Reference works (usage)


Dated 23 Nov 2012 | Updated 20 April 2016

WE use a wide range of reference works (including those named on this page) that seem to produce the desired results with the least amount of time, money and effort for the highest level of understandability.

Arranged alphabetically by publication name:—

  • Language usage (general)
  • Language usage (for non-English speakers)
  • Specialist (for copydesk operations)

We welcome suggestions for inclusion.


Language usage (general)

The Complete Plain Words
by Sir Ernest Gowers; revised by Bruce Fraser

(UK: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1973)

A classic — and miles better than Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (a.k.a. “Struck with Fright” or “Drunken Blight” — an abortion in comparison with Gowers.

Let’s clear the air:— Plain Words is NOT a style guide to British English (as Strunk & White is to American English), as many [American] linguanophiles mistakenly believe. Wikipedia is in factual error about this too and just perpetuates the myth.

FACT:— Plain Words is simply a guide to clearer and more fluent writing. No more, no less. Its precepts are valid for any brand of English you’d care to name.

Plain Words started life as a 1948 HMSO pamphlet costing 2/- (two shillings, or 10p in decimal money). The HMSO published it as An ABC of Plain Words (1951) and as The Complete Plain Words (1958, 5th impression with amendments). It remained an HMSO publication until its revision in 1973, when Penguin Books took over publishing it under its Pelican Books imprint.

Gowers’ mission for Plain Words was this:—

“The purpose of this book is to help officials in their use of written English as a tool of their trade.”
(5th impression, 1973, preface, page iii)

Gowers was once head of the UK’s Internal Revenue Board, so we can appreciate why he had wanted British civil servants to express things very clearly when writing to the public on a matter that’s still rather complex for most normal people. It’s also why the book was well-received by many for general writing right from the start.

The book’s linguistics mixes the prescriptive and the descriptive (whereas Strunk & White IS entirely a prescriptive guide and entirely in line with the American inferiority/superiority complex towards languages in general). For that reason alone, that has allowed grammatical extremists (read: 99% of linguistics-trained people plus 100% of grammarfreaks) to shoehorn Gowers in the anti-Strunk & White camp.


All good things get buggered by people who want to ride on the coattails of others. Plain Words suffers from the same fate.

The online edition is available at [LINK].



The Complete Plain Words
by Sir Ernest Gowers; revised by Bruce Fraser

(London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1973)

Fraser’s revisions were far higher in quality than those in any other later editions. Hard to come by even secondhand.


SECOND BEST (1987):—

The Complete Plain Words
by Sir Ernest Gowers

(London: Penguin Books, 1987)
ISBN 978-0-14-051199-4 (paperback)

Price £9.99 and still available direct from Penguin UK [LINK].


THE CURRENT EDITION is a republication (2002):—

The Complete Plain Words
by Sir Ernest Gowers; revised by Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut; introduction by Joseph Epstein

(Boston, Massachusetts: David R. Godine, 1986–2002)
ISBN 1-56792-203-1 (softcover, 320 pages)
Price US$19.95 from Godine [LINK].

The problem with the current edition is that it’s somewhat americanised along the lines of Strunk & White, which is indeed a shame — though the revisers themselves are experts and entirely blameless for the product’s final quality.


A Dictionary of Modern English Usage
by Henry Watson Fowler

(UK: Oxford University Press, 1926–2009)

Also known as Fowler’s Modern English Usage, or just plain Fowler’s.

Like Gowers’ Plain Words, grammar extremists have also slotted this book into the war of words of ‘them’ vs. Strunk & White.

Fowler and Gowers are like brothers-in-arms. Their general approach encourages a direct, vigorous writing style — less artificiality, less convoluted sentence structures, fewer foreign words and phrases, and no arcane words (archaisms).

Both Fowler and Gowers opposed pedantry (‘soloing techniques’ in modernspeak) and ridiculed artificial grammar rules unjustified by natural English usage — Latin or Greek grammar rules shoehorned into an Anglo-Saxon language (e.g. split infinitives, prepositional endings, etc)

In short, Fowlers guides the speaker and writer away from all sorts of faggotry that leads to illogical and/or hypercorrect sentence constructions (and therefore, self-pwnage).

The interesting thing about Fowlers is that it originally started out as a practical prescriptive guide to British English literary technique for clear and expressive writing. It still is.

Sir Ernest Gowers revised the 2nd edition (Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 1965) by updating the text, contributing entries and deleting articles “no longer relevant to [current] literary fashions.” In effect, all editions of Fowler’s from 2nd edition onwards are descriptive-prescriptive usage guides to spoken and written English — entirely in line with the general British attitude to languages.

And solely because it blends the prescriptive with the descriptive, that has opened the floodgates for grammar nuts to put Fowler’s and Plain Words together into the anti-Strunk & White camp. In a sense, that is true — Strunk & White is less about ‘correct’ general English usage and more about politically correct American usage.

The last actual ‘revised’ edition is:—

Fowler’s Modern English Usage, revised 3rd edition
Revised by Robert [William] Burchfield
(UK: Oxford University Press, 2004)
ISBN 978-0-19-861021-2

The current edition (2009) is a reprinting of the 1926 first edition:—

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: The Classic First Edition
By H.W. Fowler; with introduction and notes by David Crystal
(UK: Oxford University Press, 2009)
ISBN 978-0-19-953534-7


Language usage (for foreign speakers)

Practical English Usage
3rd edition (2005)

by Michael Swan

(UK: Oxford University Press, 1980, 1995, 2005)
ISBN 978-0-19-442098-3 (paperback)

ISBN 978-0-19-442099-0 (hardback)
Information: [

This is the only world-class standard reference on English-language usage aimed at foreign learners and non-English speakers who have to speak or write in English. The biggest money’s worth is its focus on words that for some reason are hard to use by non-native speakers.

Swan is a major-league world bestseller. It sold over 2 million copies since its 1980s first edition — 62,500 copies a year, or 171 copies daily.

It is organised in A–Z dictionary format of over 600 problem points in the English language, all with clear, practical explanation. The user level is intermediate to advanced (B1 to C2).

British English is the basic model, but Michael Swan also highlights the stylistic differences between British and American usage — for instance, the americanised use of like as a conjunction (e.g. as in like I do making useful headway into British English).

Our opinion is that even native English speakers should read this book because — heaven knows! — we’ve seen too many native speakers more than enough times bungle their own language.


Specialist (for copydesk operations)

Important note

All of the below are pointless to have unless you’re working in the publishing or printing sectors — such as an author, book or web editor, proofreader, publisher, typesetter, printer, or anyone who works professionally with the written word. Even journalists will have no practical use of the below because they have their own news stylebooks already.

In any case, the books below are actually specific to OUP publication work — in order to preserve OUP brand integrity. So they are not always suitable for publications produced by other publishing companies.

(By the way, an academic doesn’t work professionally with the written word. An academic works professionally in his or her own academic field, with the written word being a byproduct of that work. So there.)


Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers [at the University Press, Oxford]

(UK: Oxford University Press, 1894, 1905–83, last reprinted 2000)
Out of print

Pointless to have this book unless you’re in the publishing or printing business.

Hart’s Rules was a specialised work specifically geared for typesetters and proofreaders employed by the Oxford University Press on how to prepare copy for OUP publication. As such, it’s largely irrelevant even to users in other publishing or printing firms.

It had a complex printing history because of its numerous revisions, reprints and adaptations. It was originally an internal OUP stylebook and was first published for the public as a 2nd edition in 1894. The 39th edition (1983) was reprinted 15 times (the last in 2000) with updates or corrections. The OUP—

(1) in 2002 revised Hart’s Rules (the 2000 reprint) and retitled it The Oxford Style Guide (2002)

(2) — which was merged with The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (the 2000 edition: see next section) to became The Oxford Style Manual (2003)

(3) — which was readapted to become New Hart’s Rules: The Handbook of Style for Writers and Editors (2005)

(4) — which was finally rebadged as the New Oxford Style Manual (2012) (see below) by combining (2) and (3) above with the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors of 2005 (see next section)

—to provide considerably more information about editing style but less about typography — a sure sign of falling quality of editorial work (hence, of the editors themselves) over the years.


The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors
Compiled by The Oxford English Dictionary Department

(UK: Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1981)
ISBN 0-19-212970-9 (hardback, 462 pages)
Out of print

Pointless to have this book unless you’re in the publishing or printing business. It’s a specialised dictionary largely irrelevant for everybody else uninvolved in actual publications work.

ODWE was the old standby for editorial workers for editing and marking up manuscripts. Since it was for editorial specialists (who would already have English at a high level), it contains absolutely no guidelines on writing advice.

The content was specifically geared for frontline subeditors (copyeditors). It gave usage and editing style on common difficulties in spelling, names, abbreviations, punctuation and computer typesetting terms.

ODWE was the successor to 11 editions of the Authors’ and Printers’ Dictionary by F.H. Collins (first published by OUP in 1905). The last edition of ODWE was:—

The New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors:
The Essential A–Z Guide to the Written Word
Compiled by The Oxford English Dictionary Department
(UK: Oxford University Press, 2005)
Information [LINK]

which the OUP marketed it for:—

“people who work with words—authors, copy-editors, proofreaders, students writing essays and dissertations, journalists, people writing reports or other documents, and website editors.”

The current incarnation of ODWE is the New Oxford Style Manual (2012) (see below).


New Oxford Style Manual
2nd edition (2012)

(UK: Oxford University Press, August 2012)
ISBN 978-0-19-965722-3
Hardback, 880 pages, 234mm × 156mm
Price £25 [LINK].

Pointless to have this book unless you’re in the publishing or printing business.

This is the successor to the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (2005) and New Hart’s Rules (2005) in a single volume, providing:—

  • advice on how to prepare copy for publication (which was Hart’s Rules) — guidelines on punctuation, hyphenation, capitalisation, structuring quotations and citations, referencing, UK vs. UK usage, etc
  • A-Z entries (which was ODWE) on troublesome words and names because of spelling, capitalisation, hyphenation, or cultural and historical context, giving recommended spellings, variant forms, confusable words, foreign and specialist terms, plus proofreading marks, countries, currencies and alphabets

Its greatest failing is that the contents made it more valuable to the editorial user than to the typesetter when compared with older editions of Hart’s Rules.

© Learn English or Starve, 23 Nov 2012. Last updated 20 April 2016.

Images: Plain Words (1973) by MHG Books via Amazon | Plain Words (1987) via Penguin Books | Plain Words (2002) via David R. Godine, Publisher | Fowler’s via Wikipedia | New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors via OUP | New Hart’s Rules via OUP | New Oxford Style Manual via OUP | all other images via respective websites or by LEOS.

Released 23 Nov 2012
Updated 24 Nov 2012 (link fixes, new links, amendments)
Updated 08 Feb 2013 (reformatting software section)
Updated 20 Aug 2013 (new entries)
Updated 26 Aug 2013 (formatting corrections)
Updated 20 April 2016 (general amendments and link updates)

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