An American Editor

May 11, 2016

On Words: The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation

Last month, Oxford University Press published Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern English Usage (4th ed., 2016). This month it’s Chicago University Press’s turn with the publication of Garner’s The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation (2016). I was hesitant to preorder the book for fear that it would not be much more than the grammar section of The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed., 2010 — is it getting time for a 17th edition?), but I preordered it anyway, thinking that I couldn’t go too far wrong with only a $30 investment.

I received my copy of the Chicago Guide a few days ago. I have not had time (or inclination) to spend my weekend devouring it from cover to cover, but after looking at the table of contents and at some random selections, this may well be a book that I will spend 30 minutes a day reading until I have gone from cover to cover. The Chicago Guide is not what I expected, but it is what I had hoped for.

There are a lot of grammar books available and a lot of sharply focused books on specific items (one of my favorites is June Casagrande’s The best punctuation book, period. [2014, Ten Speed Press]), but there aren’t many, if any, that are comprehensive and accessible. The Chicago Guide certainly is accessible and comprehensive.

The book is divided into five major parts and within each major part, numerous subparts. For example:

I. The Traditional Parts of Speech
Traditional Classifications
6 Nouns generally

13 Mass nouns
Properties of Nouns
14 Generally

18 Person

The last numbered subsubsubsection is 558, which should give you an idea of just how much the Chicago Guide covers. Additional major parts are as follows:

II. Syntax
III. Word Formation
IV. Word Usage
V. Punctuation

Because of the way the book is designed, if you have a question about a specific item — for example, how to use a colon — you can go directly to the table of contents, find part “V. Punctuation,” locate the subtopic “The Colon,” and select from among several topics the appropriate topic for your inquiry, such as “Using Colons: 486 Without capitalizing the following matter needlessly.”

Do you remember sentence diagramming? It has been many years since I last diagrammed a sentence, but I certainly remember spending hours learning to diagram in high school English. You can refresh your knowledge and skills using the Chicago Guide, which has a subsection dedicated to diagramming.

The diagramming section is followed by a subsection on “Transformational Grammar,” which Garner defines in this way:

“…a descriptive approach that does not provide normative rules but instead seeks to derive and explain the rules of a language by showing how native speakers generate sentences. It is based on a theory first proposed by the linguist Noam Chomsky in 1957.” (¶365, Chicago Guide)

Garner goes on to explain how to use the approach, which I find fascinating, as this is not something I learned in school.

One of the annoying things about many grammar books comes down to this: when the books discuss a part of speech such as adverbs and give sentences as examples, the sentences have little to do with the discussion going on and rarely identify the part of speech under discussion; instead, they often list the appropriate words separately. I have never considered it a good instructional method, and now, with the Chicago Guide in hand, I am certain it is not a good method. The Chicago Guide’s method is wholly different and much more welcome to me. Instead of discussing adverbs and then listing a few sentence examples, the Chicago Guide highlights the adverbs as they appear in the discussion (see figure below), which is, I think, a more intuitive way to learn to identify adverbs — or any other part of speech.

Illustration of Identifying Part of Speech Under Discussion

Part of Speech Under Discussion

The Chicago Guide also has another excellent feature — two indexes: a word index and a general index. The word index is handy if you have a question about a specific word (e.g., “afflict, 284, 330”). The general index appears to be comprehensive, but I am not certain how much use it will get, considering the detail of the table of contents.

From the little amount of time I have spent with the Chicago Guide, it is clear to me that this is a great companion to Garner’s usage guide. Even though I do not always agree with Garner’s advice, I do think that if you edit American English, both Garner’s Modern English Usage and The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation should be within reach.

Will you be adding one or both of these books to your editorial library?

Richard Adin, An American Editor



  1. I remember sentence diagramming. It was in the seventh grade with Sister Mary Thomas at the helm. Students were required to go to the blackboard, write a diagrammed sentence, and explain it. I loved diagramming sentences. I’ll be purchasing the Chicago Guide for a refresher course.


    Comment by Cecilia E. (Davitt) Thurlow — May 11, 2016 @ 8:20 am | Reply

  2. This new volume is an excellent, easy-to-use reference. What Richard didn’t cover is the addition of many Google n-grams that, in many cases, address non-standard usage of words and phrases in today’s context. If you don’t know what n-grams are (I didn’t), Google the term. I think everyone can benefit from them.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Chris Morton — May 11, 2016 @ 10:03 am | Reply

    • Chris, I didn’t mention the Google n-grams because I do not think they are a sound resource for editors and I am disappointed that Garner used them at all. It is not at all clear whether Google n-grams are based on every book in the Google catalog or just the public domain books or just some subset that has not been explicitly detailed. In addition, n-grams measure the frequency with which a word or phrase appears in whatever the dataset happens to be, which is a poor indication of the validity of the use of that word/phrase, at least for professional editors. Consider this: If we accepted n-grams as the arbiter, then “ain’t” should be usable anywhere and everywhere. However, I would hesitate to permit “ain’t” in the medical textbooks I edit. Certainly it is viable in dialog in fiction, but would you permit it to stand in a history of the First Crusade? Google n-grams are fun, but not yet ready for editorial prime time in my opinion.


      Comment by americaneditor — May 11, 2016 @ 10:19 am | Reply

  3. Yes, I have added both books to my library. Although I have only glanced at it, I expect the Chicago Guide to be a top-notch reference for all things grammar.


    Comment by Caryl Wenzel — May 11, 2016 @ 10:35 am | Reply

  4. Thanks for the review. I ordered both the Garner book and the Chicago book last week, and both should be arriving on my birthday (Happy Birthday to me!).

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Lea Galanter — May 11, 2016 @ 1:55 pm | Reply

  5. These are both going to be belated bday presents to myself.

    I agree with Rich’s take on n-grams, FWIW. They can be interesting, but I’ve never been convinced that a zillion uses on the web necessarily make something correct.


    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — May 11, 2016 @ 4:26 pm | Reply

  6. I hope the content of this new book will be covered under my CMOS subscription, but I doubt it… I prefer online references, but I guess I’ll have to purchase a hard copy of this one since it sounds like a critical reference book to have!


    Comment by Susan Uttendorfsky — May 13, 2016 @ 8:12 am | Reply

    • Ruth: I concur that n-grams do not trump any established authority, but at times they’re worthy of at least having a look at them.

      Susan: Yes, I’m sorry that the publisher didn’t think to include the work on an included CD (found in a plastic sleeve at the back of the book) or provide a registration code that enables purchasers to access a private web site.

      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Chris Morton — May 13, 2016 @ 9:06 am | Reply

  7. I was unaware of this book so thank you for bringing it to our attention.


    Comment by Carolyn — May 15, 2016 @ 9:34 am | Reply

  8. […] Bryan Garner’s The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation came out this month. If you’re not sure whether to pick up a copy, you should check out Richard Adin’s review. (An American Editor) […]


    Pingback by The Nitpicker’s Nook: May’s linguistic links roundup « BoldFace — May 27, 2016 @ 12:18 pm | Reply

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