Bryan Garner has a specific approach to language usage and Garner’s Modern English Usage, the fourth edition of his usage advice, teaches it to others.
I can’t fully endorse that approach, however. While Garner wants his recommendations to be “genuinely plausible,” recognizing the language “as it currently stands,” actual usage is at the bottom of his criteria and can easily be trumped by other criteria, not all of which are objective.
For example, the guide marks a word as undesirable if it is new, seeks to take over another word’s definition, or is simply a variant of another word. To me this is unreasonable. Why impoverish the language by assigning only one word to one meaning?
In English, there are often many answers, something many usage guides, Garner’s included, ignore. Only the quickly aging Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (DEU) takes pains to point out those various answers. So when I use Garner’s, I compare it with DEU and other grammar and usage guides, and then I make a decision. It’s not the only book I consult, but it is an important one.
So how does the new edition compare to the previous?
Garner’s International English
Although 2,000 of the 6,000 entries are marketed as having been revised for international usage (hence the change in the title from American to English), it’s hard to find them in the print book, especially if you don’t have a list of test terms.
How useful will this “expanded coverage” be? At only a third of the book, that doesn’t seem very helpful to me. If I’m focused on other varieties of English, I’d prefer to go to usage guides devoted to that variety.
Then again, I’m generally not editing outside of American English. Your mileage may vary.
The Language-Change Index
A highlight of the third edition, the Language-Change Index hasn’t changed this time out, but the data that informs it has. So the flaws it had remain.
One flaw is how insulting some labels are; if you’re not highly educated, you’re looked down upon. If you use a word that is at stage 4 (“ubiquitous but …”), you’re an amateur (Skill-Level Analogy), you’d receive a general discharge from the military, and your writing would have a vaguely odorous smell (Olfaction Analogy).
Flipping through the book, I found only rare terms defined at stage 4 (e.g., hopefully) or 5 (“fully accepted”). You will find a lot of stage 1 terms (“rejected”) and plenty of stage 2 (“widely shunned”) and 3 (“widespread but …”). This, combined with the labels, makes me feel as though Miss Thistlebottom is reviewing my work, dismissing even the most well-written sentences.
With 6,000 terms, the book is dense and it’s unreasonable to assume most terms have been changed. After all, Garner’s guiding principles are the same, and common usage is at the bottom of his list. If we’re not very concerned about common usage, what could change?
I compared terms I’d flagged in the third edition to their fourth edition counterparts. Here are a few:
- buried verbs: This entry is under a new term: zombie nouns. Otherwise it’s unchanged. Personally, I like buried verbs better; zombie rules are false or dead usage rules, making zombie nouns dead usage rules. If you’re not familiar with zombie nouns already, you could become very confused. His advice is solid, though.
- danglers: This is an essay entry, and I just compared part A for this review, and it remains the same. That’s too bad, because there’s been more research and discussion on danglers since 1956, when the main reference of someone defending danglers was published.
- hopefully: In the previous edition, Garner subscribed to the idea that “stalwarts” will deride you for using hopefully as a sentence adverb. “Stalwarts” are Garner’s “die-hard snoots,” people who will defend good writing to the end. You and I might call them peevers. The core of his advice remains unchanged: it’s a skunked term, so don’t use it. My reaction remains unchanged, too: Poppycock. Go ahead and use it.
What of that hot-button singular they? Garner will not be moved. Spread out among several terms, including “Concord” and “Sexism,” his opinion is still that it’s sloppy and should be avoided. Despite all that has been written about singular they in the six years since the last edition, the guide offers no new thoughts or evidence.
The More Things Change …
Even a modest update of a usage book like this is an enormous amount of work. To include new research methods on even some terms is worthy of applause—as is being more transparent about methodology.
Yet the guiding principles remain the same, and the new research seems to have been done to bolster Garner’s opinions rather than look at a usage problem in a new light. My disappointments with this guide are the same as they’ve always been: I don’t agree with a lot of Garner’s approach and, as a result, I don’t agree with a lot of his advice.
But the things I like about it remain the same, too. There is good advice in it, if you know how to find it. It remains a good companion to other usage guides.
Do you need to update to the latest version of Garner’s Modern English Usage? Probably not. So far the differences in conclusions—which is what really counts—seem slight. You may want to upgrade eventually, but you don’t need to rush. And maybe Oxford Dictionaries Online will update its digital version, so you can access Garner’s latest thoughts that way.
Now if only Merriam-Webster would catch up and give us an update on the other side of the argument!