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A Dictionary of Modern American Usage

Bryan A. Garner

(Oxford, 1998) $37.95

Given Bryan A. Garner's legal background - a retired attorney, he has written A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage and The Elements of Legal Style - it's only natural for Garner to address A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (ADMAU) to "the writer or speaker for whom credibility is important." Writing handbooks generally put persuasiveness atop the list of qualities for which writers ought to strive, but Garner knows that nothing punctures the force of argument more abruptly than lapses in diction that cause the attentive reader to question the arguer's command not only of the language but of the thoughts that it forms. Writing's rules and conventions constitute the one body of facts about which readers may be deemed to know as much as writers. No matter how  familiar they are with the agony of wresting clear sentences and balanced paragraphs from recalcitrant brains, authors are only rarely authorities on the subject of writing. We expect them to know what they're talking about, but we don't let them lay down the law about saying it.

Ever since Philip Gove oversaw the publication of Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language in 1961, the very possibility of authority has been a somewhat political question, with writers such as Steven Pinker denying its existence. According to the 'liberal' constructionists (I'd prefer to call them 'lax'), words are the common property of all the people, and any use to which they're put is okay. What credentials would an expert have? What constitutes expertise? Garner's references to credibility show where the foundations of a new, less obnoxious idea of authority might lie. Have a look at his entry for 'Skunked Words.' This is his own term for words that are sure to bother a considerable portion of one's readers. The infamous hopefully is an example: use the word as it's ordinarily used ("Hopefully, the check will clear tomorrow"), and SNOOTs will sniff; use it correctly ("Hopefully, she approached the king and begged for mercy") and everyone else will stare. The best course, for "the writer for whom credibility is important," is to avoid the word altogether.

As David Foster Wallace points out in his review of ADMAU (Harper's, March 2000), Garner doesn't insist that he's an authority, but rather lets his book demonstrate the fact. The results are persuasive even when one's inclined to disagree. (September 2001)

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