will be remembered that when it was proposed to borrow from France what we now know as the closure, it seemed certain for some time that with the thing we should borrow the name, clôture; a press campaign resulted in closure, for which we may be thankful. The same might have been done for, or rather against, racial, if only some one had thought of it in time.




© Copyright The English Library 2001-2004. All rights reserved.