A review of A Dictionary of Modern English Usage

Barton Swaim:

The third edition of the work of the brilliant and cantankerous Englishman H. W. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, published in 1996, signaled the triumph of the descriptivist view of language–the view, that is, that the lexicographer’s duty is merely to describe the language as it’s used, not to make pronouncements about how it ought to be used. It also signaled the triumph of tedium over enjoyment, and of abstract truth over utility. Edited by the late R. W. Burchfield, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, as the third edition was titled, addressed all the significant questions about English grammar and usage and explained with sufficient clarity the ways in which those questions have been addressed in the past.
But it only gave unambiguous counsel if there were some practical reason for it, and then only in the mildest terms: “this use should probably be eschewed.” If you wanted to know whether “their” may refer to singular antecedents, for example (If someone isn’t doing their job, they should be fired), Burchfield told you that “the issue is unresolved, but it begins to look as if the use . . . is now passing unnoticed.” Maybe the issue is “unresolved,” one thought, but could you please resolve it and tell me whether I should write “they” or “he” or “he or she” and so avoid sounding like an ignoramus to an educated audience? For his part, Fowler–the original Fowler–had called this use of the plural pronoun a “mistake.” He acknowledged rare instances of the use in Fielding and Thackeray, but suggested that “few good writers” could get away with it.