Fowler was idiosyncratic, usually in a favorable sense. Modern English Usage contains long essays with charming but often opaque titles such as "Battered Ornaments," "Elegant Variation," "False Scent," "Legerdemain With Two Senses," "Love of the Long Word," "Out of the Frying-Pan," "Presumptuous Word-Formation," "Sturdy Indefensibles," "Swapping Horses," and "Unequal Yokefellows." These essays are enjoyable to read, and give rise to the affection that many people, even descriptive linguists, have for Fowler.
has been revised once before, by Sir Ernest Gowers, a longtime civil servant. Gowers was best known for The Complete Plain Words (1954), a combined version of two earlier books he had written, at the request of the Treasury Department, to help combat the ponderous jargon of officialese. The Complete Plain Words has itself become a classic, with its insistence on clear and direct prose and its own vigorous writing propelling the book through three editions; it remains in print.
Gowers revised Fowler's Modern English Usage in 1965, when he was eighty-five years old. This second "edition" was not an entirely new production but a revision that maintained the attitudes and style Fowler had developed. Gowers did minor editorial work, trimming many illustrative quotations and revising, updating, and consolidating entries. He deleted a number of Fowler's short entries but kept most of the long essays. He also added a few long articles of his own, on such topics as "headline language" and "sociologese," and a larger number of short entries. But Gowers's hand was light, and he let Fowler's advice stand without comment even when he disagreed with it.
It has been clear for some time that Modern English Usage is in serious need of revision; the current standard usage of educated people has moved beyond many of Fowler's pronouncements. In addition, the book deliberately paid only slight attention to Americanisms. William Safire has remarked that "Fowler wrote the Bible on usage, but Modern English Usage needs revision every generation to stay modern." Robert Burchfield is by far the most qualified person for this important job; he has researched and written about usage, and Fowler in particular, for many years. His revision has been eagerly anticipated, its schedule a source of discussion from scholarly conferences to the Internet.
Unlike Gowers, Burchfield has produced a totally new edition. He has rewritten every entry in the book, in his own voice, referring to himself as "I" or "me." He frequently gives advice based on his personal usage or feeling, rather than appealing to some larger sense of correctness, and Fowler's original proclamations are always quoted explicitly.
The changes are vast. The book has been modernized in convenient external ways -- the pronunciations have all been converted to the International Phonetic Alphabet; the major entries now have clearer indexes of subentries -- but the important difference is, of course, in the treatment of the words. The new style is apparent from the very first entry, for the negative prefix a-. This prefix is of Greek origin, and its application to terms of non-Greek origin was once considered a fault. Of amoral (moral is a Latin derivative) Fowler, typically, wrote, "amoral. . . . is inexcusable, & non-moral should be used instead." Gowers revised this assessment, writing, "Amoral is a novelty whose progress has been rapid. In 1888 the OED called it a nonce-word, but in 1933 full recognition had to be conceded"; he went on to warn, though, that this "should not be treated as [a precedent] for future word-making." Burchfield, while warning that a- "is far from being a free-forming prefix," makes no negative comment about the practice or the word amoral.