A Dictionary of Modern English Usage

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, often referred to as Fowler's Modern English Usage or simply as Fowler's or Fowler, is a style guide to British English usage, written by Henry W. Fowler, and first published in 1926. Modern English Usage covers in detail many issues of usage, pronunciation, and style, from plurals and literary techniques to distinctions between similar words and the usage of foreign terms. The guide set the standard for all usage books to follow, and as such its first edition remains in print even though more recent editions exist.


Fowler's general approach was to encourage a direct and vigorous style of writing in English and to oppose every kind of artificiality. For example, he advised firmly against the unnecessary use of convoluted sentence constructions, foreign words and phrases, and archaicisms. He also opposed every kind of pedantry, and notably ridiculed artificial grammatical rules that had no warrant in natural English usage, such as bans on split infinitives or on ending a sentence with a preposition, rules on the placement of the word "only", and distinctions between "which" and "that". He fiercely condemned every kind of cliché, coining or popularizing such terms as "battered ornament", "Wardour Street", "vogue words" and "worn-out humour" to classify them. At the same time he defended useful distinctions, for example between words whose meanings were tending to coalesce, and guided users away from errors such as misuses of words or illogical sentence constructions. Like most practical guides to style and usage, therefore, his approach to linguistics was a mixture of the prescriptive and the descriptive, so that extremists of either camp tend to place him in the other.


The first edition went through several reprints. A reprint whose copyright page mentions "1954" as the most recent reprint notes that reprints in 1930 and 1937 were "with corrections ..." The second edition, published in 1965, involved a light revision by Sir Ernest Gowers. Gowers updated and contributed to the existing text, while removing articles "no longer relevant to [current] literary fashions." Robert Burchfield edited the third edition. Its preface explains that while "Fowler's name remains on the title-page, ... his book has been largely rewritten." Whereas the first edition was a style guide, i.e. an opinionated view on how to write clearly and expressively, the third edition is a guide to usage, describing how English is spoken and written in practice. This difference in aim perhaps explains why the third edition is so often disliked by admirers of the first.

  • Fowler, Henry Watson (1926). A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. 1st edition, Great Britain: Oxford University Press.
  • Fowler, Henry Watson (1965). Fowler's Modern English Usage. 2nd edition, Great Britain: Oxford University Press.
  • Burchfield, Robert William (1996). The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. 3rd edition, Oxford University Press.


The book is renowned for its witty passages, many of which have been widely cited:

Didacticism : The speaker who has discovered that Juan and Quixote are not pronounced in Spain as he used to pronounce them as a boy is not content to keep so important a piece of information to himself; he must have the rest of us call them Hwan and Keehotay; at any rate he will give us the chance of mending our ignorant ways by doing so. French Words : Display of superior knowledge is as great a vulgarity as display of superior wealth — greater indeed, inasmuch as knowledge should tend more definitely than wealth towards discretion and good manners. Inversion : Writers who observe the poignancy sometimes given by inversion, but fail to observe that 'sometimes' means 'when exclamation is appropriate', adopt inversion as an infallible enlivener; they aim at freshness and attain frigidity. 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; and (5) those who know and distinguish. Terribly : It is strange that a people with such a fondness for understatement as the British should have felt the need to keep changing the adverbs by which they hope to convince listeners of the intensity of their feelings.

  • Dedication (to F. G. Fowler)

The book was researched by Fowler in conjunction with his younger brother, Francis, who died from tubercolis, contracted during service with the BEF, in 1918. The dedication begins:- 'I think of it as it should have been, with its prolixities docked, its dullnesses enlivened, its fads eliminated, its truths multiplied. ...'


See also

Similar works


  • Fowler, Henry; Winchester, Simon (introduction) (2003 reprint). A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Oxford Language Classics Series). Oxford Press. ISBN 0-19-860506-4.
  • Nicholson, Margaret (1957). A Dictionary of American-English Usage Based on Fowler's Modern English Usage. Signet, by arrangement with Oxford University Press.

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