H.W. Fowler (1858–1933). The
King’s English, 2nd ed. 1908.
Chapter I. Vocabulary
Individual, mutual, unique, aggravating.
wrongly in the twentieth
century stamps a writer, more definitely than almost any other single
solecism, not as being generally ignorant or foolish, but as being
without the literary sense. For the word has been pilloried time after
time; every one who is interested in style at all—which includes every
one who aspires to be readable—must at least be aware that there is
some mystery about the word, even if he has not penetrated it. He has,
therefore, two courses open to him: he may leave the word alone; or he
may find out what it means; if he insists on using it without finding
out, he will commit himself. The adjectival use of it presents no
difficulty; the adjective, as well as the adverb individually,
always used rightly if at all; it is the noun that goes wrong. An individual
is not simply a person; it is a single, separate, or private person, a
person as opposed to a combination of persons; this qualification, this
opposition, must be effectively present to the mind, or the word is not
in place. In the nineteenth, especially the early nineteenth century,
this distinction was neglected; mainly under the impulse of
'polysyllabic humour', the word, which does mean person
sort of way, was seized upon as a facetious substitute for it; not only
that; it spread even to good writers who had no facetious intention; it
became the kind of slang described in the last section, which is highly
popular until it suddenly turns disgusting. In reading many of these
writers we feel that we must make allowances for them on this point;
they only failed to be right when every one else was wrong. But we, if
we do it, sin against the light.
To leave no possible doubt about the distinction, we shall give many
examples, divided into (1) right uses, (2) wrong uses, (3) sentences in
which, though the author has used the word rightly, a perverse reader
might take it wrongly. It will be observed that in (1) to substitute man
would distinctly weaken the sense; in the sentence from
Macaulay it would be practically impossible. The words italicized are
those that prove the contrast with bodies, or organizations, to have
been present to the writer's mind, though it may often happen that he
does not actually show it by specific mention of them. On the other
hand, in (2) person
might always be
substituted without harm to the sense, though sometimes a more exact
word (not individual
might be preferable. In (3) little
difference would be made by the substitution.
- Many of the constituent bodies were under the absolute
control of individuals.—Macaulay.
Regarding the general effect of Lord Kitchener's proclamation,
everything so far as is known here points to the conclusion that the
document has failed to secure the surrender of any body of men.
Merely a few individuals have yielded.—Times.
The wise Commons, considering that they are, if not a French Third
Estate, at least an aggregate of individuals pretending to some
title of that kind, determine...—Carlyle.
- That greenish-coloured individual is an advocate of Arras; his
name is Maximilien Robespierre.—Carlyle. (person)
Surely my fate is somehow strangely interwoven with that of this
mysterious individual.—Scott. (person)
And, as its weight is 15 lb., nobody save an individual in no
condition to distinguish a hawk from a handsaw could possibly
mistake it for a saluting charge.—Times. (person)
The Secretary of State for War was sending the same man down to see
what he could do in the Isle of Wight. The individual duly
My own shabby clothes and deplorable aspect, as compared with this
regal-looking individual.—Corelli. (person)
In the present case, however, the individual who had secured the cab
had a companion.—Beaconsfield. (man)
I give my idea of the method in which Mr. Spencer and a
Metaphysician would discuss the necessity and validity of the
Universal Postulate. We must suppose this imaginary individual to
have so far forgotten himself as to make some positive
statement.—A. J. Balfour. (person)
But what made her marry that individual, who was at least as much
like an oil-barrel as a man?—C. Brontë. (monstrosity)
He was a genteelly dressed individual; rather corpulent, with dark
During his absence two calls were made at the parsonage—one by a
very rough-looking individual who left a suspicious document in the
hands of the servant.—Trollope. (man)
- Almost all the recent Anarchist crimes were perpetrated by isolated
halfwitted individuals who aimed at universal notoriety.—Times.
Which of these two individuals, in plain white cravat, that have
come up to regenerate France, might one guess would become their
king? For a king or leader they, as all bodies of men, must
Some apology is due for so heaping up instances of the same thing; but
here, as with other common blunders to be treated of later, it has
seemed that an effect might be produced by mere iteration.
The word mutual
requires caution. As with individual,
any one who is not prepared to clear his ideas upon its meaning will do
well to avoid it; it is a very telltale word, readily convicting the
unwary, and on the other hand it may quite easily be done without. Every
one knows by now that our mutual friend
is a solecism. Mutual
implies an action or relation between two or more persons or things, A
doing or standing to B as B does or stands to A. Let A and B be the
persons indicated by our,
C the friend.
No such reciprocal
relation is here implied between A and B (who for all we know may be
enemies), but only a separate, though similar relation between each of
them and C. There is no such thing as a mutual friend in the singular;
but the phrase mutual friends
may without nonsense be used to
describe either A and C, B and C, or, if A and B happen to be also
friends, A and B and C. Our mutual friend
is nonsense; mutual
though not nonsense, is bad English, because it is
tautological. It takes two to make a friendship, as to make a quarrel;
and therefore all friends are mutual friends, and friends
means as much as mutual friends. Mutual wellwishers
on the other
hand is good English as well as good sense, because it is possible for
me to be a man's wellwisher though he hates me. Mutual love,
understanding, insurance, benefits, dislike, mutual benefactors,
backbiters, abettors, may all be correct, though they are also sometimes
used incorrectly, like our mutual friend,
where the right word
would be common.
Further, it is to be carefully observed that the word mutual
an equivalent in meaning, and sometimes a convenient one for grammatical
reasons, of the pronoun each other
with various prepositions. To
use it as well as each other
is even more clearly tautological
than the already mentioned mutual friendship.
If this be the case, much of the lost mutual understanding and unity
of feeling may be restored.—Times.
Correct, if mutual
is confined to understanding:
longer understand each other.
Once their differences removed, both felt that in presence of certain
incalculable factors in Europe it would be of mutual advantage to draw
Slightly clumsy; but it means that they would get advantage from each
by drawing together, and may stand.
...conversing with his Andalusian lady-love in rosy whispers about
their mutual passion for Spanish chocolate all the while.—Meredith.
Surely you have heard Mrs. Toddles talking to Mrs. Doddles about their
There may be, moreover, while each has the key of the fellow breast, a
mutually sensitive nerve.—Meredith.
A nerve cannot respond to each other; nerves can; a common nerve
would have done; or mutually sensitive nerves.
It is now definitely announced that King Edward will meet President
Loubet this afternoon near Paris. Our Paris Correspondent says the
meeting will take place by mutual desire.—Times.
Right or wrong according to what is meant by desire.
(1) If it
means that King Edward and M. Loubet desired, that is, had a yearning
for, each other, it is correct; but the writer probably did not intend
so poetic a flight. (2) If it means that they merely desired a meeting,
it is wrong, exactly as our mutual friend
is wrong. The relation
is not one between A and B; it is only that A and B hold separately the
same relation to C, the meeting. It should be common desire.
is here equivalent to request,
and each is
represented as having requested the other to meet him, it is again
correct; but only politeness to the writer would induce any one to take
The carpenter holds the hammer in one hand, the nail in the other, and
they do their work equally well. So it is with every craftsman; the
hands are mutually busy.—Times.
Wrong. The hands are not busy with
or upon each other,
with or upon the work. As commonly
would be ambiguous here, equally
should be used, or simply both. Mutually serviceable,
again, would have been right.
There were other means of communication between Claribel and her new
prophet. Books were mutually lent to each other.—Beaconsfield.
This surprising sentence means that Vanity Fair was lent to Paradise
Lost, and Paradise Lost to Vanity Fair. If we further assume for
politeness' sake that mutually
is not mere tautology with to
the only thing left for it to mean is by each other.
The doubt then remains whether (1) Paradise Lost was lent to Vanity Fair
by Paradise Lost, and Vanity Fair to Paradise Lost by Vanity Fair, or
(2) Paradise Lost was lent to Vanity Fair by Vanity Fair, and Vanity
Fair to Paradise Lost by Paradise Lost. This may be considered captious;
but we still wish the author had said either, They lent each other
books, or, Books were lent by them to each other.
A thing is unique,
or not unique; there
are no degrees of uniqueness; nothing is ever somewhat or rather unique,
though many things are almost or in some respects unique. The word is a
member of a depreciating series. Singular
had once the strong
meaning that unique
has still in accurate but not in other
writers. In consequence of slovenly use, singular
no longer means
singular, but merely remarkable; it is worn out; before long rather
will be familiar; unique,
that is, will be worn out in
turn, and we shall have to resort to unexampled
and keep that
clear of qualifications as long as we can. Happily it is still admitted
that sentences like the three given below are solecisms; they contain a
selfcontradiction. For the other regrettable use of unique,
when the advertisement columns offer us what they call unique
it may generally be assumed with safety that they are
lying; but lying is not in itself a literary offence, so that with these
we have nothing to do.
Thrills which gave him rather a unique
A very unique child, thought I.—C. Brontë.
...is to be translated into Russian by M. Robert Böker, of St.
Petersburg. This is a somewhat unique thing to happen to an
English textbook.—Westminster Gazette.
is not to annoy or enrage (a
person), but to make worse (a condition or trouble). The active
participle should very rarely, and the rest of the active practically
never, be used without an expressed object, and that of the right kind.
In the sentence, An aggravating circumstance was that the snow was
the meaning is not that the dirt was annoying, but that it
added to some other misery previously expressed or implied. But, as the
dirt happens to be annoying also, this use is easily misunderstood, and
is probably the origin of the notorious vulgarism; since it almost
inevitably lays a writer open to suspicion, it is best avoided. Of the
following quotations, the first is quite correct, the other five as
clearly wrong; in the fifth, aggrieved
would be the right word.
A premature initiative would be useless and even dangerous, being
calculated rather to aggravate than to simplify the situation.—Times.
Perhaps the most trying and aggravating period of the whole six months
during which the siege has lasted was this period of enforced idleness
waiting for the day of entry.—Times.
There is a cold formality about the average Englishman; a lack of
effusive disposition to ingratiate himself, and an almost aggravating
indifference to alien customs or conventions.—Times.
Mrs. Craigie may possibly be regarding him with an irony too fine for
us to detect; but to the ordinary mind he appears to be conceived in
the spirit of romance, and a very stupid, tiresome, aggravating man he
'Well, I'm sure I'm very much obliged to you, Misses Brown,' said the
unfortunate youth, greatly aggravated.—Dickens.
Nevertheless, it is an aggravating book, though we are bound to admit
that we have been greatly interested.—Westminster Gazette.