Fowler Is in the House

If you don’t know Fowler, let me introduce you: Henry Watson Fowler published Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 1926, a reference book that I was advised to purchase in grad school. In one of my purge-and-move adventures, I lost my copy and recently decided it was long overdue to return to my personal library. The third edition has been revised by R. W. Burchfield, billed on the cover as “The acknowledged authority on English usage.” Well, shoot, what makes him so special? Eight hundred and sixty four alphabetized pages of advice on how to spell, use, and appreciate a tasty chunk of our English lexicon. Oops, wrong word there; a lexicon is “a unidirectional bilingual dictionary of an ancient language.” See how helpful Fowler is? Don’t you like sounding smart? I do.

I plan to keep Fowler’s, as it’s fans call it, on my desk so that I won’t embarrass myself and confuse my readers. Fowler’s is not, though, the only reference book in my office. I also keep copies of the following:

  • The Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition
  • The Synonym Finder by J. I. Rodale
  • Bill Bryson’s Dictionary for Writers and Editors
  • The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
  • The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know
  • Oh, yes, and William Harmon & C. Hugh Holman’s A Handbook to Literature

Warning, warning, danger, danger–these tomes are not suitable for reading in bed. If you dose off and drop any one of them on your face, you’ll regret it. But let’s agree that none of us knows half enough about our blessed English, the largest language in the world and the most used, having over 350 million native speakers. Before you invest in these books, explore them in your library to decide which ones you want, as new copies are expensive. If, like me, you operate on a slim budget, shop the used books in thrift stores, order used copies from Amazon, ABE or Powell’s. You’ll rejoice when the power goes out and you cannot Google the word you want. I love books.

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