Fowler’s Modern English Usage: new but not New

It was February 1997, and Robert Burchfield’s The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage had been out for three months. Just as the 1st and 2nd editions of the Dictionary of Modern English Usage came to be known as ‘Fowler’, The Economist asked itself whether the next edition would be known as ‘Burchfield’:

The 1926 Fowler is already a period piece, though no one has ever gone wrong by taking its advice. The same, no doubt, will in time be true of “Burchfield” – as, perhaps, by 2097 the publisher of its latest revision will dare to call it.
The Economist 1 February 1997.

It turns out The Economist didn’t have to wait for 100 years to get an answer, and it is ‘No’.

Ed4-HWF-JBYesterday, the 4th edition of ‘Fowler’ was published: Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, edited by Jeremy Butterfield. It seems that Fowler is still THE name when it comes to guides to modern English usage.

Since I have been writing about Burchfield’s 3rd edition, my attention was immediately drawn to the fact that the publisher left the word New off the title of this new, 4th edition.

When it appeared in 1996, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage received a lot of criticism from conservative reviewers, who accused Burchfield of trading Fowler’s name. The editor, Robert Burchfield, possibly put too much emphasis in his Preface on how the 3rd edition was different to the 1st and 2nd.

In his Preface, Butterfield begins by stating that it is indeed a new edition, but doesn’t emphasise that it is different from what came before, stating its mission in positive terms.


This new, fourth edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage has been thoroughly revised and updated to reflect how English speakers the world over use the language now, in the twenty-first century. (vii)

Those that published The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage underestimated how much of an institution ‘Fowler’ had become (see also the article in English Today by Ulrich Busse and Anne Schröder). OUP seems to know better now. Leaving the word New off the title is another way to reaffirm that this edition is just another ‘Fowler’, not New, but just new.

About Robin Straaijer

I am a linguist and EAP trainer, working on English prescriptivism and Standard English. Lover of photography and comedy.
This entry was posted in news, usage guide and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Fowler’s Modern English Usage: new but not New

  1. Steve Marston says:

    Not available in US until June 1.

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