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A Dictionary of Modern English Usage  
Author H. W. Fowler
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Oxford University Press
Publication date 1926

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), by Henry W. Fowler, is a style guide to British English usage, pronunciation, and writing. Ranging from plurals and literary technique to the distinctions among like words (homonyms, synonyms, etc.), to foreign-term use, it became the standard for most style guides that followed — thus, the 1926 first edition remains in print despite the existence of the 1965 second edition, and the 1996 and 2004 third edition. The book is also known by the name Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and is often referred to simply as Fowler or Fowler’s. The third edition has been largely rewritten along the lines of a modern usage dictionary, making some use of corpus data.[1]



Henry W. Fowler’s general approach to English usage was to encourage a direct, vigorous writing style, and to oppose all artificiality — firmly advising against unnecessary, convoluted sentence construction, foreign words and phrases, and archaisms. He opposed all pedantry, and notably ridiculed artificial grammatical rules without warrant in natural English usage — such as bans on split infinitives and ending a sentence with a preposition, rules on the placement of the word only, and distinctions between which and that. He also condemned every cliché, and, in classifying them, coined and popularised the terms battered ornament, Wardour Street, vogue words, and worn-out humour, whilst simultaneously defending useful distinctions between words whose meanings were coalescing in practice, and guiding the user away from errors of word misuse, and illogical sentence construction. Like most practical guides, its linguistics is a mixture of the prescriptive and the descriptive — thus allowing extremists of both camps to place Fowler in the other.


Before writing this work, Fowler with his brother had written and revised The King's English.

The first edition of Fowler’s was reprinted several times. A reprint whose copyright page mentions “1954” as the most-recent reprint year, also notes that the 1930 and 1937 reprints were “with corrections. . . .” The second edition, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, published in 1965, was lightly revised by Sir Ernest Gowers, who updated and contributed to the text, and removed articles deemed “no longer relevant to [current] literary fashions.” The third edition, published in 1996, revised in 2004, was edited by Robert Burchfield, whose preface says, while “Fowler’s name remains on the title-page . . . his book has been largely rewritten.” Editorially, the difference between the first and third editions is that the first edition, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) is a prescriptive style guide about how to write clearly and expressively, and the third edition — titled The New Fowler's Modern English Usage (1996) and Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2004) — is a descriptive usage guide about how English is spoken and written in practice. The 2009 edition reprints the "classic" first edition, with a new introduction and notes updating various entries by David Crystal.


A Dictionary of Modern English Usage is renowned for its witty passages;[2] many of which have been widely cited:[3]

The speaker who has discovered that Juan and Quixote are not pronounced in Spain as he used to pronounce them as a boy is not content to keep so important a piece of information to himself; he must have the rest of us call them Hwan and Keehotay; at any rate he will give us the chance of mending our ignorant ways by doing so.
French Words 
Display of superior knowledge is as great a vulgarity as display of superior wealth — greater indeed, inasmuch as knowledge should tend more definitely than wealth towards discretion and good manners.
Writers who observe the poignancy sometimes given by inversion, but fail to observe that 'sometimes' means 'when exclamation is appropriate', adopt inversion as an infallible enlivener; they aim at freshness and attain frigidity.
Split Infinitive 
The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish.
It is strange that a people with such a fondness for understatement as the British should have felt the need to keep changing the adverbs by which they hope to convince listeners of the intensity of their feelings.

Henry Fowler researched A Dictionary of Modern English Usage with the aid of his younger brother Francis, who died in 1918 from tuberculosis contracted during service with the BEF. The dedication begins: “I think of it as it should have been, with its prolixities docked, its dullnesses enlivened, its fads eliminated, its truths multiplied...”


  1. ^ Third edition preface, page xi
  2. ^ Weber, John (1978). Good Reading: A Guide for Serious Readers. R. R. Bowker. p. 225.  
  3. ^ Shapiro, Fred R. (2006). The Yale Book of Quotations. Yale University Press. p. 284. ISBN 0300107986.  

See also

Similar works


  • Fowler, Henry; Winchester, Simon (introduction) (2003 reprint). A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Oxford Language Classics Series). Oxford Press. ISBN 0-19-860506-4.
  • Nicholson, Margaret (1957). A Dictionary of American-English Usage Based on Fowler's Modern English Usage. Signet, by arrangement with Oxford University Press.


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