You might have looked it up first

May 04, 2012|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

It's not that I mind being treated as an oracle — it's a little flattering to be consulted on points of language and usage. But I sometimes wonder why people write to me for answers that are, or ought to be, near at hand to them.

When someone poses a question about usage, the first book I usually reach for (yes, little ones, Mr. John still believes in books) is Bryan Garner's Garmer's Modern American Usage. Though his prefaces bristle a little about descriptivists, he is the very model of a modern moderate prescriptivist. The third edition of his manual rates disputed usages on a continuum of acceptability. If you want advice on what is conventional in contemporary American formal writing, he's as good a guide as you can get.

The next reference I check is Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. Rather more descriptivist than Garner's, MWDEU also gives a fuller account of historical patterns of usage and thus assists the reader in developing an informed opinion.

I'll venture to say that if you do not own and consult these two books, you will have a difficult time operating as a reliable editor.

There are others, of course. I have a sentimental attachment to Fowler, and for the Olympian pronouncements in John Bremner's Words on Words, though both are limited for current purposes. I have taken to recommending Mignon Fogarty's Grammar Girl books to my students and anyone else who finds Garner's and MWDEU a little intimidating. She's approachable, and her advice is usually quite sound.

But you, you twenty-first-century type, won't be satisfied without electronic resources, will you?

The exchanges at Language Log are usually stimulating and informative. Its posts are episodic, but if you do a search on certain keywords, you can find collections of posts. Passives, will direct you to a multitude of posts on people's ignorant and misinformed strictures on use of the passive voice.

Motivated Grammar has a post, "Debunked Myths," with links to dozens of points of dispute about grammar and usage. His motto, "Prescriptivism Must Die!" will telegraph his approach, but he is informed and persuasive, and you need to grasp the arguments on these points.

Grammar Girl, being ubiquitous, is also online, as are Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman of

And there is always [cough] this blog, where you are always welcome and which will not do you harm. You would do well to have a look at the bloggers I cite favorably, and steer clear of the writers I deplore.

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