Fowler is a joy to read: he writes with wit, common sense and cuts right through to the truth. His book is the best on English usage. It is heartening and surprising to see that English can be written much more simply than is the custom these days.
Note that there are three Fowler’s:
- 1926: the original by Fowler himself. Based largely on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and the newspaper writing of the 1920s.
- 1965: Sir Ernest Gowers makes the original more current by applying Fowler’s work to written English of the 1950s. He also made it easier to look up things. Widely considered the best of the three.
- 1996: Burchfield rewrites Fowler’s – badly, as it turns out, and in a very different spirit. Fowler’s name is still on the cover, but that is the extent of his involvement – other than turning in his grave. Based on written English in Britain and America in the 1980s and 1990s.
When people praise Fowler’s to the skies they are thinking of the first or second one. It is the first Fowler’s that Churchill knew and followed.
If you have outgrown a beginner usage guide, like Strunk & White, then you should get Fowler’s. But get the second one, if you can, not the third one – or get the third one along with the second.
The trouble with the third one is not any fault in Burchfield’s knowledge. Like Fowler he worked on the Oxford dictionaries, so he knows all about English words and how they are used. It is his philosophy.
Since the 1960s English usage has become a science of sorts. So Burchfield, like a good scientist, only observes how English is used, he does not pass judgement. As if he were watching rare birds in the wild. But this undermines the whole purpose of an usage guide: to guide!
It is not just Burchfield, of course. Pam Peters does the same in her “Cambridge Guide to English Usage” (2004).
Although the second Fowler’s is clearly superior to the third, it is now more than a generation old. It is a book my father had! The fashions and vices of English have moved on. It is no longer as useful as it once was or could still be if Gowers or his like were still alive.
Face it: we live in a time of usage unguides. Sadly, the second Fowler’s is the best we have to go by.
Burchfield dismisses the first Fowler’s as “an enduring monument to all that was linguistically acceptable in the standard English of the southern counties of England in the first quarter of the 20th century.” Burchfield is from New Zealand, in case you were wondering.
Even so, if you read and followed the second Fowler’s you would be far better off than otherwise. Unlike Burchfield, Fowler can write – even if he is from those southern counties of England in the first quarter of the 20th century!