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Let the trumpet sound: A new edition of Garner on Usage is published

Another damned, thick, square book. Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Garner?

You may recognize the remark attributed to the Duke of Gloucester upon being presented with the second volume of Gibbons's Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire in 1781.*

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It may not carry the weight of Gibbon, but a new edition of Garner on Usage is an Event. And here it is, the fourth edition, now titled Garner's Modern English Usage (Oxford University Press, 1056 pages, $50). It is 114 pages longer than Garner 3, and it weighs four pounds, twelve ounces.

Since the publication of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage in 1998, Bryan Garner has been an indispensable authority for U.S. editors, an authority that derives from his informed prescriptivism. He is no Shouting Lynne Truss or Mossback Nevile Gwynn. The SUPERSTITIONS entry (terminal prepositions, conjunctions at the start of sentences, &c.) from the first edition is intact in the fourth, along with his cavalier but apt dismissal of the journalistic dog-whistle over/more than distinction as a "baseless crotchet."

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The preface to the new edition stresses his empirical approach to the language, through making extensive use of the Google Ngram Viewer. He writes: "To arrive at accurate numbers, I used Google ngrams with contextualized searches within the 2012 Google corpus. The power of these ngrams would have astonished earlier lexicographers—just as it astonished me at first. They take much of the guesswork out of linguistic assessments of Standard Written English. Their reliability was confirmed to me time and again when I compared the results against other major corpora. We can now determine that the phrasal verb to home in on arose in English print about 1932. (The original metaphor related to homing pigeons.) We're also able to know that the variant form to hone in on emerged about seven years later and has never been as frequent a choice in published books. It now trails by a nearly 1.7 to 1 ratio." (There's more.)

Here is the meat of the matter: "One of the virtues of a reliable usage guide is to settle debates between language aficionados, or between editor and author. The empirical evidence marshaled here reduces the degree of opinion involved in such matters."

In addition to the evidence marshaled in the entries, the book has the extremely useful language-change index introduced in later editions for disputed usages: "Stage 1: Rejected; Stage 2: Widely shunned; Stage 3: Widespread but …; Stage 4: Ubiquitous but …; Stage 5; Fully accepted." They encourage you to make judgments appropriate to register. If you adopt a Stage 4 usage, you will get up the noses of some sticklers, but you will not scare the horses.

And you will have to make your own judgments. No authority, however well informed, is infallible, and no usage entry can cover all possible instances. You will want to attend to Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, to the Usage Panel's advice in the American Heritage Dictionary, to the lexicographers and linguists whose posts cited in this blog can go into individual cases in greater complexity than an entry in a usage manual can manage. Thus you can get your bearings.

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And you will have to understand the limitations of a manual such as this. I came across some remarks online by a gentleman who disparages Mr. Garner's work for not teaching good writing. This struck me as an attitude as loony as deploring that dictionaries do not bar the door to words one does not like. Garner 4 is not an instructional manual for good writing, but a guide to the conventions of standard written English. If you are writing fiction or poetry, you will probably want to be more demotic. But if you are writing an expository text for a standard publication, or a memorandum for your employer, or a cover letter for a potential employer, you would be well advised to remain conscious of the conventions of standard written English.

Those conventions are inherently conservative, as conventions always are, and Mr. Garner's manual, as wide a range of usage as it addresses, tends toward conservatism. He concedes that singular they "can express a corporate policy or plan," as in "A magazine editor writes to say they are doing an article," but he labels it a casualism. That conservatism is expressed unapologetically in his entry on "snoot": "The word … aptly captures the linguistic snottiness of those who weigh their words, value verbal nuances, resist the societal tendency to blur useful distinctions, reject newfangled usages without strong redeeming qualities, and concern themselves with linguistic tradition and continuity."

So you pays your money and you takes your choice, as Punch advised in 1846.** For my part, though I do not always agree with Mr. Garner or take his advice, I always take care to consult him, knowing that he is informed but not dogmatic. A volume of Garner has been near to hand every time I have sat down to write for the past sixteen years, and today Garner 4 edges its predecessor off the shelf by my desk.

*Actually, Fred Shapiro assures us in The Yale Book of Quotations, the remark was "I suppose you are at the old trade again—scribble scribble, scribble," uttered by Henry Frederick, Duke of Cumberland, Gloucester's brother.

**Fred Shapiro again.

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