Logophiles, Listen Up: Buy This Book – Or Else!

“English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment, and education — sometimes it’s sheer luck, like getting across a street.”E.B. White

If you cringe when you hear “between you and I.” When you scan a headline that shouts “Save up to 50% — and More!” Or when you see a report that reads, “The cause was due to numerous factors” — take heart. There is a new reference book that will set the crooked world of English straight for you. It is Bryan A. Garner’s “A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.”This is a welcome work of scholarship for anybody who cares about English usage. For the first time in 40 years, American logophiles have a reliable place to go when they want to settle an argument about what is proper usage.

The trouble began in 1961 with the publication of “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language.” Until then, dictionaries passed themselves off as authoritative and absolute. The unsaid message was: “This is how God would say it.” I know. Don’t even try to ask me why. The old lexicographers — the guys who wrote those pre-1961 dictionaries — were happy to be definitive, and most readers were happy to have them so. It meant fewer arguments. There was a right way and a wrong way to pronounce every word. There was a right way and a wrong way to use it.

Enter “Webster’s Third,” and God and all the archangels were banished. In this monumental and revolutionary book, editor Phillip Gove abandoned the established absolutism of all the great dictionaries that had come before and replaced it with a value-neutral form of scientificism in which the principles of structural linguistics were applied to lexicography.

In other words, Gove wrote this dictionary much as an anthropologist would write about a tribe of indigenous people. He would not allow himself to make value judgments. He limited his work to description. Thus, “Webster’s Third” included, for the first time, “OK” instead of “okay” and “ain’t” in addition to “is not.”

When language conservatives objected, Gove replied: “A dictionary should have no traffic with . . . artificial notions of correctness or superiority. It should be descriptive and not prescriptive.”

As David Foster Wallace points out in his review of Garner’s new dictionary in Harper’s, Gove’s terms stuck. So, “epithetic and linguistic conservatives are now formally known as ‘prescriptivists’ and linguistic liberals as ‘descriptivists.'”

I could go on. I’d like to. But today is ACTION TUESDAY and you want me to get to the point. So I’ll only say here that if you’d like to find out more about this debate — to find out how the descriptivists have pretty much taken over not only the dictionaries but also universities and the media and politics (you can’t criticize bad grammar anymore without being thought of as a racist or reactionary) — I commend to you David Foster Wallace’s good essay.

The short of it is this: The descriptivists are right about a lot of it. (For example, there is nothing wrong with splitting infinitives and it’s perfectly okay to say “hopefully.”) But the prescriptivists have the final laugh because in the end, like it or not, we are judged by the way we use language.

You know this already. If you get a resume that reads, “I done a lot of good shit at the old job,” you are going to wonder about the candidate’s ability to handle complex tasks. If he is applying for a position as a legal secretary, you are going to reject him.

I believe, and Garner argues in his dictionary, that whether we like it or not there are generally agreed-upon rules of standard written English. Some of these rules have no basis in history. Some of them were invented by 18th and 19th century grammarians who tried to improve English by making it work more like Latin. Thus, we are told to say “It is I,” when English speakers — and educated ones at that — have, in fact, been saying “It is me” since Beowulf. The same holds true for the rules about splitting infinitives and leaving prepositions dangling.

Garner’s new dictionary isn’t perfect. Nevertheless, it is a great reference. It provides value judgments but doesn’t do so from on high. Garner tells you, in the first person, his reasons for preferring one usage over another. He provides examples and cites evidence. He doesn’t use irony, and he never gets snooty. He takes his work seriously, but not himself.

This is a usage dictionary you can trust. And if you care about how others perceive you . . . and care about being correct when you judge the way others speak and write, you need a good usage dictionary. This is a great one.

Get rid of your “Webster’s Third.” Get a new dictionary — and then get Garner’s book too. Do it today.

[Ed. Note.  Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]