Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage

J Butterfield (ed), Oxford University Press, 2015 (4th edn), 928pp, £18.80 (hbk), ISBN 978 0 19966 135 0

Reviewed by Jenny Roberts

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This fourth edition of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage claims to 'reflect how English speakers the world over use the language … in the early twenty-first century'. Jeremy Butterfield has added more than 250 new entries, and updated and modernised the existing entries. This has involved the addition of hundreds of recent examples from a very wide range of sources.

As with previous editions, the dictionary's approach is a blend of the prescriptive and the descriptive, and Butterfield usually gets it about right, though, as he says in his introduction, 'as a language user I have my own preferences, tastes, habits and bugbears', and readers may not always agree with his views. This is acceptable when he is making light-hearted comments on modern usage (such as his delightful rant on the word 'like' used as a filler), but less so when he is taking a prescriptive line. For example, he claims that it is 'standard and recommended to write the Internet, with a capital letter i'), which contradicts all the publishers' style guides that I use [and also Editing Matters style – Ed].

Although this edition is bang up to date, no usage book can keep up with the constant changes in fashion for new words and phrases. In my own work I noticed a year or so back that writers in commercial reports were introducing sentences with 'As such', meaning variously 'therefore', 'because of this' or 'as a result'. More recently, I have found that this has been creeping into academic writing. In these cases, I start to wonder whether I'm fighting a losing battle in correcting it each time, and I was disappointed to find that Butterfield has nothing to say on the matter. Nor does he comment on 'around' as in 'issues around health care' or 'based around'. He does, however, reassure me on the use of 'leverage' as a verb ('one to be used with extreme caution') and 'avail of' ('easily avoidable and frankly marginal').

Butterfield is sound on all the standard issues (who/whom, which/that, may/might), on punctuation (there's a good entry on hyphens), and on gender-neutral language and all matters PC, and his style is readable and engaging. If you haven't got a grammar and usage book or haven't bought one for a couple of decades, this might be a good one to invest in. If, like me, you already have a shelf-ful of grammar/usage books and consult the most up-to-date internet sources for discussions of recent trends in usage, you may find it superfluous for work purposes, though certainly an enjoyable read.

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