I would not give up my Fowler’s for “The Cambridge Guide to English Usage” by Pam Peters. Using both together, though, is not a bad idea: each makes up for the weaknesses of the other.
In Fowler’s mind is some perfect, timeless British English that he guides the reader towards. His book, “Modern English Usage”, is about what English should be.
Pam Peters, on the other hand, tells you not what should be but what is. And she can: she has hundreds of millions of words of written English (and even some spoken English) on her computer. She can tell you how English is used in Britain, America, Canada and Australia; how it is used in speech and in different sorts of writing. (She is from Australia herself.)
So where Fowler gives opinion and advice, Peters supplies you with the facts.
Peters is also far more current. Fowler’s wrote in 1926. It has been brought up to date, first in 1965 and again in 1996, but by now it is no longer Fowler’s but something else. He is not even listed as an author any more. In time a new Fowler will arise, but not just yet it seems. (I have the one from 1965, which you can still buy from Oxford Press).
Here and there in her book in little boxes, Peters gives advice on how to write International English, an English that would be accepted and understood anywhere in the world. She writes the Guide itself in this International English.
Peters gives you much more of the history behind words than Fowler. This helps you to understand where English has been and where it is going.
But for all that she cannot match Fowler’s wit and writing. When you read Fowler you wish you could write like him and so you take his advice seriously. Peters does not have that advantage.
When Fowler thinks something is bad, he says so. That makes him great to read. Peters, on the other hand, does what liberals in America do: they try hard not to judge others in what they say – that would be “bad” – but they still act like they are better than you.
If you have ever seen “American Idol” on television, Pam Peters is like Paula Abdul to Fowler’s Simon Cowell.
Her worldwide “democracy” of English usage might appeal to Wikipedians, but it is not for all tastes. If English is falling apart, you would never know it from her. That is the danger.
For Peters, there is no right and wrong in English, only fashion.
In the years between Fowler and Peters two things took place that account for most of the difference between the two books:
First came computers which now let us to go through millions of words to see how they are used in practice.
Second was a change in philosophy: dictionaries and books like this no longer tell you how you should write, like a school teacher would, but simply record the language as it is, good and bad. You make up your own mind.
Both changes started in 1961: the Brown Corpus and “Webster’s Third International Dictionary”.