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A Dictionary of Modern English Usage ()

    There is of course more than one reason for its popularity. But the dominant one is undoubtedly the
    idiosyncrasy of the author, which is revealed to an extent unusual in a 'dictionary'.
        -Sir Ernest Gowers, Preface to the Revised Edition

Here in the States we have our beloved Strunk & White to give us guidance on matters grammatical, and it remains an indispensable reference work, even in its original form.  The British counterpart to Elements of Style is this unique work by H.W. Fowler, minimally revised and edited by Sir Ernest Gowers.  It too remains useful, though many entries have grown dated, but it is so idiosyncratic and amusing that even the most obsolete of Fowler's rulings and admonitions are worth reading if for nothing more than simple amusement.  Here are just a few of the more enjoyable ones that I found :

    continental.  'Your mother,' said Mr. Brownlow to Mr. Monks in Oliver Twist, 'wholly given up to
    continental frivolities, had utterly forgotten the young husband ten years her junior.'  This use of
    continental reflects the common belief in England that the Continent, especially France, offers
    unwonted opportunities for gaiety and self-indulgence.  It persists in such expressions as c. Sunday,
    c. cabaret, now not necessarily in the pejorative sense intended by Mr. Brownlow but suggesting
    either envy or reprobation, or a mixture of both, according to the taste of the user.  Such feelings
    toward what we suppose to be the continental way of life have no doubt changed with the
    mellowing of Victorian prudery, but are unlikely to disappear so long as we are not allowed to
    gamble where we please or to drink whenever we are so disposed.

    paragraph.  The purpose of paragraphing is to give the reader a rest.  The writer is saying to him:
    'Have you got that?  If so, I'll go on to the next point.'  there can be no general rule about the most
    suitable length for a paragraph; a succession of very short ones is as irritating as very long ones are

    reactionary. 'Except for its technical scientific sense, to which it would be a mercy if it were
    confined, reactionary is a word so emotionally charged as to be little more than a term of abuse'
    (Evans).  That is no less true of Britain than of America.  The word derives its pejorative sense
    from the conviction, once firmly held but now badly shaken, that all progress is necessarily good.

    split infinitive.  The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor
    care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know
    and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; (5) those who know and distinguish.

    1. Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by
    most of the minority classes.

As Sir Ernest says in the epigraph to this review, that's not a style we're used to finding in dictionaries.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to the rest of us, there's apparently a battle amongst lexicographers, of some years duration, over whether such usage manuals should be prescriptive or descriptive.  If descriptive, they would merely describe what the masses have adopted as common usage.  If prescriptive, the author tries to offer guidance and to influence future usage.  Fowler seems, to at least this non-professional, to have struck a nice balance between the two.  He certainly has pet peeves (more than a few) and quite forcefully argues for spellings and definitions which he feels ought to be either stuck to or adopted, but he is also sufficiently democratic to recognize that many of these struggles, though he might have favored a different result, had already been decided to his disfavor.
Here is but one example :

    contact.  The use of c. as a verb (get into touch with) gave no little offence when it first appeared
    here from America.  But convenience has prevailed over prejudice, and the dictionaries now give it
    full recognition : after all, it is an ancient and valuable right of the English people to turn their
    nouns into verbs when they are so minded.

Given this realistic attitude, one assumes he would have been able to gracefully handle the fact that many of his suggestions have gone unheeded.

At any rate, from what the reviewers have to say about the most recent version of the Modern English Usage, Fowler's successor, Robert Burchfield, would appear to have produced a work that is not only overly descriptive, but that tends to vacillate over certain usages, as if Burchfield is unwilling to have events prove his judgments wrong in the future.  There is no such waffling in the original, and it is a much better book for the firmness of its author's often hilarious opinions.  This is one of those books that belongs on every desk in the English-speaking world, alongside Strunk & White and the OED, you'll refer to it often, but browse for pleasure even more frequently.


Grade: (A+)


See also:

Reference Books
H. Fowler Links:
    -Fowler, Henry Watson (The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition.  2001)
    -The Lawgiver of English Usage : Henry Watson Fowler (1858-1933) (The Fowler Collection)
    -Hero of the Day : H. W. Fowler (Daily Objectivist)
    -H. W. Fowler (Merriam-Webster's Word for the Wise, March 10, 1998)
    -H.W. Fowler (
    -ETEXT : The King's English by H.W. Fowler (
    -ARCHIVES : "H. W. Fowler" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of The Pocket Fowler (World Wide Words, Michael Quinion)
    -REVIEW : of The Warden of English:  The Life of H W Fowler by Jenny McMorris (Nicholas Bagnall, booksonline)
    -REVIEW : of The Warden of English (Times of London)
    -REVIEW : of  The Warden of English: the Life of H W Fowler by Jenny McMorris (Christopher Howse, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of The Warden of English: the life of H W Fowler by Jenny McMorris (Susan Elkin, Independent uk)

    -PROFILE : DICTIONARY DON :   Dr Robert Burchfield is a world-renowned scholar. Hailed by the Chicago Tribune as "the greatest living lexicographer", he has played a crucial role in the study of the sources and development of the English language. (New Zealand Edge)
    -REVIEW : of Chasing the Sun: Dictionary-makers and the Dictionaries They Made by Jonathon Green (Robert Burchfield, booksonline)
    -ESSAY : Running Afoul of Fowler (PATRICIA T. O'CONNER, February 16, 1997, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : of The New Fowler's Modern English Language by R.W. Burchfield (John Simon, New Criterion)
    -REVIEW : of The New Fowler's Modern English Language by R.W. Burchfield (Jesse Sheidlower, Atlantic Monthly)
    -REVIEW : of The New Fowler's Modern English Usage : Infernal English : It's Not Fowler (Bruce O. Boston, The Editorial Eye)
    -REVIEW : of The New Fowler's (Queensland Bar News)
    -REVIEW : of The New Fowler's (The Economist)
    -REVIEW : of The New Fowler's (James Bowman, National Review)

Book-related and General Links:

    -Easton Language Education
    -The On-line English Grammar Clinic
    -Language Corner (Columbia Journalism Review)
    -Linguistic Society of America
    -The Linguist List
    -The Outlandish English Language Website
    -The Vocabula Review : A society is generally as lax as its language
    -World Wide Words Homepage (Michael Quinion)
    -FAQ : The alt.usage.english FAQ
    -LINKS : English/Grammar
    -LINKS : Excellent English Links
    -LINKS : The Guide - 50+ Writing Resources on the WEB
    -ESSAY : Tense Present : Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage (David Foster Wallace, Harper's, April 2001)
    -ESSAY : The Decline of Grammar (Geoffrey Nunberg, December 1983, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : Modern English Abusage (Jeff Aronson, British Medical Journal)
    -ESSAY : New word order : The English language is evolving faster than ever. How can the
 dictionaries hope to keep up? DJ Taylor on the never-ending struggle to pin down meaning  (July 2, 2001, The Guardian )
    -ESSAY : A War that Never Ends : The laws of grammar may be arbitrary, as  those who would simply dismiss them assert. But arbitrary laws are just the ones that need enforcement (Mark Halpern, March 1997, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ESSAY : Why Linguists are not to be Trusted  on Language Usage  (Mark Halpern, Vocabula Review)
    -ESSAY : What Is 'Correct' Language? (Edward Finegan, USC)
    -ESSAY : The Philosophical Roots of Traditional English Grammar (Robert Einarsson, Grant MacEwan Community College, Edmonton, Alberta)
    -ESSAY : Bishop Lowth Was a Fool : MISTAKES, FALLACIES, AND IRRESPONSIBILITES OF PRESCRIPTIVE GRAMMAR (The Outlandish English Language Website)
    -REVIEW : of The Word on the Street: Fact and Fable About American English, by John McWhorter (Thomas Patton, The Maine Progressive)