Review: Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd Edition

Garner’s Modern American Usage is one of the bestselling usage manuals on the market and it has just come out in a new, third edition. Picking or recommending a usage manual is a tricky business. Usage goes to the heart of a writer’s personal style and what is a good manual for one writer, publication, or genre, may not be right for another. (The Associated Press Stylebook is a great manual for journalists, not so much for anyone else.) In this case, any recommendation is complicated by the fact that this is a third edition—should those who have and use an earlier edition run out and buy the new one?

Bryan Garner has a long bibliography on English writing and usage, in particular on legal writing. He certainly well deserves to be called an “authority.” He is, however, firmly in the prescriptivist camp and something of a curmudgeon; he has his opinions on what makes good writing and unabashedly presents them as the correct and only way to write well. Although this can be a distinct advantage for those who want a style manual that gives clear and concise directions. And to his credit, Garner is not a knee-jerk prescriptivist. He recognizes that there is such a thing as a language change and does, reluctantly it seems, base his opinions more on standard practice than on his own personal preferences. So his advice is not usually unreasonable.

So, should you buy this book? 

If you are a professional copy editor or a freelance writer who writes for more than one publication and you don’t already have a copy of Garner’s, then you need to buy one. It’s one of the standard references and needs to be on your shelf.

If you are a writer wishing to adopt a conservative writing style, Garner’s Modern American Usage is a good choice. (e.g., Garner still recommends capitalizing Internet, although this practice is fast going by the wayside, with the lowercase internet is becoming more common and represents a more forward-looking style.) You will not go wrong by following Garner’s advice. But there is more to good writing than simply not going wrong. If you want to be edgy and new and ride the crest of the wave of language change in your prose, Garner is probably not your guy. (Individual writers have a budgetary advantage over copy editors in that they don’t need to acquire a number of style guides; they just need one that works for them.)

If you already use an earlier edition of Garner’s, should you buy this latest one? That really depends on your budget. Not all that much has changed in this edition and the older editions are still reasonably current. There are some new and expanded entries, but I did not notice any where Garner’s advice had changed. (There undoubtedly are some; I just couldn’t find them.) You probably will want to acquire this latest edition eventually when your budget permits, but there is no need to rush out and buy it right away.

The big new feature in this edition of Garner’s is the “Language Change Index.” On the face of it, this is a neat gimmick that purports to show you where on the continuum of language change a particular usage lies. Each entry is rated on a scale of one to five:
• Stage 1: a new form or a dialectal form entering wider use, but not accepted as standard English. This stage includes common misspellings and uses generally accepted as erroneous.
• Stage 2: the form spreads into wider usage. Sometimes included in dictionaries as variant forms, but not widely accepted.
• Stage 3: commonplace among educated people, but avoided in careful writing.
• Stage 4: “virtually universal but opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts.”
• Stage 5: “universally adopted except by a few eccentrics.”

This is a neat idea, poorly executed. Note that stages four and five are identical, except in Garner’s opinion of who opposes the usage—stalwarts v. eccentrics. Presumably, if Garner disapproves it’s stage four; if he approves, it’s stage five. Furthermore, the stages are geared toward changes in orthography and usage; new terms from slang, jargon, and dialect don’t map well to this model. Nor does the model show momentum. Has the term in question been stuck at stage two for a century, or is it fast moving into stages three and four? This gimmick won’t tell you.

But the most serious problem with the new feature is that the individual assessments are largely determined by his “own sense, based on a lifetime of serious linguistic study, of where a given usage falls on the spectrum of acceptability in Standard English.” Garner does rely on the opinions of one hundred of his readers for the initial rankings, but the end product is largely his own opinion. Thus you get ludicrous assessments like alumni being used in singular as stage two, when it is clearly at stage four, and one might even make a case for it being a five. The American Heritage Dictionary’s usage panel of experts gives a better assessment of acceptability in that it is not reliant on the opinion of single individual.

While the Language Change Index gives OUP’s marketing folks something new to tout in this edition, it is not really all that useful.

Still, Garner’s Modern American Usage remains a solid choice for those in need of clear, concise, and conservative usage advice.

Garner’s Modern American Usage, Third Edition, by Bryan A. Garner, Oxford University Press, 2009, 1008 pages, $45.00.

(Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book. Oxford University Press is also the publisher of my book, Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends.)

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