Now from Oxford: New English usage

January 03, 1999|By John E. McIntyre | John E. McIntyre,sun staff

''A Dictionary of Modern American Usage,'' by Bryan A. Garner. Oxford University Press. 723 pages. $35.

We have R. W. Burchfield's excellent revision in 1996 of Fowler's ``Modern English Usage.'' We have the equally excellent ``Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage.'' Why, a reader might plausibly wonder, do we need another damned, thick, square book on usage?

At a glance, the Oxford University Press candidate falls short. Merriam-Webster brings 978 pages and 3 pounds, 5.5 ounces to bear on the language. The New Fowler's (864 pages; 2 pounds, 8 ounces) has the weighty authority of Burchfield's background as editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Bryan Garner's entry starts out looking slighter at 723 pages and 2 pounds, 14 ounces.

Closer examination, however, reveals strengths. Garner, for one, presents an entry on ``superstitions'' of usage. Though not novel, the lot having been exposed as frauds nearly 30 years ago by Theodore Bernstein in ``Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins,'' they have not yet vanished from the armory of English teachers, editors and other sources of rigorous but unreliable dicta. It is useful to put Oxford's prestige behind the simple truths that it is permissible to occasionally split an infinitive, that it has always been idiomatic English to insert adverbs between the auxiliaries and main verbs in compounds, that ending a sentence with a preposition is not a matter anyone should make much of.

In the ``class distinctions'' entry, Garner also provides an entertaining catalog of distinctions between language that is upper-class and language that is not, respectfully citing and adapting Nancy Mitford's ``U'' and ``non-U'' categories from 1956. (You can guess which is which in these pairings: died/passed away, drinks/beverages, lie down/lay down.) In fact, the tone of Garner's books is more consistently entertaining and approachable than the more formal Merriam Webster and New Fowler's. Garner also treads a little more lightly with the formal terminology of grammar.

As to the advice on usage, the meat of any such book, Garner sifts the authorities and comes up with conclusions as arbitrary as anyone's. He admits the barbarous ``proactive'' into legitimate discourse but insists, quite rightly, that ``enormity'' means ``hideousness'' rather than ``hugeness.'' He wobbles on ``cohort,'' accepting it as a synonym for ``colleague, associate, companion'' but advising that it should retain its traditional meaning as a mass noun referring, to a group, in formal writing. He grapples no more successfully with sexism and the inadequacy of English pronouns than any other authority and foresees that a mixture of singular and plural pronouns - ``anyone . . . their'' is the direction in which the language is heading. He regrets that this development, already more or less standard in British usage, should be so strenuously resisted by American authorities.

The author of any such book has cast a bucket into the stream of language and reports to us on what is found in it. Garner, Burchfield and the editors of Merriam-Webster cite the same past authorities, read the same books, glean from the same newspapers, and reach widely varying conclusions. Ultimately, the reader must sort through the conflicting entries to decide what most closely matches his or her sense of what constitutes educated usage.

So the professional writer or editor will want to have all three of these usage manuals ready to hand. At a pinch, the New Fowler's and Merriam-Webster have an edge in authority. But the reader who chooses to buy just one book on usage might profitably purchase Garner's book, which is conversational and approachable.

John McIntyre is chief of The Sun's copy desk and a vice president of the American Copy Editors Society. He also teaches copy editing at Loyola College and conducts workshops on editing for newspapers throughout the United States and Canada.

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