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February 5, 2011

Garner’s Modern American Usage

Garner's Modern American Usage
My favourite usage guide is Bryan A. Garner’s book Garner’s Modern American Usage. It’s an impressive collection of essay entries on the usage of both individual words and more general categories, such as grammar and punctuation.

His philosophy is a combination of prescriptivism and descriptivism: on the one hand he describes certain usages as “inferior,” on the other hand he justifies that judgement by placing usages in the context of his language-change index. Usage changes over time (“terrific,” after all, used to mean “causing terror”) but that doesn’t mean that certain changes aren’t unnecessary (“priorize” for “prioritize”) or illogical (“could care less” for “couldn’t care less”). The language-change index goes from Stage 1: “rejected”, through Stages 2 through 4 (“widely shunned”, “widespread but . . .”, and “ubiquitous but . . .”) and finally arrives at Stage 5: “fully accepted.” To illustrate the language-change spectrum still further, he uses analogies from various other fields: golf (triple-bogey, double-bogey, etc.), legal infractions (felony, misdemeanor, ticket, warning), and—my favourite—etiquette, which compares a Stage 1 infraction to “audible farting.”

I was thinking that the language-change index could be analogized in fashion terms. Here’s a shot at it:

  • Stage 1: B.O.; wardrobe failure; fly undone
  • Stage 2: thong showing (“whale tail”); fluorescent-pink Crocs
  • Stage 3: Uggs; socks and sandals
  • Stage 4: wearing white after Labour Day; shoes don’t match handbag
  • Stage 5: ready for the Oscars; royalty at a garden party
Some further reading:
  • How I first heard about this book: David Foster Wallace, whom I like very much, wrote “Tense Present,” a very entertaining review of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, the previous edition of Garner’s.
  • Interview with Bryan Garner in Vice Magazine: “I’m beyond the state of pet peeves. There are 3,000 things that seriously bother me . . .”
  • Go to LawProse.org to sign up for Bryan Garner’s usage tip of the day, as well as for videos and other material.
  • Find Bryan Garner’s Twitter feed at @BryanAGarner

Reviewed from my own copy of the book.

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