Books at My Elbow / by Nathan Jones

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Twenty-five years ago, when I left Zimbabwe to study in Canada, my father gave me copies of Roget's Thesaurus and Fowler's Modern English Usage. He urged me to keep these books "at my elbow" and promised that, if I did, they would forever be good and useful companions on my journey as a writer. He was right. To this day, the two volumes lie within arm's reach of my desk and I find myself perusing them from time to time, even when I don't have anything in particular to look up. A dictionary and thesaurus are integrated directly into the operating system of my computer and my word processor truculently insists on correcting my grammar by placing squiggly green lines under my prose. However, neither of these digital systems, useful as they are, can match the delight I experience from Fowler's, which is wonderfully clever, opinionated, irreverent, and entertaining.

In A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Henry W. Fowler’s general approach encourages a direct, vigorous writing style, and opposes all artificiality, by firmly advising against convoluted sentence construction, the use of foreign words and phrases, and the use of archaisms. He opposed pedantry, and ridiculed artificial grammar rules unwarranted by natural English usage, such as bans on ending a sentence with a preposition; rules on the placement of the word only; and rules distinguishing between which and that. He classified and condemned every cliché.
— Wikipedia entry on Fowler's

Break open Fowler's to any page and you will be treated to entries like this one on the use of the word instance.

The use of this word in lazy periphrasis has gone far, though not so far as that of “case.” There is some danger that, as writers become aware of the suspicions to which they lay themselves open by perpetually using “case,” they may take refuge with use of “instance,” not realizing that most instances in which “case” would have damned them, are cases in which “instance” will damn them. The crossing out of one and putting in of the other will not avail; they must rend their hearts, and not their garments, and learn to write directly instead of in periphrasis.
— Entry on "instance" in Fowler's Modern English Usage, Second Edition

Or this one on the distinction between principle and principal, which I reproduce here in its entirety.

Misprints or even mistakes of one for the other are very frequent, and should be guarded against.
— Entry on "principal, principle" in Fowler's Modern English Usage, Second Edition

I love these books, particularly Fowler's. I hope that you come to love them, too.