A Dictionary of Modern English Usage

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A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), by Henry W. Fowler (1858–1933), is a style guide to British English usage, pronunciation, and writing. Ranging from plurals and literary technique to the distinctions among like words (homonyms, synonyms, etc.), to foreign-term use, it became the standard for most style guides that followed — thus, the 1926 first edition remains in print despite the existence of the 1965 second edition, and the 1996 and 2004 printings of the third edition. Moreover, the third edition was mostly rewritten as a usage dictionary incorporating corpus data.[1] To its users, the Dictionary is informally known by the names Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Fowler, and Fowler’s.



Henry W. Fowler’s general approach to English usage was to encourage a direct, vigorous writing style, and to oppose all artificiality — firmly advising against unnecessarily convoluted sentence construction and the use of foreign words and phrases and archaisms. He opposed all pedantry, and notably ridiculed artificial grammar rules not warranted by natural English usage — such as bans on split infinitives and on ending a sentence with a preposition, rules on the placement of the word only, and distinctions between which and that. He also condemned every cliché and, in classifying them, coined and popularised the terms battered ornament, Wardour Street, vogue words, and worn-out humour, whilst simultaneously defending useful distinctions between words whose meanings were coalescing in practice, and guiding the user away from errors of word misuse, and illogical sentence construction. Like most practical guides, its linguistics is a mixture of the prescriptive and the descriptive — thus allowing extremists of either camp to place Fowler in the other.


Before writing this dictionary, Henry Fowler and his younger brother, Francis George Fowler (1871–1918), wrote and revised The King's English (1906), a grammar and usage guide later superseded by A Dictionary of Modern English Usage in the 1930s. Moreover, he researched A Dictionary of Modern English Usage assisted by Francis, who died in 1918 of tuberculosis, contracted whilst serving with the BEF during the First World War. Fowler dedicated the book to his brother, beginning it: "I think of it as it should have been, with its prolixities docked, its dullnesses enlivened, its fads eliminated, its truths multiplied. . . ."

The first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage was much reprinted — thus, a reprint whose copyright page shows 1954 as the most recent reprint year also notes that the 1930 and 1937 reprintings were "with corrections. . . ." The second edition, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, published in 1965, was lightly revised by Sir Ernest Gowers, who updated and contributed to the text, and removed articles deemed "no longer relevant to [current] literary fashions." The third edition of the Dictionary, published as The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage in 1996, and revised as Fowler’s Modern English Usage in 2004, was edited by Robert Burchfield, whose preface says that, while "Fowler’s name remains on the title-page . . . his book has been largely rewritten."

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