LINGUIST List 28.2201
Mon May 15 2017
Review: English; General Linguistics; Lexicography: Garner (2016)
Editor for this issue: Clare Harshey <clarelinguistlist.org>
Jessie Sams <samsj
Garner's Modern English Usage E-mail this message to a friend Discuss this message
Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/27/27-1656.html
AUTHOR: Bryan A. Garner
TITLE: Garner's Modern English Usage
PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press
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 c￼￼￼hanges 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
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.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
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