Henry Watson Fowler (1858-1933) led a varied life as schoolteacher, commentator on language and freelance writer. He was described as a "stickler for etiquette" (in common parlance we'd say a fusspot) by colleagues who had worked with him as a schoolteacher. This showed itself in his love of language and also what he considered to be correct usage.
In the early part of the 20th century he moved to Guernsey, one of the so-called Channel Islands to join his brother, Francis George. There the two of them, living in two separate granite cottages, worked on individual assignments and also collaborated on other projects, the most famous of which is a work now known as the King's English (1906). This gathers together quotations from established contemporary writers and from the previous century with the purpose of highlighting and commenting on topics such as alliteration, negatives, split infinitives, omission of relatives and so on – all done in a slightly idiosyncratic and amusing way. For a short time (1915-16) during the First World War they joined the armed forces in France. In their own words they didn't really get involved in any military action but were active in "performing only such menial and unmilitary duties such as dishwashing, coal-heaving and porterage". They returned back to the peace and quiet in Guernsey where in 1918 Francis died of tuberculosis. Henry battled on alone producing in 1926 the book, which is still in print and in its third edition: Modern English Usage.
But back to the King's English and my opening question: Whose English is it anyhow? Recently on one of our forums at www.english-test.net the one we've labelled: English Vocabulary, Grammar and Idioms there has been a lot of discussion on the different varieties of English such as: Oxford English, BBC English and The Queen's English. And this where I try to intervene. It's not really a question of which is right and which is wrong or which is correct but simply an acceptance that there are a host of varieties and it's up to you which one you want. Let's take a closer look. Oxford English is really a myth now in the 21st century and harps back to the 1920s and 1930s when most of the undergraduates had all been to one of the major independent schools and all tended to speak with a stiff upper lip. Try it if you like. Keep your upper lip tense, rigid and stiff and say after me: How do you do? See what I mean? BBC English again is a throw back to the very early days of the BBC when you had to be super correct in pronunciation and the news readers had to wear dinner jackets with black tie. This was on the radio, mind you. Well, you never knew who might be dropping into the studio! And then of course there's the Queen's English and this doesn't, I hasten to add mean the way the good lady speaks herself but just a reference to the fact that English is the official language of the UK, which is after all a monarchy. And in the days of course of our friends, Henry and Francis it was called the King's English because George 5th sat on the throne. Come to think of it if you based English on the King's use of it in 1714 when George 1st became King, now that would have been a bit daft because the poor chap only spoke German. Wouldn't it have been great to have had a royal punter on www.english-test.net?
Surprising what you can learn on our forums, isn't it? Let me whet your appetite further and refer you to another long-standing debate and that's the use of the Present Perfect Simple and the Past Simple. There have been a lot of wrangles and examples recently about when you use which. Still with me? I'm sure the Fowler boys would have loved this. Right, let me set the scene: something happens, say two people are working at the same computer (difficult to imagine but use your imagination) and then suddenly the screen goes blank for no apparent reason. Does one of them ask: How did that happen? or How has that happened? Did you understand? or Have you understood? Well, this is a letter not an answer sheet. If you want to know the difference, log on to www.english-test.net. Let me quote from one of our subscribers to the forums who goes by the name of Tamara, who gives at the end of each posting the following mantra, which I hope it's all right if I pinch: it's impossible to learn swimming without entering the water.
Fancy a swim? Go and take the plunge and log on.
Yours, Alan Townend