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.
- 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
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.
Wise, firm, faithless; secret, crafty, passionless; watchful and inscrutable;
acute and insensate—withal perfectly decorous—what more could be
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
In the meantime the colossal advertisement in the German Press of German
aims, of German interests, and of German policy incontinently
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.
- Words like the previous set, except that the differentiation may possibly
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.
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.
Our Correspondent adds that he is fully persuaded that Rozhdestvensky has
nothing more to expect from the complacency of the French authorities.—Times.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
- 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?)
- 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
Troops capable of contesting successfully against the forces of other
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
Depreciate, undervalue: deprecate, pray against. A bad but very
'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.
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.
- 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
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
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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.
- 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.
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.
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
Remindful should surely mean 'which reminds', not 'who remembers'.
Persistent insuccess, however, did not prevent a repetition of the same
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
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.