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Garner’s Modern American Usage

This is the second edition of Bryan A Garner’s work, first published in 1998, now more than a third larger in its scope and retitled to include the author’s name.

It has a characteristically American directness that contrasts favourably with another work from the same publisher, Oxford University Press — Robert Burchfield’s Third Edition of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, whose comments are more reserved and balanced and which sometimes leave the reader unsure of what is regarded as correct and what isn’t.

The cover of Garner’s Modern American Usage

One problem with usage guides is that to be useful they must row a course against the current of modern lexicography and linguistics. Those fields are descriptive scientific endeavours, investigating and recording the state of the language. That’s essential if we are to know what’s going on in the engine room of linguistic change and invention. But the results often don’t meet the day-to-day needs of those users of English who want to speak and write in a way that is acceptable to educated opinion. To give advice in that situation must be to lay down rules and to say that some common usages are simply wrong.

Mr Garner does this. However, he is not a believer in worn-out shibboleths or language superstitions (indeed, he has a section with that heading in which he demolishes the most egregious of them). His article on the split infinitive, for example, the most notorious example of the type, is magisterially even-handed while at the same time practical; he states firmly that no rule exists that says they can’t be split, but that the decision to do so or not depends on the need for clarity, which has to be coupled with a keen ear to avoid clumsy phrasing. He dismisses the canard that you must not start a sentence with a conjunction (which is a good thing for me, since I do it often). He describes the rule that a sentence may not end with a preposition as “spurious”. He is in favour of the serial (or Oxford, or Harvard) comma as an aid to clarity.

Where he considers a usage to be wrong, he says so. On that curious word irregardless compare Burchfield’s: “It has been used for most of the 20C, chiefly in N. America, in non-standard or humorous contexts, to mean ‘regardless’ ”, with Garner’s direct and uncompromising: “Should have been stamped out long ago ... careful users of language must continually swat it when they encounter it”. Though he accepts that the battle over hopefully as a sentence adverb is now ended, Garner clearly regrets its current broad acceptance, and notes a residual antagonism that causes him to recommend: “Avoid it in all senses if you’re concerned with your credibility: if you use it in the traditional way, many readers will think it odd; if you use it in the newish way, a few readers will tacitly tut-tut you.” Burchfield, by comparison, gives a good summary of the controversy but fails to give clear advice, though in a more oblique way he makes the same point: “Conservative speakers, taken unawares by the sudden expansion of an unrecognized type of construction, have exploded with resentment that is unlikely to fade away before at least the end of the 20C.”

Despite its title, I would recommend it to everyone, in any country, who is interested in improving the quality of their English. The differences between standard American English and the standard forms of other national varieties are comparatively slight so far as grammar is concerned, most variations being in vocabulary and pronunciation. And Bryan Garner is careful to indicate where such differences exist, at least between American and British English.

[Bryan A Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage, Second Edition, Oxford University Press New York, October 2003; hardcover; pp 928; ISBN 0-19-516191-2; publishers’ price US$39.95.]

Page created 10 Jan. 2004

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