Garner’s presents inclusive approach to English in new edition

Someone looking to see what the “usage authorities” think doesn’t have a lot of places to turn, especially if they’re looking for something that is in the process of changing, such as the way we just used the indefinite (singular) pronoun “someone” with a plural pronoun, “they.”

Many usage guides are available, but few can be considered both definitive and modern. Most of our favorites are quite old: Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern Usage English isn’t very modern, having been published in 1926 and updated in 1965. Two more modern editions of it, in 1996 and 2015, are Fowler’s in name only and not, in our view, nearly as useful: The 1995 version is quite prescriptive (describing how language should be); the 2015 version is more descriptive, but less helpful in determining how close to acceptability a usage might be. Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage is also more than 20 years old. Much as we love most of what Theodore M. Bernstein wrote (Watch Your Language, The Careful Writer, Dos, Don’ts and Maybes of English, etc.), he died in 1979 and no one has tried to revise his work. 

The franchise has been dominated by Bryan A. Garner, who leads by virtue of volume if nothing else. Garner, a lawyer and a lexicographer, now edits/writes Black’s Law Dictionary, Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage, The Elements of Legal Style, Garner on Language and Writing, the brand-new Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, and the “Grammar and Usage” chapter of the Chicago Manual of Style among more than a dozen more books. 

The one we turn to most frequently, though, is Garner’s Modern American Usage, especially since the third edition, released in 2009, includes the Language-Change Index, which gives Garner’s estimation of how close to “acceptable” usage something might be.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Alas, Garner’s Modern American Usage is no more. It has been replaced by Garner’s Modern English Usage.

Despite the change in title, it’s called the fourth edition. This new volume, Garner says in the preface, “restores what had been the idea behind the first edition,” and takes a “broadly inclusive approach to World English, not just to American English and British English.”

How does one do that, you may ask? In addition to the Language-Change Index, many entries now include a ratio of how that term or word is used in the two major subtypes of World English, American and British.

To get those ratios, Garner mined Google’s database of books in English through its Ngram viewer, a bespoke technique we have centered on occasionally as well, though Garner says he is the first author “explicitly licensed to reproduce results” from the viewer. That database offers a rich lode, though it is limited to books, and not all of them at that.

As an example, the preface discusses the phrase “home in on,” which, as we have written, has all but disappeared into “hone in on.” The original phrase, with “home,” a reference to homing pigeons, first arose about 1932, with “hone” showing up about seven years later. In printed books in World English, Garner says, “home” beats “hone” with a ratio of about 1.7 to 1. In British books, he says, the ratio is 4 to 1, and in American books, it’s 1.6 to 1. In other words, Americans are closer to adopting “hone in on” than the British are.

Those distinctions wouldn’t be fascinating to everyone, but are helpful to someone trying to figure out whether a particular usage is more common for a British audience, if that is the target. And it can help to see how usage changes over time.

Aside from the addition of the ratio to many entries, the bulk of Garner’s hasn’t changed much, though it is more than a hundred pages longer. And while not everyone loves Garner’s, there are not many alternatives as comprehensive. Garner recognizes the value of his predecessors, even as he supplants them. As he says in the preface to the fourth edition, “I’ve used the same basic techniques and sensibilities that I’ve always used: given the evidence I have before me, what judgments would such eminent predecessors such as H.W. Fowler and Theodore Bernstein have made? That’s what guides me.”

We would have said “like H.W. Fowler and Theodore Bernstein,” because that’s what Bernstein would do. But we’ll let that go.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.