A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The classic first edition

by H W Fowler, with a new introduction and notes by David Crystal (Oxford University Press, 2009): 464pp, £14.99 (hbk), ISBN 978 0199535347.

Reviewed by Sue Peter

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The original version of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by Henry Watson Fowler, was first published as a 'style guide for writing clearly and expressively' in 1926 and rapidly became a standard work of reference. It was reprinted many times before the second edition, Fowler's Modern English Usage, lightly revised by Sir Ernest Gowers, was published in 1965. A third edition, largely rewritten by Robert Burchfield, was published as The New Fowler's Modern English Usage in 1996, and a further revised version, also edited by Burchfield, was published in 2004 as Fowler's Modern English Usage.

While Fowler's name remained on the title page, Burchfield's third and revised editions have been described as 'descriptive usage guides to spoken and written English', rather than the prescriptive guide originally produced by Fowler. Their success, however, has endured and I imagine that most SfEP members will have a copy of one or other editions in their libraries.

Entertaining grammar

So what's the point of re-issuing the first edition? This 2009 reprinting contains an introduction and notes by David Crystal and is presumably intended for people who are interested in the way language has developed over the last century and in the role played by Fowler in that development. This probably means that SfEPers may consider buying it.

To be honest, many of us may still have a copy of the original edition (the second didn't appear until 1965), so that David Crystal's readable and illuminating 18-page introduction will be all that we're interested in. But this introduction is more than just a stimulating read! How many introductions go so far as to actually make a book on grammar seem entertaining?

David Crystal not only discusses many aspects of the book's style and content, with a wealth of comments and examples, he also reveals much about Fowler's personal disposition and quirks. By so doing, he encourages the reader to take another look at this classic guide to the English language and see it in a new and more informed light. Worth reading.

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