R.W. Burchfield

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Robert William Burchfield (1923–2004) was a New Zealand-born lexicographer and grammarian. He was chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) from 1971 to 1984.[1]

He is credited with modernising the OED and his original remit of producing a single volume of 1,275 pages eventually ran to four volumes with 6,000 pages and took 29 years to complete instead of an initial seven years.[1] Said modernisation included incorporating, not without polemic, taboo words previously excluded from the work.[1] Said delay was almost directly due to the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary in 1961,[2] and which was marketed as "the greatest vocabulary explosion in history", "the first to attempt a policy of honest descriptivism in relation to language", and "included vast numbers of words used on a daily basis in (American) English that had never before been included in respectable dictionaries". Burchfield commented that 'the sheer quantity of words included in [Webster’s Third] made it apparent at once that I had seriously underestimated the task of collecting modern English vocabulary wherever it occurred. The whole editorial process had to be delayed - in the event by several years - until my editorial assistants and outside readers had assembled evidence on this majestic scale".[2]

He also edited, again, somewhat polemically, the third edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, published as The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage.[3] Among his observations there was that "No other grammatical issue has so divided the nation since the split infinitive was declared to be a solecism in the course of the 19th century." In his earlier work, The English Language (OUP, 1985), he had referred to people "suffering from the 'split infinitive' syndrome".[4]

Publications[edit | edit source]

  • The Spoken Word (1981)
  • The English Language (OUP (1985)
  • Unlocking the Language (1989)
  • The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (1998)
  • The New Zealand Pocket Oxford Dictionary

References[edit | edit source]