LINGUIST List 28.2201

Mon May 15 2017

Review: English; General Linguistics; Lexicography: Garner (2016)

Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <>

Date: 16-Jan-2017
From: Jessie Sams <>
Subject: Garner's Modern English Usage
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Bryan A. Garner
TITLE: Garner's Modern English Usage
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
YEAR: 2016

REVIEWER: Jessie Sams, Stephen F. Austin State University

Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


In the fourth edition of “Garner’s Modern English Usage: The authority on grammar, usage, and style,” Bryan A. Garner identifies the goal for his usage dictionary in the preface: “to help writers and editors solve editorial predicaments” (xiv) through entries that are a combination of “scholarship and criticism” (xvii). In the preface to the fourth edition, Garner indicates that the content has shifted from the first three editions to include a “more global emphasis of ‘English’” (ix)—rather than a focus on American English—with supporting quantitative data from Google’s Ngram Viewer to show “the frequency of one form (the prevalent one) as contrasted with another (a variant)” (ix).

The book opens with nearly 60 pages of introductory material, including two prefaces and two essays, both of which are summarized below. Following the introductory material, the usage dictionary includes roughly 11,000 entries (li); an overview with samples of entries are included in this summary. Finally, reference aids follow the dictionary, including a glossary and index.

The preface to the fourth edition focuses on describing the changes​ ​that​ ​have​ ​been​ ​made​ ​to
the​ ​dictionary,​ ​including​ ​its​ ​inclusion​ ​of​ ​quantitative​ ​data​ ​from​ ​Google’s​ ​Ngram​ ​Viewer;​ ​Garner
argues​ ​for​ ​“the​ ​advantages​ ​of​ ​big​ ​data”​ ​in​ ​lexicography​ ​(x)​ ​and​ ​supports​ ​the​ ​use​ ​of​ ​empirical
data,​ ​writing​ ​that​ ​“these​ ​snapshots​ ​of​ ​the​ ​language,​ ​especially​ ​when​ ​viewed​ ​in​ ​their
relationship​ ​to​ ​usage​ ​over​ ​time,​ ​can​ ​provide​ ​a​ ​sound​ ​basis​ ​for​ ​understanding​ ​linguistic
developments​ ​and​ ​usage​ ​trends”​ ​(ix).​ ​Garner​ ​provides​ ​the​ ​basic​ ​settings​ ​he​ ​used​ ​for​ ​collecting
data​ ​from​ ​the​ ​Ngram​ ​Viewer​ ​so​ ​readers​ ​can​ ​conduct​ ​their​ ​own​ ​searches;​ ​in​ ​fact,​ ​he​ ​invites
readers​ ​to​ ​enjoy​ ​for​ ​themselves​ ​the​ ​“possibilities​ ​[that]​ ​make​ ​it​ ​an​ ​exciting​ ​time​ ​to​ ​be​ ​a
lexicographer”​ ​(xii).

The​ ​preface​ ​to​ ​the​ ​first​ ​edition​ ​is​ ​also​ ​included​ ​in​ ​the​ ​front​ ​matter.​ ​In​ ​this​ ​preface,​ ​Garner​ ​uses
language​ ​that​ ​suggests​ ​he​ ​is​ ​a​ ​soldier​ ​involved​ ​in​ ​a​ ​war​ ​on​ ​the​ ​English​ ​language.​ ​He​ ​writes,
“There​ ​are​ ​good,​ ​clarifying​ ​forces​ ​at​ ​work​ ​on​ ​the​ ​language.​ ​There​ ​are​ ​also​ ​bad,​ ​obscuring
forces​ ​at​ ​work”​ ​(xiii).​ ​He​ ​calls​ ​for​ ​fellow​ ​prescriptivists​ ​to​ ​“avoid​ ​refighting​ ​battles​ ​that​ ​were​ ​long
ago​ ​lost”​ ​(xiv)​ ​and​ ​instead​ ​focus​ ​energy​ ​on​ ​those​ ​battles​ ​that​ ​are​ ​ongoing.​ ​Garner​ ​outlines​ ​his
approach​ ​to​ ​compiling​ ​the​ ​usage​ ​dictionary,​ ​which​ ​he​ ​summarizes​ ​in​ ​a​ ​list​ ​of​ ​ten​ ​principles,
including​ ​realism​ ​(“recommendations​ ​on​ ​usage​ ​must​ ​be​ ​genuinely​ ​plausible”),​ ​conservatism,
and​ ​tightness​ ​(“[o]mitting​ ​needless​ ​words​ ​is​ ​important”)​ ​(xiv).​ ​Included​ ​in​ ​his​ ​list​ ​of​ ​principles
are​ ​five​ ​characteristics​ ​of​ ​an​ ​“undesirable”​ ​word:​ ​“(a)​ ​it​ ​sounds​ ​newfangled;​ ​(b)​ ​it​ ​defies​ ​logic;
(c)​ ​it​ ​threatens​ ​to​ ​displace​ ​an​ ​established​ ​expression​ ​(but​ ​hasn’t​ ​yet​ ​done​ ​so);​ ​(d)​ ​it​ ​originated
in​ ​a​ ​misunderstanding​ ​of​ ​a​ ​word​ ​or​ ​its​ ​etymology;​ ​(e)​ ​it​ ​blurs​ ​a​ ​useful​ ​distinction”​ ​(xiv).​ ​The
tenth​ ​principle​ ​listed​ ​is​ ​“the​ ​actual​ ​usage​ ​of​ ​educated​ ​speakers​ ​and​ ​writers”​ ​(xiv).​ ​Garner​ ​points
out​ ​that​ ​many​ ​linguists​ ​will​ ​disagree​ ​with​ ​his​ ​ten​ ​principles:​ ​“Reasonable​ ​though​ ​these​ ​points
may​ ​seem​ ​to​ ​the​ ​professional​ ​writer​ ​or​ ​editor,​ ​they’re​ ​likely​ ​to​ ​induce​ ​hissy​ ​fits​ ​among​ ​modern
linguists,​ ​for​ ​whom​ ​#10​ ​[actual​ ​usage]​ ​is​ ​the​ ​only​ ​valid​ ​concern​ ​(and​ ​only​ ​after​ ​deleting​ ​the
word​ ​‘educated’)”​ ​(xiv).

The​ ​preface​ ​also​ ​introduces​ ​the​ ​reader​ ​to​ ​debates​ ​surrounding​ ​descriptivism​ ​and
prescriptivism;​ ​Garner’s​ ​writing​ ​makes​ ​his​ ​opinion​ ​on​ ​the​ ​debate​ ​clear:​ ​“Descriptivists​ ​want​ ​to
record​ ​language​ ​as​ ​it’s​ ​actually​ ​used,​ ​and​ ​they​ ​perform​ ​a​ ​useful​ ​function—though​ ​their audience is generally limited to those willing to pore through vast tomes of dry-as-dust research. Prescriptivists—not all of them, perhaps, but enlightened ones—want to figure out the most effective uses of language, both grammatically and rhetorically” (xiv-xv). As a self-proclaimed prescriptivist, Garner writes that he does not “shy away from making judgments” (xvi) about language use. He also bemoans the state of writing in the linguistics discipline: Linguists do not “write well,” and their articles are “dreary gruel. If you doubt this, go pick up any journal of linguistics. Ask yourself whether the articles are well written. If you haven’t looked at one in a while, you’ll be shocked” (xviii).

Following​ ​that​ ​preface,​ ​Garner’s​ ​essay​ ​“Making​ ​Peace​ ​in​ ​the​ ​Language​ ​Wars”​ ​(xxxiii-xlv)​ ​first​ ​introduces​ ​historical​ ​evidence​ ​for the​ ​divide​ ​between​ ​descriptivism​ ​and​ ​prescriptivism​ ​and​ ​then​ ​proposes​ ​a​ ​truce​ ​for​ ​the​ ​two​ ​sides.​ ​In​ ​the​ ​essay,​ ​Garner​ ​identifies himself as a “descriptive prescriber” (xl) because he uses quantitative methods to search actual usage to help make judgments on language. He argues that descriptivists do not view language “as the product of human conduct and human decision, or its use as a skill that can either be left rudimentary or be honed” (xxxv). On the other hand, he suggests that prescriptivists are often too subjective and, at times, ineffective: “Prescribers want to evaluate linguistic change as it occurs. They endorse the changes they consider fortunate and resist the ones they consider unfortunate—often with little success in the long run” (xxxvii). In attempting to reconcile the two sides, he argues that part of the divide is due to a difference in perspective: “The prescriber cares about how language is used here and now. The describer views language more distantly, observing that linguistic change is inevitable” (xxxviii). He argues that “good usage depends on the here and now” (xxxviii) and that poor usage will result in “a loss of credibility” (xliii). The truce he proposes is best summarized with this statement: “Prescribers should be free to advocate a realistic level of linguistic tidiness—without being molested for it—even as the describers are free to describe the mess all around them” (xliv).

The​ ​next​ ​essay,​ ​“The​ ​Ongoing​ ​Tumult​ ​in​ ​English​ ​Usage”​ ​(xlvii-lvi),​ ​opens​ ​with​ ​Garner​ ​titles​ ​“A​ ​Solecistic​ ​Summary”: a​ ​summary​ ​that​ ​“contains​ ​no​ ​fewer​ ​than​ ​63​ ​more​ ​or​ ​less​ ​prevalent​ ​misusages”​ ​(xlviii),​ ​meant​ ​to​ ​humorously​ ​make​ ​a point​ ​about​ ​“poor”​ ​language​ ​use.​ ​He​ ​compares​ ​solecisms​ ​to​ ​“linguistic​ ​infections,”​ ​stating​ ​that​ ​“[t]here​ ​are thousands​ ​of​ ​outbreaks​ ​throughout​ ​the​ ​English-speaking​ ​world​ ​at​ ​any​ ​one​ ​time”​ ​(xlviii),​ ​and​ ​he​ ​laments​ ​that​ ​“some
teachers​ ​now​ ​validate​ ​the​ ​demotic​ ​idea​ ​that​ ​no​ ​native​ ​speaker​ ​of​ ​any​ ​language​ ​can​ ​ever​ ​make​ ​a​ ​‘mistake’”​ ​(xlviii). In​ ​writing​ ​about​ ​how​ ​descriptivists​ ​welcome​ ​language​ ​change,​ ​Garner​ ​further​ ​compares​ ​language​ ​change​ ​to infections​ ​by​ ​writing,​ ​“if​ ​descriptive​ ​linguists​ ​welcome​ ​dialectal​ ​varieties​ ​and​ ​resist​ ​the​ ​teaching​ ​of​ ​a​ ​standard language​ ​because​ ​a​ ​standard​ ​language​ ​makes​ ​their​ ​linguistic​ ​laboratory​ ​less​ ​​interesting​,​ ​they’re​ ​like epidemiologists​ ​who​ ​get​ ​excited​ ​about​ ​the​ ​spread​ ​of​ ​new​ ​viruses”​ ​(xlix).​ ​In​ ​other​ ​words,​ ​while​ ​the​ ​first​ ​essay compares​ ​the​ English​ ​language​ ​to​ ​an​ ​ongoing​ ​war,​ ​this​ ​essay​ ​compares​ ​it​ ​to​ ​a​ ​population​ ​prone​ ​to​ ​infectious

Garner​ ​moves​ ​on​ ​to​ ​explain​ ​the​ ​five​ ​stages​ ​of​ ​language​ ​change,​ ​which​ ​he​ ​uses​ ​throughout​ ​the​ ​dictionary​ ​entries; these​ ​five​ ​stages​ ​are​ ​based​ ​on​ ​Heller​ ​and​ ​Macris​ ​(1967).​ ​A​ ​summary​ ​of​ ​those​ ​five​ ​stages​ ​is​ ​presented​ ​in​ ​the​ ​“Key to​ ​the​ ​Language-Change​ ​Index”​ ​(xxxi):

Stage​ ​1:​ ​Rejected
Stage​ ​2:​ ​Widely​ ​shunned
Stage​ ​3:​ ​Widespread​ ​but…
Stage​ ​4:​ ​Ubiquitous​ ​but…
Stage​ ​5:​ ​Fully​ ​accepted

He​ ​uses​ ​these​ ​five​ ​stages​ ​to​ ​rank​ ​entries​ ​to​ ​“measure​ ​how​ ​widely​ ​accepted​ ​various​ ​linguistic​ ​innovations​ ​have become”​ ​(li).​ ​He​ ​concludes​ ​the​ ​essay​ ​with​ ​two​ ​arguments:​ ​(1)​ ​descriptivists​ ​who​ ​write​ ​in​ ​standard​ ​English​ ​are hypocritical​ ​(liii-lv),​ ​and​ ​(2)​ ​prescriptivists​ ​“continue​ ​to​ ​hold​ ​sway”​ ​(lv).

The​ ​main​ ​content​ ​of​ ​the​ ​book​ ​is,​ ​of​ ​course,​ ​the​ ​usage​ ​dictionary​ ​itself,​ ​which​ ​“contains​ ​two​ ​types​ ​of​ ​entries:​ ​(1) word​ ​entries,​ ​which​ ​discuss​ ​a​ ​particular​ ​word​ ​or​ ​set​ ​of​ ​words;​ ​and​ ​(2)​ ​essay​ ​entries,​ ​which​ ​address​ ​larger​ ​questions of​ ​usage​ ​and​ ​style”​ ​(xxi).​ ​For​ ​example,​ ​some​ ​of​ ​the​ ​essay​ ​entry​ ​topics​ ​are​ ​class​ ​distinctions,​ ​diacritical​ ​marks, gerunds,​ ​numerals,​ ​phrasal​ adjectives,​ ​and​ ​tenses.​ ​Many​ ​of​ ​the​ ​essay​ ​entries​ ​are​ ​broken​ ​down​ ​into​ ​smaller​ ​parts; for​ ​instance,​ ​the​ ​adverbs​ ​essay​ ​entry​ ​is​ ​broken​ ​into​ ​four​ ​parts:​ ​placement​ ​of​ ​adverbs,​ ​awkward​ ​adverbs,​ ​double adverbs,​ ​and​ ​adverbs​ ​versus​ ​adjectives​ ​(xxi).​ ​Throughout​ ​the​ ​dictionary,​ ​essay​ ​entry​ ​headwords​ ​are​ ​written​ ​in​ ​all capital​ ​letters​ ​to​ ​distinguish​ ​them​ ​from​ ​the​ ​word​ ​entries.​ ​Many​ ​entries​ ​reference​ ​other​ ​entries​ ​through​ ​the​ ​use​ ​of​ ​all capital​ ​letters​ ​(to​ ​refer​ ​to​ ​essay​ ​entries)​ ​and​ ​bolded​ ​words​ ​(to​ ​refer​ ​to​ ​word​ ​entries).​ ​Roughly​ ​2,000​ ​word​ ​entries include​ ​Garner’s​ ​ranking​ ​on​ ​the​ ​language-change​ ​index​ ​(li),​ ​and​ ​many​ ​entries​ ​include​ ​ngram​ ​data​ ​from​ ​Google​ ​to compare​ ​usages.​ ​Throughout​ ​the​ ​dictionary,​ ​there​ ​are​ ​roughly​ ​5,600​ ​quotations​ ​that​ ​serve​ ​as​ ​examples​ ​(xv).

For​ ​example,​ ​the​ ​word​ ​entry​ ​for​ ​‘gases’​ ​is​ ​as​ ​follows​ ​(424):

“… “gases,”​ ​not​ ​‘gasses,’​ ​is​ ​the​ ​plural​ ​form​ ​of​ ​the​ ​noun​ ​‘gas.’​ ​Still,​ ​for​ ​the​ ​verb​ ​‘gas,’​ ​‘gassed’​ ​is​ ​the​ ​accepted past​ ​tense​ ​and​ ​‘gasses’​ ​is​ ​the​ ​third-person​ ​singular​ ​in​ ​the​ ​present​ ​tense.​ ​Cf.​ ​“bus.”​ ​See​ ​SPELLING​ ​(B). / Current​ ​ratio​ ​(‘the​ ​gasses’​​ ​​vs.​ ​*’the​ ​gasses’):​ ​42:1”

In​ ​the​ ​example​ ​above,​ ​the​ ​words​ ​in​ ​double​ ​quotation​ ​marks​ ​are​ ​bolded​ ​in​ ​the​ ​original​ ​entry,​ ​and​ ​the​ ​words​ ​in​ ​single quotation​ ​marks​ ​are​ ​italicized.​ ​The​ ​word​ ​‘spelling’​ ​is​ ​in​ ​all​ ​capital​ ​letters​ ​to​ ​indicate​ ​that​ ​an​ ​essay​ ​entry​ ​is​ ​being referenced.​ ​The​ ​current​ ​ratio​ ​provided​ ​is​ ​the​ ​ngram​ ​data.

An​ ​example​ ​of​ ​a​ ​more​ ​controversial​ ​word​ ​entry​ ​is​ ​the​ ​entry​ ​for​ ​‘hopefully’​ ​(471):

“…​ ​though​ ​the​ ​controversy​ ​swirling​ ​around​ ​this​ ​word​ ​has​ ​subsided,​ ​it​ ​is​ ​now​ ​a​ ​SKUNKED​ ​TERM.​ ​Avoid​ ​it​ ​in all​ ​senses​ ​if​ ​you’re​ ​concerned​ ​with​ ​your​ ​credibility:​ ​if​ ​you​ ​use​ ​it​ ​in​ ​the​ ​traditional​ ​way,​ ​many​ ​readers​ ​will​ ​think it​ ​odd;​ ​if​ ​you​ ​use​ ​it​ ​in​ ​the​ ​newish​ ​way,​ ​a​ ​few​ ​readers​ ​will​ ​tacitly​ ​tut-tut​ ​you. / LANGUAGE-CHANGE​ ​INDEX / ‘hopefully’​ ​as​ ​a​ ​sentence​ ​adverb:​ ​Stage​ ​4 /
Current​ ​ratio​ ​(‘I​ ​hope​ ​it​ ​won’t’​ ​vs.​ ​‘Hopefully​ ​it​ ​won’t’):​ ​17:1”

The​ ​phrases​ ​‘skunked​ ​term’​ ​and​ ​‘language-change​ ​index’​ ​refer​ ​to​ ​essay​ ​entries​ ​(and​ ​appear​ ​in​ ​all​ ​capital​ ​letters). The​ ​entry​ ​for​ ​‘hopefully’​ ​includes​ ​both​ ​ngram​ ​data​ ​and​ ​a​ ​ranking​ ​on​ ​the​ ​language-change​ ​index.

Finally,​ ​following​ ​the​ ​dictionary​ ​entries​ ​are​ ​reference​ ​materials:​ ​a​ ​glossary​ ​for​ ​specialized​ ​terms​ ​used​ ​in​ ​entries;​ ​a chronological​ ​list​ ​of​ ​over​ ​500​ ​books​ ​that​ ​deal​ ​exclusively​ ​with​ ​usage,​ ​ranging​ ​from​ ​publication​ ​dates​ ​of​ ​1758​ ​to 2016;​ ​a​ ​selected​ ​bibliography​ ​for​ ​more​ ​resources;​ ​and​ ​an​ ​index​ ​of​ ​writers​ ​who​ ​were​ ​quoted​ ​or​ ​mentioned​ ​in​ ​the dictionary.​ ​Inside​ ​the​ ​front​ ​book​ ​cover​ ​is​ ​a​ ​“Quick​ ​Editorial​ ​Guide”​ ​that​ ​provides​ ​100​ ​frequent​ ​editorial marks/comments,​ ​and​ ​inside​ ​the​ ​back​ ​cover​ ​is​ ​the​ ​pronunciation​ ​guide​ ​used​ ​in​ ​the​ ​dictionary.


Garner’s​ ​goal​ ​and​ ​intended​ ​audience​ ​are​ ​included​ ​in​ ​the​ ​preface:

“The​ ​reality​ ​I​ ​care​ ​about​ ​most​ ​is​ ​that​ ​some​ ​people​ ​still​ ​want​ ​to​ ​use​ ​the​ ​language​ ​well.​ ​They​ ​want​ ​to​ ​write effectively;​ ​they​ ​want​ ​to​ ​speak​ ​effectively.​ ​…​ ​They​ ​want​ ​to​ ​understand​ ​how​ ​to​ ​use​ ​words​ ​well,​ ​how​ ​to manipulate​ ​sentences,​ ​and​ ​how​ ​to​ ​move​ ​about​ ​in​ ​the​ ​language​ ​without​ ​seeming​ ​to​ ​flail.​ ​They​ ​want​ ​good grammar,​ ​but​ ​they​ ​want​ ​more:​ ​they​ ​want​ ​rhetoric​ ​in​ ​the​ ​traditional​ ​sense.​ ​That​ ​is,​ ​they​ ​want​ ​to​ ​use​ ​language deftly​ ​so​ ​that​ ​it’s​ ​fit​ ​for​ ​their​ ​purposes” ​(xiii).

If we consider only​ ​his​ ​goal​ ​and​ ​intended​ ​audience,​ ​his​ ​book​ ​successfully​ ​achieves​ ​what​ ​he​ ​set​ ​out​ ​to​ ​do:​ ​provide​ ​a usage​ ​dictionary​ ​that​ ​includes​ ​both​ ​qualitative​ ​and​ ​quantitative​ ​evidence​ ​for​ ​his​ ​advice.​ ​As​ ​such,​ ​this​ ​book​ ​is​ ​an excellent​ ​resource​ ​for​ ​composition​ ​or​ ​rhetoric​ ​professors/teachers,​ ​advanced​ ​academic​ ​or​ ​formal​ ​writers,​ ​and professional​ ​editors.​ ​Beginning​ ​writing​ ​students​ ​would​ ​likely​ ​be​ ​overwhelmed​ ​with​ ​the​ ​text​ ​(e.g.,​ ​students​ ​in 100-level​ ​college​ ​composition​ ​courses),​ ​but​ ​more​ ​advanced​ ​writing​ ​students​ ​could​ ​benefit​ ​from​ ​having​ ​a​ ​text​ ​like
this​ ​one​ ​as​ ​a​ ​reference​ ​(e.g.,​ ​students​ ​in​ ​300-​ ​or​ ​400-level​ ​writing-intensive​ ​courses​ ​or​ graduate​ ​students).

Linguists​ ​(as​ ​a​ ​general​ ​whole)​ ​are​ ​missing​ ​from​ ​that​ ​list​ ​of​ ​suggested​ ​readers.​ ​Some​ ​linguists​ ​will​ ​find​ ​the​ ​book inflammatory​ ​and​ ​perhaps​ ​overly​ ​judgmental—both​ ​in​ ​the​ ​introductory​ ​material​ ​and​ ​the​ ​entries​ ​themselves.​ ​For example,​ ​the​ ​entry​ ​on​ ​‘irregardless’​ ​reads:

“… a​ ​semiliterate​ ​PORTMANTEAU​ ​WORD​ ​from​ ​‘irrespective’​ ​and​ ​‘regardless,’​ ​should​ ​have​ ​been​ ​stamped​ ​out long​ ​ago…​ ​Perhaps​ ​the​ ​most​ ​surprising​ ​instance​ ​of​ ​this​ ​barbarism​ ​occurs​ ​in​ ​a​ ​linguistics​ ​text,​ ​four​ ​times​ ​on a​ ​single​ ​page…​ ​Although​ ​this​ ​widely​ ​scorned​ ​NONWORD​ ​seems​ ​unlikely​ ​to​ ​spread​ ​much​ ​more​ ​than​ ​it already​ ​has,​ ​careful​ ​users​ ​of​ ​language​ ​must​ ​continually​ ​swat​ ​it​ ​when​ ​they​ ​encounter​ ​it.​” ​(529)

Some​ ​linguists​ ​may​ ​prefer​ ​to​ ​instead​ ​refer​ ​to​ ​usage​ ​notes​ ​in​ ​dictionaries:​ ​as​ ​a​ ​basis​ ​for​ ​comparison,​ ​the​ ​usage​ ​note in​ ​the​ ​third​ ​edition​ ​of​ ​“The​ ​New​ ​Oxford​ ​American​ ​Dictionary”​ ​states,​ ​“‘Irregardless’​ ​is​ ​widely​ ​heard…​ ​but​ ​should​ ​be avoided​ ​by​ ​careful​ ​users​ ​of​ ​English,”​ ​while​ ​the​ ​fifth​ ​edition​ ​of​ ​“The​ ​American​ ​Heritage​ ​Dictionary​ ​of​ ​the​ ​English Language”​ ​writes​ ​that​ ​it​ ​is​ ​“a​ ​word​ ​that​ ​many​ ​people​ ​mistakenly​ ​believe​ ​to​ ​be​ ​correct​ ​in​ ​formal​ ​style,​ ​when​ ​in​ ​fact​ ​it is​ ​used​ ​chiefly​ ​in​ ​nonstandard​ ​speech​ ​or​ ​casual​ ​writing…​ ​it​ ​has​ ​never​ ​been​ ​accepted​ ​in​ ​Standard​ ​English​ ​and​ ​is almost​ ​always​ ​changed​ ​by​ ​copyeditors​ ​to​ ​‘regardless’”​ ​(927).​ ​However,​ ​other​ ​linguists​ ​will​ ​appreciate​ ​the​ ​benefits offered​ ​by​ ​Garner’s​ ​text—especially​ ​those​ ​interested​ ​in​ ​current​ ​state-of-the-art​ ​usage​ ​dictionaries.

The​ ​best​ ​qualities​ ​of​ ​Garner’s​ ​book​ ​are​ ​the​ ​inclusion​ ​of​ ​empirical​ ​data,​ ​including​ ​the​ ​language-change​ ​index rankings​ ​and​ ​Google’s​ ​ngram​ ​data.​ ​Also,​ ​the​ ​extensive​ ​use​ ​of​ ​quotations​ ​throughout​ ​the​ ​entries​ ​is​ ​especially helpful​ ​to​ ​illustrate​ ​his​ ​points.​ ​However,​ ​the​ ​introductory​ ​material​ ​focuses​ ​too​ ​much​ ​on​ ​the descriptivism/prescriptivism​ ​divide,​ ​and​ ​Garner’s​ ​arguments​ ​against​ ​descriptivism,​ ​while​ ​passionate,​ ​include fallacies​ ​(especially​ ​hasty​ ​generalizations)​ ​that​ ​only​ ​distract​ ​from​ ​the​ ​points​ ​he​ ​is​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​make.​ ​In​ ​focusing​ ​on these​ ​arguments,​ ​Garner​ ​misses​ ​the​ ​opportunity​ ​to​ ​provide​ ​more​ ​detailed​ ​information​ ​about​ ​the​ ​entries themselves,​ ​including​ ​how​ ​they​ ​were​ ​selected.​ ​Furthermore,​ ​he​ ​mentions​ ​in​ ​passing​ ​how​ ​he​ ​arrived​ ​at​ ​the language-change​ ​index​ ​rankings,​ ​yet​ ​he​ ​could​ ​have​ ​gone​ ​into​ ​more​ ​detail​ ​on​ ​those​ ​rankings,​ ​especially​ ​for​ ​anyone conducting​ ​their​ ​own​ ​language-change​ ​studies​ ​and​ ​wanting​ ​to​ ​replicate​ ​or​ ​validate​ ​those​ ​findings.

Some entries use language that potentially overstates usages, including the word entry on ‘office’ being used as a verb: “‘office’, vb., has become a commonplace expression in the American business world, but not among fastidious users of language… No one seems to ‘have an office’ anymore; instead, everyone ‘offices’” (648). Taking more time to explain how evidence was collected to deem the verbal ‘office’ as a “commonplace expression” would have been beneficial; while four quotations are provided to show that ‘office’ can indeed be used as a verb, the use of the word ‘commonplace’ might be an overstatement. Readers are left wondering how judgments such as those were made. Finally, more information on the collection of ngram data would be useful, particularly for linguists or others interested in corpora research. Garner writes, “A little ingenuity was required to arrive at many of the ratios displayed throughout the text” (x), supporting that with only one example of inflecting a verb to isolate instances of ‘home in’ versus ‘hone in.’ Some readers will want much more information; perhaps focusing an essay on methodology would have been more beneficial than essays on language wars.

His final statement in the introductory material is indicative of his approach throughout the usage dictionary: “the proliferation of error can definitely be the source of a perverse joy. Let there be no doubt about that. Or about the fact that not everyone is incorrigible” (lv). Based on that sentence alone, readers may be able to decide for themselves if this book will be helpful for their own goals.


American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th edition. 2011. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Heller, Louis G., and James Macris. 1967. English usage and modern linguistic theory. American Speech 42(2): 131-135.

New Oxford American Dictionary, 3rd edition. 2010. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Jessie Sams is an Associate Professor of Linguistics at Stephen F. Austin State University. Her primary research interests include the interface of syntax and semantics, especially the intersection of the two within written English quotatives; English grammar; history of the English language and English etymology; and constructed languages.

Page Updated: 15-May-2017