Read to discover

Fowler’s English


Today is the birthday of Henry Watson Fowler (March 10, 1858 – December 26, 1933).

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style may be the most popular English writing style guide in America, but when it comes to British English, Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage remains the favourite. Originally published in 1926, it still has legions of admirers.

The following tweet, however, refers to the wrong edition of Modern English Usage.

The third edition, published in 1996, edited by Robert Burchfield, who was chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, proved so unpopular because he virtually rewrote Fowler that the original edition was published again in 2009 with an introduction and notes by David Crystal. That’s the edition currently available as a Kindle book on Amazon. I personally prefer the second edition, edited by Sir Ernest Gowers, and published in 1965.

The original edition is also available on Bartleby.

This is how it begins:

Anyone who wishes to become a good writer should endeavour, before he allows himself to be tempted by the more showy qualities, to be direct, simple, brief, vigorous, and lucid.

This general principle may be translated into practical rules in the domain of vocabulary as follows:—

Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.

Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.

Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.

Prefer the short word to the long.

Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.


American English was a “foreign” language to Fowler. In Modern English Usage, he wrote:

Americanisms are foreign words, and should be so treated. To say this is not to insult the American language. If anyone were asked to give an Americanism without a moment’s delay, he would be more likely than not to mention I guess. Inquiry into it would at once bear out the American contention that what we are often rude enough to call their vulgarisms are in fact good old English… [But] It must be recognized that they and we, in parting some hundreds of years ago, started on slightly divergent roads in language long before we did so in politics. In the details of divergence, they have sometimes had the better of us. Fall is better on the merits than autumn, in every way: it is short, Saxon (like the other three season names), picturesque; it reveals its derivation to every one who uses it, not to the scholar only, like autumn; and we once had as good a right to it as the Americans; but we have chosen to let the right lapse, and to use the word now is no better than larceny…

There is a real danger of our literature’s being americanized, and that not merely in details of vocabulary—which are all that we are here directly concerned with—but in its general tone…

The English and the American language and literature are both good things; but they are better apart than mixed.

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