A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926), by Henry Watson Fowler (1858–1933), is a style guide to British English usage, pronunciation, and writing. Covering topics such as plurals and literary technique, distinctions among like words (homonyms and synonyms), and the use of foreign terms, the dictionary became the standard for other guides to writing in English. Hence, the 1926 first edition remains in print, along with the 1965 second edition, edited by Ernest Gowers, and reprinted in 1983 and 1987. The 1996 third edition, re-titled as The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (revised in 2004) was mostly rewritten by Robert W. Burchfield, as a usage dictionary that incorporated corpus linguistics data; and the 2015 fourth edition, re-titled Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, edited by Jeremy Butterfield, takes the same approach as the third edition (and only revised some entries). Informally, users refer to the dictionary as Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Fowler, and Fowler’s.
In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Henry W. Fowler’s general approach encourages a direct, vigorous writing style, and opposes all artificiality, by firmly advising against convoluted sentence construction, the use of foreign words and phrases, and the use of archaisms. He opposed pedantry, and ridiculed artificial grammar rules unwarranted by natural English usage, such as bans on ending a sentence with a preposition; rules on the placement of the word only; and rules distinguishing between which and that. He classified and condemned every cliché, in the course of which he coined and popularised the terms battered ornament, vogue words, and worn-out humour, while defending useful distinctions between words whose meanings were coalescing in practice, thereby guiding the speaker and the writer away from illogical sentence construction, and the misuse of words. In the entries "Pedantic Humour" and "Polysyllabic Humour" Fowler mocked the use of arcane words (archaisms) and the use of unnecessarily long words.
Widely and often cited, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage is renowned for its witty passages, such as:
- 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. ... Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by the minority classes.
- 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.
Before writing A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Henry Fowler and his younger brother, Francis George Fowler (1871–1918), wrote and revised The King's English (1906), a grammar and usage guide later superseded by this book in the 1930s. Moreover, he researched the Dictionary assisted by Francis, who died in 1918 of tuberculosis, which he contracted in service with the British Expeditionary Force in the First World War (1914–1918). Fowler thus dedicated the Dictionary to his brother, Francis George:
I think of it as it should have been, with its prolixities docked, its dullnesses enlivened, its fads eliminated, its truths multiplied ... having been designed in consultation with him, it is the last fruit of a partnership that began in 1903 with our translation of Lucian.
The first edition of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage was published in 1926 and reprinted with corrections in 1930, 1937, and 1954; and then again in 2009 with an introduction and commentary by the linguist David Crystal. It was then revised and edited by Ernest Gowers to create the second edition, which was published in 1965 as Fowler’s Modern English Usage.
The third edition was edited by Robert Burchfield and published in 1996 under the title The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage . It was subsequently revised by Burchfield and published in 2004 as Fowler’s Modern English Usage. A fourth edition, edited by Jeremy Butterfield, was published by Oxford University Press in 2015.
The Pocket Fowler's Modern English Usage edited by Robert Allen was published by OUP in 1999. It was based mainly on Burchfield's 1996 edition, abridged to 40% by omitting about half the entries and reducing others; there was also some new content. A second edition of Allen's "Pocket Fowler" was published in 2008, which OUP said "harks back to the original 1926 edition".