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.