Book Review: “Garner’s Modern American Usage”

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What is the state of writing today? Pick up any newspaper, magazine, or book, or look at a website, an email message, or a tweet, or examine a newsletter, a brochure, or a report. Want a more useful indicator of how particular words are used? Look them up in a new dictionary.

But these strategies will answer what may be the wrong question, because they provide a descriptivist view of the language — one that describes how writers are using the English language. But perhaps the perspective should be prescriptivist — one that prescribes how writers should use the English language.

An excellent prescriptivist resource for the careful writer — one who strives to produce high-quality prose — is Garner’s Modern American Usage. This nearly 1,000-page book by esteemed wordsmith Bryan A. Garner, first published in 2009 and already in its third edition, is the premier guide for what writers should aspire to.

The tome’s girth is imposing, but just like any other encyclopedic reference work, it is easily digestible. (Though word nerds may find themselves gorging on one entry after another instead of actually, you know, writing.) The entries range in length from curt cross-references and concise confirmations (“gimmickry. So spelled—not gimmickery”) to brief elucidations about words, parts of speech, and types of usage errors and (usually) short essays on topics ranging from “Abbreviations” to “Zeugma.”

These latter entries vary from discussion of parts of speech like adjectives and adverbs to entries on cliches, jargon, and other usage issues to matters of style such as italics and chronological dates.

A glossary of language terms almost fifty pages long — also beginning with an entry titled “Abbreviations” and ending with one labeled “Zeugma” — follows, along with a list of usage books going back 250 years and a bibliography of more than a hundred guides to grammar, usage, style, and more. Another feature of the book is the Language-Change Index, a five-stage system of charting the persistence or introduction of nonstandard language. In addition, erroneous usage is prominently signaled by asterisks.

Garner’s style is authoritative but not arrogant (and occasionally dryly humorous), and he backs his prescriptions up with rigorous scholarship, frequently citing published examples of misuse of one word for another — for example, of cue for queue.

Other usage guides may be more friendly and less formidable, but none matches Garner for thoroughness and clarity. If you have only one such resource at hand, make it this one.

You can find the book on Amazon.com

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: “Garner’s Modern American Usage””

  1. Thank you for this review. I’m an old-fashioned Fowler girl, and more recently, I’ve been using Diana Hacker’s splendid style manual (which I love). I’ve known for a long time that I should find something more comprehensive, but I needed a kick in the pants. “Garner’s Modern American Usage” is exactly what I need. Thanks, again.

  2. At the risk of bringing your wrath upon my head, Mark, I am going to use one of the words you recommended to avoid: Absolutely. That is, you are absolutely right. Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage (2003) has been my go-to resource whenever I am in doubt or need guidance on a style or usage issue. Plus, I receive his daily mail of tips based on this book with the updates you mentioned above. I also repeatedly consult his Dictionary of Modern American Legal Usage, which is more specialized – as its name indicates – given that I am a certified translator specializing in the legal field.

  3. The current response to “Thank You” has gotten to be “No Problem”. I exploded in a computer store the other day (no one over the age of 25) with “Dear God, doesn’t anyone say “You’re Welcome” anymore? Especially on television, people on the no-news networks thank each other back and forth till I could scream! And while I’m at it, what’s with the “oh so with it” pronunciation of “homage”, O-maaaaazh’…..it’s pretentious and doesn’t sound right when this country, right or wrong, has been sounding the “h” for my extensive life-time! There….I feel better.

  4. Ps I intend to buy this book and thanks so much. I’ve dog-eared enough copies of AP Style Book, time to invest in a more thorough study. I still love my copy of The Dictionary of American Slang and of course, my much loved Bartlettes Quotations even if I can get everything online.

  5. Re: “No Problem.” Husband and I recently had a discussion on this very topic. Our conclusion: It is an American English corruption of the more formal and gracious Spanish, “de nada” (it was nothing) combined with “no problemo.”

    A native Spanish speaker’s first attempts at English could easily include “no problem,” a simple transliteration, instead of the more complicated “you’re welcome” because to him it’s a polite English way to say de nada.

    “No problem” is easy, comfortable slang. I dislike it too, but I fear it will be with us for a long time.

  6. 1. I will put Garner’s on my wish list. And stronger brackets on the wall, in case someone buys it for me.
    2. My interpretation of the “you’re welcome” versus “no problem” issue: When you do something truly thankworthy, generous, out-of-your-way, extra-mile, over-the-top for someone and are thanked for it (to whatever degree of gushiness), you say “You’re welcome.” When you do something that is part of your job anyway, you’re paid to do it, you HAVE to do it, you do it and roll your eyes or grit your teeth while doing it, and are thanked, you say “No problem.”

  7. Christine:

    I’d better steer clear of you, then, because even though I’m a touch over twice twenty-five, I say and write — in informal email messages only, I assure you — “No problem” all the time. And I often find myself using words I’ve read but haven’t heard pronounced; that’s why I pronounce homage the way you abhor (though, in my defense, I usually mean it in an ironic sense). We all have our peeves and peccadillos alike.

  8. The very suggestion that there should be prescriptive advice concerning the usage of the English language sends shivers down my spine. There are undoubtedly instances … many of them … of poor or nonsensical usage of English. However, we are not dealing with a computer code here.

    Since I am British, I don’t, in general, use American English … but IU am very aware that America still clings, in many cases, to spellings and meanings of English words which we in Britain, for some reason, abandoned years ago. The word ‘gotten’ is a case in point … commonly used in England once, it has been considered alien for more than one hundred years. Yet it is an elegant word, and extremely useful.

    There are terms which make me cringe. The American response to ‘how are you’ these days appears to be the banal, asinine ‘I’m good’. This appalling term has become common here, also. I wish to goodness it hadn’t.

    Spelling changes with time. New words appear in English on a daily basis; they always did. However, to posit that certain phrases, such as the ’11 Forms of Word Patronage’ are not to be used is to strip the English language of some of its beauty and form.

    I shall not be buying any book which is presumptuous enough to tell me that I should not be using certain phrases. To denigrate certain phrases as being Victorian and musty is to make the language all the poorer. Maybe Dickens and Eliot were completely ignorant of the usage of English, writing in their musty Victorian style.

    If people need absolute accuracy and consistency in writing, they should take up computer programming. English ain’t a computer programme, thank God.

    David Neale, in sunny Leicestershire, England.

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