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on 3 March 2017
very good
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Unlike the second edition of this venerable classic, this, the third, is thoroughly revised and brought up to date by R. W. Burchfield whose distinguished credentials include having been the Chief Editor of the Oxford English dictionaries from 1971 to 1984 and an editor of the Cambridge History of the English Language. The problem is that in doing so he has greatly lessened the prescriptive intent of Mr. Fowler and offended many readers.
Let's begin with the Preface in which he has the temerity of damning H.W. Fowler himself with faint praise and something close to dismissal. Burchfield asks: "Why has this schoolmasterly, quixotic, idiosyncratic, and somewhat vulnerable book...retained its hold on the imagination of all but professional linguistic scholars for just on seventy years?" (p. ix) One gets the sense that Burchfield is going to straighten matters out forthwith. He adds, "Fowler's name remains on the title-page, even though his book has been largely rewritten..." In the next sentence he refers to Fowler's book as a "masterpiece," but adds that "it is a fossil all the same" while intimating that its scholarly scope did not extend beyond "the southern counties of England in the first quarter of the twentieth century." (p. xi)
From there we go to the entries themselves and find on page one that the suffix "-a" is now
being printed more and more to present the sound that replaces "of" in rapid (esp. demotic) speech, as in "kinda" (=kind of), loadsa, sorta.
The problem with this is there is no acknowledgment that such usage, especially in written English, is substandard. Even in the entry on "demotic English," Burchfield merely notes that such formulations as "gotta," "shoulda," etc. are becoming more common.
Or consider his entry for "didn't ought" which includes this designation:
A remarkable combination of the marginal modal "ought" and the periphrastic negative auxiliary "didn't."
Huh? Burchfield reveals here that he has lost the thread of Fowler's intent. Instead of writing for a general educated public that would like some guidance in matters of usage, he is instead addressing scholars, linguists and others whose interest in such matters is professional and not practical. He goes on to allow that "didn't ought" is "[a]lmost certainly of dialectal origin" (I give that a "duh, dude") that "has made its way into novels of the 19c and 20c and into informal speech as a typical construction used by rustic or sparsely educated speakers."
Such is his way of "labeling," and it isn't very effective. True, he avoids outright condemnation, but forces the reader to closely examine his prose in order to realize, after some perusal, that if it is "a typical construction" of "rustic or sparsely educated speakers," it is probably substandard and ought to be avoided. Much of the book suffers from such circumlocutious expression and is entirely inimical to the spirit of Fowler who believed in concise, straightforward English.
Okay let's look at that favorite of English usage mavens around the world: "infer" versus "imply." Well, I think I'd have to be a lawyer to be certain that Burchfield got it right (although I don't doubt that he did) since I had to wade through several hundred words of qualification and extraneous example ("imply" used correctly; "infer" used correctly; "infer" illogically used for "imply"...) so that the most important distinction to be made between the words is lost, not to mention that by the time I had finished I felt like I needed to reread the passages and take notes.
What Burchfield is at pains to do is walk a fine line between being what Bryan A. Garner (who wrote the very fine Garner's Modern American Usage (2003) which I highly recommend) calls "describers" and "prescribers." As a compiler and editor of dictionaries, Burchfield leans toward the descriptive mode. He records usage and tries not to pronounce from on high what is or isn't right. The problem with this approach is that in a usage book the entire point is to make distinctions between what is acceptable and what is not, between what is effective and what is not. Burchfield's reluctance to be more prescriptive defeats the intent of a usage dictionary. Note that I am NOT suggesting that Burchfield doesn't know what he is talking about or that he lacks in any way the authority to write a usage dictionary. On the contrary.
Note also that Burchfield (who also wrote The New Zealand Oxford Pocket Dictionary) has not confined himself to BrE but has incorporated AmE and examples of usage from all around the world into Fowler's once more restrictive volume. This is actually to the good in my opinion, but certainly suggests that this book ought to be called something other than "Fowler's..." For this perhaps we can blame the Oxford University Press itself which clearly wanted to take advantage of Fowler's name and reputation. This book might be better appreciated if we were not forced to compare Burchfield with Fowler, which is somewhat like comparing Neil Simon to Ben Johnson.
Bottom line: a little stuffy, a little long-winded, somewhat pretentious, but for the careful reader, as authoritative a book on English usage as one could want.
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VINE VOICEon 7 April 2012
I use this book lots, and always keep it handy when I'm writing. The explanations are long enough to be clear and comprehensive, and there are lots of examples of how words should and should not be used.
Some reviewers have commented that this third edition isn't true to Fowler himself. Well, language changes, and given that Fowler himself died in 1933, of course this third edition differs from the original! Quite right too!
If you want the original, buy the original. If you want advice on how to write today, you've got to buy this.
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on 9 February 1999
Fans of Fowler will be greatly disappointed by this book, which seems to include nothing written by Fowler, but displays his name in large letters on the spine and cover. Burchfield admits in the preface that he does not understand Fowler's appeal, and does not even like his work: "The mystery remains: why has this schoolmasterly, quixotic, idiosyncratic, and somewhat vulnerable book, in a form only lightly revised once, in 1965, by Ernest Gowers, retained its hold on the imagination of all but professional linguistic scholars for just on seventy years?" The answer to this question, I think, can be found in the how Burchfield and Fowler advise the reader on whether to put the period inside or outside of quotation marks. Burchfield begins with a wimpy "each system has its own merit", and proceeds to an absolute rule: Quotation marks "must be placed according to the sense". Even Garner (A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, a far better book for American readers), who has great praise for Fowler, simply sets out conventional American and British usage. Only Fowler provides an analytical structure ("There are two schools of thought, which might be called the conventional and the logical") and then through clear thinking and perceptive example persuades us that "The conventional system flouts common sense, and it is not easy for the plain man to see what merit it is supposed to have to outweigh that defect". Persuasion is the element that Burchfield and other writers lack. Burchfield believes too much in the authority of the little edicts that make up each entry, even when the entry sets out nothing more than arbitrary convention, whereas Fowler believed that some conventions were bad, and he argued his positions with a passion and humanness that are absent from this book. So keep your first or second edition of Fowler. And shame on the publisher, who is misleading the public by calling the book "The New Fowler's Modern English Usage". Even when Burchfield is kind to Fowler -- for example, he refers to Fowler's entry on elegant variation as a "celebrated, leisurely essay" -- he does not include the essay.
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on 26 September 1999
Being British, I never suffered any lack of confidence with using English until I moved abroad. Then suddenley I was buried beneath a landslide of both technical and non-technical questions regarding "correct" English which required more than "intuitive" answers. On holiday back in England, Fowler's was recommended to me, but on first glance it looked stuffy and old so I bought the Penguin "Longman Guide to English Usage". Sadly - the Penguin book turned out to be next to useless, so I bought Fowler's on my next trip home. It is now my best reference source after a comprehensive dictionary. The book is laid out like a dictionary, with words and phrases in alphabetical order. It concentrates on words,phrases,endings, and other grammatical items which are often mis-used or forgotten. The entries try to give an explanation of correct usage, including origins of current use (and abuse). It can be a little difficult to follow sometimes, and it doesn't have EVERYTHING in it, but it's the best book of it's kind I've found so far (and I've looked at many). It's particularly useful on matters of English purism - e.g. traditional English English vs. American English, use of "that" vs. "which", "enquiry" vs. "inquiry" etc. I would certainly recommend it to those who are interested enough to want to understand the finer details of English writing.
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on 9 March 2011
I like this edition. It may have changed from the classic version of Fowler's but it reasonably up to date and strikes a balance between traditional rules and modern practice. I like discussions such as the use of "different from/to/than" - though some of the Dr Johnsons we know might find their noses put out of joint!
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on 12 October 2013
I was introduced to Fowler's when I was in the secondary school and the Latin master was horrified by our poor English. The book was in the library and we all started to use it. I bought my own copy when I went to train to be a teacher and my last edition was taken from my office by someone who obviously wanted to know what was the proper way to say something. It is a good reference book, easy to visit, enjoyable to explore and also tells the reader about what is normal and acceptable in other English speaking countries. It is very reasonably priced and delivery was within two days. I'm glad to have an old friend back. Thank you.
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on 1 November 2009
This is actually a rewrite rather than a revised edition, despite the retention of Fowler's name on the title-page. This is a comprehensive and learned book but its greatest advantage over other books of this type is its tone, in my opinion. Guides to English usage are often militantly opposed to any new developments in the language, and opinionated and judgemental. Burchfield manages to be tolerant and reasonable in his approach; where a usage is disputed he tells us so, and explains why, without hysterics.
I actually bought this book because of the Fowler name on the cover, knowing his guide was well-established and respected. It is somewhat misleading that Fowler's name is retained as this is a completely different book. Burchfield refers to Fowler regularly in the individual entries, though often as not to disagree with him. In retrospect I am glad I got this instead of the original Fowler, as the extracts from Fowler here show him to be much less moderate than Burchfield, quite contemptuous of those who use the language in ways he does not approve of; at times his writing seems to me to have an unpleasantly sarcastic and sneering tone, as in the following (quoted in Burchfield's entry on `didacticism'):
The Anglo-Indian who...discovered that the suttee he read of as a boy is called sati by those who know it best is not content to keep so important a piece of knowledge to himself; he must have the rest of us call it sati, like the Hindoos (ah, no- Hindus) and himself; at any rate, he will give us the chance of mending our ignorant ways by printing nothing but sati and forcing us to guess what word known to us it may stand for.

If nothing else this attitude is very much outdated. Anyway, in conclusion I find this a useful and trustworthy guide to English usage. If you're specifically looking for Fowler, get an earlier edition, as this is Fowler in name only; if you're looking for an up-to-date and reliable guide to English, this is it.

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on 4 March 1999
Ernest Gower, as editor of the second edition of Henry Fowler's "Modern English Usage" ("The New Fowler's Modern English" is being marketed as the third), made modest stylistically and logically consistent changes in order to honestly update the original. "The New Fowler's Modern English" in contrast rewrites it completely and makes a particular point of demonstrating its contempt for Henry Fowler--yet uses Fowler's name as a selling point. Be that as it may, this, "The New Fowler's Modern English", is bloated, tedious, clumsily written, and deadly dull--constantly belaboring the obvious. It's hard to imagine a native speaker of English finding any use for it at all.
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on 4 February 2008
As several other reviewers have pointed out, this book should not have Fowler's name on it. A usage guide is supposed to be moderately prescriptive, as Fowler's book was and Gowers' subtle revision remained. (I don't presume to question Burchfield's credentials as a descriptive linguist, but he was clearly not a suitable choice for this project.)

Buy a secondhand copy of the second edition (revised by Sir Ernest Gowers) instead.
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