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The New Fowler's Modern English Usage", which has been published this week by OUP, isn't really Fowler's at all, but Robert Burchfield's. For the first time since Fowler's classic appeared in 1926, OUP have commissioned a complete re-write and who better to do it than Robert Burchfield, whose earlier Supplement to the OED and Dictionary of English Etymology have established him as a worthy guardian of the mother tongue, even if he is a New Zealander.

This new book, however, closely follows several other new guides to good English. We have therefore decided to test drive the new Fowler (FMEU) alongside Chambers Guide to Grammar and Usage (CGGU), Longman's Guide to English Usage (LGEU) and Martin Cutts' The Plain English Guide (TPEG), also from OUP.

The table below gives their rulings on six items of linguistic dispute.


to boldly split 7/= 7/= = 3

final preposition 7/= = 3 3

protagonist = 3 - -

infer=imply 7 7 = -

miniscule (sic) 7 7 = -

ongoing situation 7 = - =

(3 approve, 7 disapprove,

= equivocal, - no opinion stated)

The Plain English Guide is the most liberal, as might be expected in a work designed to help readers write clearly, eschewing obfuscation, pleonasm and catachresis. But it almost encourages us to split infinitives and end sentences with prepositions, simply because it's not wrong to do so. In the new Fowler, Burchfield says: "Avoid splitting infinitives whenever possible, but do not suffer undue remorse if a split infinitive is unavoidable." He also discourages, without condemning, prepositions to end sentences with.

Burchfield/Fowler is understanding of "people who knew nothing of the nature of Greek drama" in his acceptance of the use of "protagonist" to mean "proponent", though he detects a "whiff of pleonasm" in the phrase "chief protagonist". The Longman Guide says that if you use the word to mean the main character in a Greek drama, you'll probably be misunderstood, so you should "have the courage" to use it to mean "supporter". Chambers, meanwhile, are happy for you to have the courage to misspell "minuscule" even though this could lead the language into a crisis situation.

Compared with the liberalism of other grammars, Burchfield's enlightened pedantry is a sheer joy to read and consult. Buy it.

William Hartston