Monday, 23 February 2009

Fowler's MODERN ENGLISH USAGE (Second Edition)

This is the Big One. Desert Island Discs? No doubt whatsoever -- forget the Bible -- take this instead. As far as UK writers should be concerned this is the Bible.

If you did happen to find yourself stranded on a desert island with Fowler's, and read a few pages everyday, by the time neighbouring islanders found you, you'd be so well-versed in the fundamentals of written and spoken English they'd probably offer you a job heading up the Foreign Languages department of their only university.

With a copy of Fowler's, Oxford Shorter or Concise Dictionary and Roget's Thesaurus you're all set - all you've to do is read, understand, practice a bit, re-arrange all the words; and then you'll be a writer.

What makes this book so engaging is that you'll probably develop several quibbles with Fowler and his subsequent editors. It will challenge your thinking and your years of practice.
One quibble I have is Fowler's lack of regard for legitimate, upstanding regional variants (there isn't even a topic Regional Variants); for example retiral, the preferred Scottish form of the English retirement; or the word presently, which has a distinct and different meaning in Scotland. On this point Fowler adds insult by placing such discussion under the heading Needless Variants. But then again, it is titled Modern English Usage.

For all UK based writers in English this is a must-have; stands head and shoulders* (ouch!) above all other guides. I am constantly surprised by the would-be writers I encounter who neither know what a *hackneyed phrase is, nor care to learn the difference between such and a cliché.

Fascinating. Idiosyncratic. Erudite. And, in opposition to much contemporary opinion, not a manual for pedants and Nazi grammarians -- indeed, it is the opposite -- an entertaining, episodic treatise which aims to liberate the English language.

"He has had his reward in his book's finding a place on the desk of all those who regard writing as a craft, and who like what he called 'the comfort that springs from feeling that all is shipshape'." Sir Ernest Gowers in the Preface to the Revised Edition, 1965.

If you write for UK readers and you don't already own a copy -- buy it now and stick it on your desk or as near to as possible. You'll be glad you did, a quick dip into its pages provides much more entertainment than sharpening pencils or re-arranging the desk when living through those procrastination moments.


  1. Hi Haarlson,

    I'm glad to see the advances on your blog, I think that it will be a very interesting one. By the way, I love the 'weird' photographs that you insert in your posts.


  2. Hi Francesc, good to hear from you. Thanks for your encouraging comment.