Reference > H.W. Fowler > The King’s English, 2nd ed.

H.W. Fowler (1858–1933).  The King’s English, 2nd ed.  1908.

Chapter I. Vocabulary


Individual, mutual, unique, aggravating.

TO use individual 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, is 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 in some 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 or person 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 or man or he 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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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 arrived.—Times. (he)

    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 features.—Borrow. (man)

    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)

  3. 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 have.—Carlyle.

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 friends, 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 alone 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 is 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: they no 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 closer together.—Times.

Slightly clumsy; but it means that they would get advantage from each other 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 mutual maids.—Thackeray.


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. (3) If 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 this alternative.

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, but with or upon the work. As commonly would be ambiguous here, equally or alike 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 each other, 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 unique 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, as when the advertisement columns offer us what they call unique opportunities, 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 pleasure.—Hutton.

A very unique child, thought I.—C. Brontë. 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.

To aggravate 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 dirty, 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 is.—Times.

'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.


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