Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 2d Ed.

Yesterday the Wife and I made the 45-minute drive to the nearest Half Price Books. (We’re the kind of people who think Chick-fil-A-and-a-bookstore makes the perfect date.) I always check the reference and writing books section, and there I found A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H. W. Fowler. It was the second edition revised and edited by Sir Ernest Gowers, published 1965. The particular volume was a 1985 reprint.

Picture of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2d ed.,
A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 2d ed.—A handsome used copy.

Of course I bought it. Fowler’s Modern English Usage made Bryan Garner a snoot. In his recent memoir of his friendship with Justice Scalia, Garner mentions how the two would often consult the first edition of Fowler’s, which had its own pedestal in Scalia’s office. The second edition is also Garner-approved (there have been multiple editions since, not all in the spirit of the original).

Fowler’s took the world by storm. You might think it odd that anything with the word dictionary in the title would do that. But Fowler’s is fascinating. It’s full of Fowler’s own idiosyncrasies, which he revealed to an extent unusual in a dictionary (as Gowers puts it). In other words, it’s not dry. Fowler was a prescriptivist. His purpose was “to tell the people not what they do and how they came to do it, but what they ought to do for the future.” And tell them he did.

An example: in the very first entry describing whether to use or an in front of letters standing for abbreviations, he recommends choosing based on the sound of the letter rather than the word it represents. So an M.P., not a M.P. Then he adds, “but that is the sort of thing about which we ought to be allowed to do as we please, so long as we are consistent.” It’s this kind of commentary that makes Fowler a joy to read.

An entry in Fowler's

There’s also a joy of discovery in reading Fowler. Many of the entries are essays, and these are full of humor and sense. You may look up an entry, see a reference to one of these essays, and start down a rabbit hole. You learn a lot about the English language and good writing along the way.

And good writing is the point of all this. Fowler is for writers who care about the critical reader, who aren’t satisfied with communicating a general sense but want a precise meaning. That should include every lawyer. It certainly includes me.

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