About twenty years ago, finding myself with little gainful employment beyond writing reviews for Books in Canada, I conceived the idea of writing a reference book on usage, a Fowler for our time and place, and supporting the project by writing parts of it as a column in Saturday Night, obtaining a grant from the Canada Council, and persuading a publisher such as the Oxford University Press to pay me an advance. Well, Saturday Night wasn't interested, and the Canada Council officer I spoke to said that I would have to go to the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, and they would require me to employ a squad of graduate students to do research. After that, I didn't bother to approach a publisher.
Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine, working under the auspices of the Strathy Language Unit at Queen's University, have probably done a more thorough job than I would have done. It's well-organized and clear. They put more emphasis on reporting what they believe most anglophone Canadians do than on recommending what usages would make for better style, whereas my emphasis would have been the other way. Having stated my bias, I offer some comments. Since there is to be regular revision, the authors may like to consider some of them.
At first sight, it seems a good idea that they use the Roman alphabet (not phonetic symbols) to indicate pronunciation, with stressed syllables in capitals. But as they use it, it doesn't really work. It's all right when they say, "Charade is usually pronounced sha RAID in North America and sha RAHD in Britain," but compare this with "Canadians and Americans pronounce drama either DRA muh or DRAW muh; the British say DRAW muh." If the authors mean what I mean by AW, I can say confidently that I've never heard anyone pronounce it this way. And when they come to borrowed French words, the system's a disaster: "In French résumé is pronounced ray ZOO may." In the first place, French u is never pronounced OO, and there is no way to represent the actual sound by using English orthography; in the second place, French words haven't got stressed syllables, except for the last syllable in a sentence or group of words. And the authors commit a common error when they say that Métis is pronounced MAY tee; in French, this final s is sounded, and though you often hear Métis people themselves calling themselves "matey" (as many of them are), their name is pronounced may tees, with no stress.
What I mean by saying that I'd like to see more emphasis on usages that are better style is exemplified in the entry on anticipate. Fee and McAlpine say: "In Canadian English the most common meaning of anticipate is expect or look forward to: `We're anticipating a bumper crop this year'. This meaning has been disparaged in usage guides for over a century.. Earlier meanings of anticipate involved not just contemplation of the future but action in relation to it. In other words, if you anticipated a raise, you spent it in advance.. The `new' meaning of anticipate-now over two hundred years old-is established at all levels of Canadian writing. There seems to be no good reason to avoid it." Well, there are two reasons, one good and one very good: it may occasionally be ambiguous; and it's a polysyllabic and therefore relatively pompous-sounding substitute for a two-syllable word that everybody understands.
A usage that's appeared fairly recently isn't noticed by Fee and McAlpine: perception to mean an opinion, usually a mistaken one: "It's a matter of perception, not reality." I find this intolerable: you can't perceive something that isn't there.
Well, you say, language is constantly changing. True; but if we are to preserve our literature for posterity we ought to resist the process where we can. The works of Chaucer must now be read almost as if they are in a foreign language. And passages in Jane Austen can now be seriously misunderstood. To her, for instance, as to Samuel Johnson before her, candid meant almost the opposite of what it means now: "free from malice, not desirous to find faults" is Johnson's definition. The usual meaning of discover in the eighteenth century was "reveal"-a meaning that now survives in the legal term "examination for discovery". And when a character in Trollope's The Way We Live Now says, "This is wonderful news!" she means that it's both surprising and deplorable.
Another recent stylistic blunder that's spreading at an alarming rate is unnoticed by Fee and McAlpine: the superfluous as, in "As glad as I am to be here.". Knock the first as off and you have a perfectly clear expression.
Because they are more interested in individual words than in prose style, they also ignore what Robert Taylor of the Canadian Press stigmatized as "front-end loading". Journalists and copy-editors seem to have paid no attention; a glance at the front page of the Globe and Mail gives me two examples in one short paragraph: "former Ontario lieutenant-governor Hal Jackman" and "visual arts editor Blake Gopnik". One of my maxims is that you should never write something that you would never say in conversation; and nobody ever said, "I was talking to former Ontario lieutenant-governor Hal Jackman the other day."
Under etymology, after distinguishing it from entomology, the authors try to dismiss it as a means of explaining the proper meanings of words: "Now English is spoken and written mostly by people who have never studied the classical languages, and these arguments cannot be expected to prevail over the actual usage of educated people." In fact, they themselves inevitably use these arguments, repeatedly, as they do in explaining why protagonist isn't the opposite of antagonist. And anyway, as all English dictionaries give the derivations of words, a lack of formal training in Greek and Latin is no obstacle to understanding their origins. Journalists and advertisers assume that their publics know exactly what the Greek prefix mega- means. We have megabucks, in Toronto we'll soon have a megacity, and TSN recently promised its audience a mega September.
The authors draw their examples from about seventy books and from specified issues of about fifty magazines, fifteen scholarly journals, and twenty newspapers. This magazine is not listed, which means that they missed the column on usage that Bob Blackburn contributed for eight years. However, they do list his 1993 book Words Fail Us in their bibliography.
In this review I've broken my own rule for reviewing: I've been addressing the authors rather than readers. Because my comments have been mostly negative, I must add (now addressing readers) that this is a good book, well worth having.
I. M. Owen is a Toronto writer and editor.