by Daniel Sosnoski
All editors need a robust reference shelf. Depending on your interests, your selections will be tailored to your personal needs, but it’s likely you have a copy of Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and perhaps Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. And on your shelf, consider adding Garner’s Modern English Usage (a retitling of Garner’s Modern American Usage [GMAU] as released in the fourth edition). This is now available as an app for iPhone; the Android version will be out close to the time you read this. The app version is available at Apple’s App Store for $24.99
The hardcover version of Garner’s Modern English Usage (GMEU) weighs in at 1,120 pages and 5 lbs., making it impractical to carry about with you, so having an app for phone and tablet is a convenience if you edit on the go. I work at home and at my office. Normally, my hardcopy of GMAU is at my office desk (I’ll update to the current version anon). It’s not a book I want to lug back and forth. If you like to work at coffee shops or travel frequently, there’s a good case to get the app. If you work in one setting, maybe not.
With the app, the digital index allows for rapid searching, displaying the results as you would find them in the paper text. This is a case where a digital reference book competes well with its physical version.
This type of app is also useful when you need to check a usage question but don’t have internet access. There are a number of usage guides available as apps from the iTunes store, such as the Oxford A-Z of English Usage and Practical English Usage (also available for Android at the Google Play Store), but they tend to skew toward British English.
A voice of reason
Whether you work solo as a freelancer or in-house with a team, you’ll find yourself in situations where you want the advice of a wise colleague. Perhaps you’re unsure if an expression is in the correct register, or if a word is a proper synonym of another. You can often obtain the answers you want with an online check. When you can’t, you turn to a usage guide for that voice over your shoulder.
The internet is excellent for rapid spellcheck. As a medical editor, I’m constantly looking up anatomical terms, the names of diseases, and the names of persons. The typical usage guide won’t be much help there. But for grammar and usage questions like, “different from” versus “different than,” a usage guide will walk you through the matter in detail.
If you’re familiar with the online sources that are authoritative in answering such questions, a rapid online check will resolve your question. The Chicago Manual of Style, and Grammar Girl, and The Grammarist are generally reliable for quick queries. For more problematic questions you’ll turn to your reference shelf and the books you’ve chosen will give you consistent guidance.
Laypersons — but not professional editors — can get by with Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves, or Nevile Gwynne’s Gwynne’s Grammar, as these are prescriptivist in tone, offering the reader a sharp-tongued schoolmarm who will champion (questionable) rules and exhort you to “do X, not Y.” I wouldn’t advise those texts to anyone, personally, but they’ve found a ready market. Garner, on the other hand, is a voice of reason who eschews petty prescriptivism, while offering more guidance on usage and style than the free-wheeling descriptivism of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage.
A nudge in the right direction
It’d be nice if there were black-and-white answers to usage questions, but more often than not a measure of judgment is required. Garner’s notable innovation is his “Language Change Index,” which addresses the judgment issue. When looking at a term (especially a disputed one), he often flags it with one of the following:
1 Rejected: People normally consider innovations at this stage to be outright mistakes.
2 Widely shunned. Has spread to a significant portion of the language community, but is unacceptable in standard usage.
3 Widespread. Becoming common but still avoided in careful usage.
4 Ubiquitous. Virtually universal but still opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts.
5 Fully accepted. Universally adopted except by a few eccentrics.
This is an abbreviation of how his approach allows for degrees of nuance. In the “Preface to the First Edition,” Garner mentions some of his influences, one of whom is Theodore Bernstein, author of The Careful Writer, among other books. Bernstein had an intimate familiarity with false rules, zombie rules, and the like, combatting them in his Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins.
Whether you accept Garner’s judgment regarding the status of a term is up to you. His classifications are based on a number of sources. The exemplars he presents are taken from his personal reading and those submitted to him by his network of colleagues, friends, and persons who work in linguistics. I find that his assessments are generally in accord with my own sense of the language and are trustworthy.
For example: Under “Octopus,” he notes that for the plural, “octopuses” is overwhelmingly approved in American and British English, whereas the false Latinate “octopi” is largely considered a fault, and so he relegates it to Stage 3. He likely is drawing from a corpus of citations and rendering his opinion from instances in print or using his own judgment; in no cases have I found his assessments to veer from my own observations.
The challenge for the writer, however, is that nearly everyone is raised learning the same rules, but relatively few later in life learn which can be safely discarded. Ergo, Bernstein took the approach of offering his advice in terms of, “Yes, you could get away with that, but the careful writer will hew toward safer ground.”
For example, in his entry for “data,” Garner labels it a skunked term—a word with such contention regarding whether it should be considered singular or plural that a writer is likely to miff readers on both sides of the debate. (He considers the singular mass-noun sense to be at the “ubiquitous” level 4 in his index.)
Another case would be the expression “madding crowd,” which occasionally is corrupted to “maddening crowd.” In frequency, he finds this error isn’t widespread, appearing in a 6:1 ratio in edited text, and so he positions it at index level 2: “widely shunned.”
And as Garner explains the approach he’s taking with GMEU, he clarifies that it’s directed for the general and professional writers who want to be as correct as possible, and elegant and powerful in their prose. What is often sought by those consulting a usage manual isn’t permission, but learned opinion; “Tell me what the best writers do,” the reader is asking. The usage examples Garner presents in GMEU are always taken from actual citations, so you can examine how other writers approach grammatical problems as they appear in the real world.
The good stuff
GMEU contains much more than a list of words commonly misused. Its essays are informative and include “Back-Formations,” “Clichés,” “Etymology,” and so on. These appear throughout the text where logically warranted, and can be accessed directly from a separate index. In addition to usage, there’s considerable advice about document design and layout.
For editors, he includes a list of 100 editorial comments, which you can select by entry number and in page markup indicate, for example, “See Garner GMEU, ‘Editorial Guide’ entry 15.” If you know your author has a copy of this text, this could be a timesaver. The idea being that if you have GMEU and your author has GMEU, this could work as a shorthand. I’m not sure how likely this is, but it’s offered in that regard.
Also of note is a quiz section – natural for an app-based work, with 30 questions to test your understanding of common editorial problems (warning: they’re hard). The scores reset when you close the app so you can retake the quiz.
You don’t have to work with this text long before you realize the impressive amount of research and thought that’s gone into it. Garner doesn’t make proclamations by fiat but rather offers support and citations for his opinion. And while the classics by Fowler, Bernstein, and Copperud deserve a spot on any language maven’s reference shelf, those authors are long deceased, albeit Fowler has been updated by Butterfield in Fowler’s 2015 4th edition and remains current.
If you have an interest in knowing where the battle lines in English have been drawn, a hardcopy of GMEU is a good purchase. If you work in multiple settings travel frequently and work away from your desk, the app might prove useful. Freelancers working in multiple settings, editors on assignment abroad, and people who want to access this work on the move may find this app to be the right choice whether or not they own it in hardcover.
Daniel Sosnoski is the author of Introduction to Japanese Culture and editor-in-chief of Chiropractic Economics magazine. He has been the staff editor for numerous medical associations and is the founding editor of the PubMed-indexed Journal of Clinical Lipidology. He currently belongs to the American Copy Editors Society.