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You Don't Say John E. McIntyre writes about language, usage, journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects.

Better call Garner

The Baltimore Sun

Anyone who is serious about editing must be aware of Garner’s Modern English Usage.

Bryan A. Garner is an informed presciptivist, no mere braying mossback,* but a student attentive to the currents of the developing language. His book may occasionally betray personal preferences, as indeed do many of our editing choices, but he has researched corpora and arrived at advice that permits his readers to make balanced judgments about usage, particularly of usage in U.S. English.

His fourth edition, is, as the Duke of Gloucester said of a volume of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire “another damn’d, thick, square book.” It runs to more than a thousand pages and costs fifty dollars American. My copy is always within reach on my desk at home, but not at my desk at The Sun or on the Loyola campus.

It has now been made available as an iPhone app, the full text from Oxford University Press, for $24.95. Mr. Garner made a copy available to me for examination, and while I am usually reluctant to endorse products at this site, I have to say that it looks to be very useful for the editor who has to look things up on the fly. The hardcover book is better for browsing, but he has included a set of quizzes in the smartphone app that you may find entertaining and instructive.

There is no sole authority on English grammar and usage whom you may consult without reservation. I always look at Garner, at Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, at Jeremy Butterfield’s fourth edition of Fowler, at the websites and blogs of the lexicographers and editors whom you see cited in these dispatches.

It falls to us as editors to make judgments, and the more widely we read and the more thoroughly we sift what reputable authorities have to say, the better we are able to arrive at sound judgments. Give us the tools, and we’ll do the job.



* One such specimen can be found in the comments on Merriam-Webster’s post on the word unputdownable, current in English longer than I have been alive, which provoked this response from one Justin Vinson: “Now I have to buy a house with a fireplace, buy a copy of your dictionary to burn in said fireplace. Really? Unputdownable? This is why we are fast becoming the dumbest nation on the planet. We allow pseudo-synonymous fictional words into our language with no more attentiveness than throwing out the garbage. Then we allow said words to be used in places of education, I've seen them on essays, where the ability to speak, write, and read is so much of given; we forget there are parts of the world where people cannot. Not only do we allow such nonsense, we reward those who make such arbitrary words and phrases with wealth and fame. Thus devolving our society into babbling sycophants and moronic imbeciles.

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