Having talked about one of Fowler’s ideas that caught on widely across the English-speaking world, here’s another idea he championed that didn’t go anywhere at all.
In Modern English Usage (mine is the revised edition by Gowers; it may be slightly different in the original version), HW writes as follows on the subject of parenthesis symbols in the lengthy section “Stops”:
“1. Parentheses may be indicated in any one of four ways: by square brackets, by round brackets, by dashes, and by commas …
2. After the second bracket or dash any stop that would have been used if the brackets or dashes and their contents had not been there should still be used.”
Well, after brackets, of course. That’s something that, infrequent though it is (and it is fairly infrequent), most people remember to do.* But does he really mean it should be done after dashes as well? He surely does:
“After the second bracket this is sometimes forgotten; after the second dash it is seldom remembered, or rather, perhaps, it is deliberately neglected as fussy. But, if it is fussy to put a stop after a dash, it is messy to pile two jobs at once upon the dash, and those to whom fussiness is repugnant should eschew the double-dash form of parenthesis except where no stop can be needed.”
As ever, there are some worked examples, showing sentences without the required stops and then a note (here in red) indicating where they should go:
“So far as it is true – and how far it is true does not count for much – it is an unexpected bit of truth (read much – , it). | If he abandons a pursuit it is not because he is conscious of having shot his last bolt – that is never shot – it is because … (read never shot – ; it is).”
So, just to reiterate what he’s suggesting: if you insert a parenthetical remark inside dashes at the end of a clause – something like this one –, you have to include at the end both the dash that ends the parenthesis and the punctuation mark that would otherwise have terminated the clause (in this case the comma).
In 18 years of editing, I’ve never seen anyone even try this, let alone defend it when challenged – which they could easily do by pointing to the book and saying “It’s in Fowler”, just as those who observe the which/that distinction can.
You can see why it hasn’t caught on; it does indeed look fussy. And faced with the looming prospect of a missing stop or unwanted elision, there are usually several options for rewording available. Certainly, the second of Fowler’s examples would be much happier broken into two sentences:
“If he abandons a pursuit it is not because he is conscious of having shot his last bolt: that is never shot. It is because …”
On the other hand, you might argue, if we put the stops in after the brackets, why aren’t we doing it for the dashes too?
I don’t know if this practice was more prevalent in the punctuation-heavy Victorian prose with which Fowler grew up. But precisely nobody does it now, which I think says something about how even the most authoritative prescriptivist needs to win hearts, minds and the vote of popular usage before starting to have any influence on the language.
For all the occasional descriptivist anxiety about rules being “imposed” on a language, there’s no Academie Anglaise to mandate any of these ideas. A language writer makes a suggestion, or perhaps even claims a rule, in a book. The idea, perhaps, gets passed on in school as a basic tip for the benefit of non-specialists who will be dropping English as a subject as soon as they can. In desperation, perhaps, faced with a class of inattentive 12-year-olds, the teacher simplifies and toughens the idea into an absolute – “you should never start a sentence with ‘and’!”. Perhaps some of them remember that on the rare occasions that they sit down to write. Perhaps it even enters the collective consciousness about the language.
But that’s all that ever happens. There is no “imposition”. If there were, surely Fowler would have been imposed in toto, and we would all be punctuating our interjections with scrupulous care. But we aren’t – which persuades me to think that prescriptivism’s great popular successes, like which/that, are almost as much of an inexplicable, descriptivist phenomenon as slang and meaning change.
So, who knows? It might be worth experimenting with the idea here on the blog to see if, belatedly, it might catch on. Get ready for a lot of sentences that, though lengthy – and who is to say that length is not a virtue? –, are punctuated beyond all possibility of confusion.
* I’ve remembered to do it in this sentence, for example.