Your favourite usage guide?

“How can our listeners help you?” was a question Tom Holland asked  when he interviewed Ingrid Tieken on the BBC Radio 4 programme Making History (broadcast: Tuesday 18 October 2011).

Listeners of Making History can help us by telling us why they consult usage guides. Is it because you feel insecure about a particular usage? Or because you are interested in usage generally? Do you usually find what you were looking for? Did you find the information helpful? And most of all, we’d be interested in hearing which usage guides you bought and why. Are there any usage problems you did not find in the usage guide you consulted?

And if readers have any copies of a usage guide they don’t use, they could always send them to us!

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11 Responses to Your favourite usage guide?

  1. As a professional translator, I do occasionally consult my Oxford Combined Dictionary (Pocket Oxford + Revised Fowler). I also sometimes check the (nice and short) punctuation guide in my Chambers. When still at school, I was delighted to come across the original King’s English – it was well written and humorous, as well as imparting useful information.
    We are currently seeing iredemably negative developments in English, e.g. the obligatory dangling preposition. I know Jane Austin did it but it is, without doubt, grammatically dubious and often sounds clunky – a short word is shoved to the end of a sentence and given a weight of emphasis that it cannot carry.

  2. Tim Riley says:

    Usage Guides: I use Fowler most often (usually in the Gowers revision because Burchfield’s advice generally seems wrong-headed to me – e.g. on “amok” for “amuck”), and was trained 40 years ago on Ernest Gowers’s Plain Words, which in the Gowers original or in the Fraser revision is a delight to read (but not alas in the most recent revision from which all humour has been sedulously removed.) Other guides I have, but consult less often, are by G H Vallins and Eric Partridge. I read usage guides for the pleasure of comparing the views of experts with my own, and sometimes for guidance when in doubt – most recently on whether and if so when “although” and “though” are interchangeable. Reading older guides such as the Fowlers’ original “The King’s English” is a pleasure for the light it sheds on how usage has changed in 100 years. Surprising to see “placate” condemned as an Americanism, and “penchant” and “Schadenfreude” as pretentious foreign imports. Fun to see the Fowlers ticking off for their poor English the likes of Charlotte Brontë, Carlyle, Conan Doyle, Dickens, Disraeli, George Eliot, Henry James, Kipling, Macaulay, Swift, Thackeray, Trollope, Wells, Wilde and, less surprisingly, W B Yeats.

  3. Fox says:

    While I tend to be rather pedantic about some aspects of usage, I’m much more relaxed about other aspects, so have never used a usage guide nor been tempted to do so, but have enjoyed browsing them occasionally in shops. Normally I find myself agreeing with the rules that I follow – the correct use of the apostrophe, less / fewer, etc. – while finding other ‘rules’ the interesting relics of a past language.

  4. Mark Temple says:

    I was required to purchase and read The Complete Plain Words by Gowers when I joined the Civil Service in 1976. Some of it was quite humorous. I also own a copy of Fowler, but I cannot say I often resort to either.

    I frequently check meanings and spellings in an Oxford Reference Dictionary.

  5. Since I write for American English platforms or publications, I mostly use the New York Times manual of Style and Usage. In general I’ll I try to figure out, or ask which style guide is generally used by a publication. Other than that I compare Webster’s and Chambers dictionaries.

  6. Ian Macavoy says:

    For what it’s worth…

    I regularly use Fowler’s Modern English Usage; that is, the 1983 ‘correction’ of the 2nd edition of 1965. I do not like the 3rd edition of 1998, which seems a completely different animal. I use Fowler for, inter alia, “possessive puzzles”. It is also one that I regularly dip into to remind me that my English can slip into abusage.

    Other books that I regularly refer to are “The complete plain words” by Sir Ernest Gowers, and “Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers”.

    I cannot recommend Truss’s book, which trades on her name for works other than those of grammatical excellence; I found it v. irritating.

  7. Miriam says:

    As a professional translator I use “The Holt Handbook”, the “BBI dictionary of English Word Combinations”, Collins Cobuild’s “English Usage”, and “The Elements of Style” by William Strunk and E.B. White.
    I usually consult the client beforehand, they might prefer another style guide, which of course I will then follow.

  8. Ingrid Tieken says:

    Thank you all for this! This is all very interesting indeed, and helpful for us.

    Miriam, a question for you since you mention Strunk and White. This is a somewhat controversial usage guide, at least according to some linguists (see e.g. what are your experiences with this work?

  9. Ingrid Tieken says:

    One of the listeners to the Making History interview sent us the following response:

    “I’m a retired applied linguist and spent most of my career in TEFL and teacher training. On my shelves, I’ve always had usage books (Fowler, Partridge Usage and Abusage, Gowers Plain Words etc and related works like Hart’s Rules, MLA Handbook etc) but I have used them mainly at a personal level rather than as a tool of trade. I enjoy dipping into them to check some prescriptivist nicety or other and — though I don’t like admitting it — occasionally to say “Just as I thought”.

    My attitude towards prescriptivism is much as Steven Pinker’s (The Language Mavens, Chap 12 in his The Language Instinct) including his asides, e.g. “I confess that this has deterred me from splitting some splitworthy infinitives.”

    By contrast there is one language guide that I have always found a healthy re-read, and which I do recommend to students. It relates to style rather than to usage. The Economist Style Guide (see their website) advocates simplicity and directness — clearly of Orwellian lineage.

    My stance as a teacher has always been to advise my students to write essays/reports with well-structured paragraphs and a cogent line of argument. If you do that, the “correct” choices between lay/lie, due to/owing to, effect/affect etc won’t matter. On the other hand, in exams etc it’s still probably better not to use contractions because the marker might be a prescriptivist.”

    Thank you very much for letting us know!

  10. Joost Muller says:

    Another source would be the EU English Style Guide and Guide for External Translators:

  11. Paul Bennett says:

    Whatever Chomsky, Pinker and some other professional word conjurers might like to see in a perfect world, nearly all everyday writers want to write standard English, obeying simple, clear rules from an authority they can trust. You don’t argue against a law that stops you crossing the road against a red light and you shouldn’t argue against a law that stops you crossing the boundaries of good taste against the red lamp swung by a kindly grammarian in the dense fog of your writing. The first purpose of any usage book is to help writers avoid dense, flabby and inconsistent writing — not to enjoy laying down prescriptive regulations.
    As a copyeditor, I call on usage guides rather like a football team calls on a referee. If I tell a writer they should have said “who” instead of “that”, they will take no notice. If I tell them that Fowler has the same advice, they will listen.
    My favourite English usage book is Fowler’s second edition. It provides the humour and sensible advice of the original with added spice from the good-natured suggestions from Ernest Gowers, a public servant who learned and enjoyed English long before university business schools herded his successors into incomprehensibleness. Burchfield’s third edition has removed some of the colourful earlier bits and, for a reason I cannot define, I find it slightly snooty. My only criticism of Fowler is that I cannot understand parts of it, or become lost in their mazes, and have to give up.
    I love Eric Partridge, another grammarian with a fine sense of humour, as you can see from this entry: “ ‘Utilize’, ‘utilization’ are, 99 times out of 100, much inferior to ‘use’, verb and noun; the one other time, it is merely inferior”.
    For high speed online advice, the Australian Broadcasting Commission provides a reliable alphabetical guide at Although designed for Australian English, most entries apply to all Englishes.

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