Fowler and Burchfield

Only Oxford University Press knows how many copies of Fowler’s Modern English Usage edited by RW Burchfield has been sold. But one thing it is not — the Fowler.

Jonathan Yardley in his homage to the other classic stylebook, The Elements of Style by Strunk and White, does not even mention it. He mentions only the earlier versions. Writing in the Washington Post, he says about The Elements of Style:

It is scarcely so encyclopedic as H.W. Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926, revised 1965 by Sir Ernest Gowers) but it is distinctly and distinctively American, and its brevity renders it both portable and accessible.

Even if he omitted the Burchfield Fowler by oversight, I think he was right.

The Burchfield Fowler, published in 1996, was both timely and useful, adding new entries on American English and other topics not covered by Fowler and Gowers. But Burchfield, the New Zealand-born chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, rewrote the book so drastically that he took the Fowler out of Fowler. Gone were the humour and idiosyncrasies that made it so special. I still cherish my copy of Fowler, revised by Gowers. Burchfield’s I consult only when I have to.

Indeed, as the New York Times said when he died at the age of 81 in 2004:

Chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionaries from 1971 to 1984, Mr. Burchfield was best known for overseeing the dictionary’s four-volume supplement, an undertaking of nearly 30 years.

He was also known for his unorthodox edition of the grammarian’s bible, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, which provoked heated, hyperarticulate debate when it appeared in 1996.

The New York Times expressed mixed feelings in its review of the book. It said:

Few readers will turn to Mr. Burchfield for pleasure, as many have turned to Fowler, although the third edition has its moments…

Most of all, we miss Fowler’s unashamed love of the language. Mr. Burchfield, for all his vast data base of evidence, doesn’t inspire a passion for beautiful writing. Fowler himself was not a great writer, but he knew great writing when he saw it…

Fowler would have been the first to admit he needed updating, and he would have said so colorfully and at length. Revise him, certainly, but as Gowers said in 1965, ”Rewrite him and he ceases to be Fowler.”

That’s exactly what I wrote. And that was before I had read the New York Times review!

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