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The Technical Stylist on the Battle of the Usage Guides

by Kathy Underwood
Kathy Underwood is an editor in the Technical Editing Department at SAS Institute Inc. She serves as lead for the SAS Style Guide, co-lead for writer and editor training, and a member of the Terminology Team. Before coming to SAS, Kathy worked as a publications manager, writer, and editor. She taught technical writing at the University of Washington (in what is now the Human Centered Design & Engineering Department) for seven years. And she served for five years on the international Board of Directors of STC.

In the Technical Editing Department at SAS Institute Inc. (a worldwide software company), one of the questions we often get from around the company staffers is about which is the best grammar and usage guide. We do have a standard list of style references, which includes the Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition), the Microsoft Manual of Style (3rd edition now—4th edition coming in January), the Global English Style Guide (by our own staffer, John Kohl), and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th Edition).

However, none of these excellent books focuses exclusively on grammar and usage. Chicago comes the closest, but it has only one chapter on grammar and usage. The only chapter in Chicago that carries an author’s name is the “Grammar and Usage” chapter “by Bryan A. Garner.” Aha! Bryan A. Garner has his own usage guide: Garner’s Modern American Usage (GMAU).

I’ve been a fan of GMAU for some years, and I knew it was the book I wanted. But I felt that I should at least show the other contenders to my fellow editors. So before presenting the question at a department meeting, I pulled together a compare-and-contrast list. The list is by no means exhaustive, and it doesn’t represent hours of painstaking research on patterns of usage choice among professional editors. It’s really just the list that I’ve accumulated over the past decades in my career as a teacher, writer, and editor. (For an exhaustive list of usage guides, see “A Timeline of Books on Usage” in GMAU.)

There’s a notable absence of pop grammarians (for some extreme examples, Edwin Newman, William Safire, and John Simon). They tend to view grammar and usage as a kind of monolith that can and never should change. At the same time, they tend to neglect the historical record that marks the continuing evolution of language. But all that’s a story for another time. Here’s the thought process I went through in considering the contenders.

The Contenders

Note: All of these books are available from amazon.com. The only book among them that’s available online is Chicago; but you must pay for a subscription.
  • Garner’s Modern American Usage (GMAU): Garner’s credentials are impeccable if not daunting. He has served as editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary since 1995. He’s written numerous articles and books on legal lexicography and usage as well as argumentation. (He co-authored a book on courtroom persuasion with Justice Scalia.) GMAU’s 900+ pages are filled with carefully written, thoughtful entries and a set of useful essays, a “Glossary of Grammatical, Rhetorical, and Other Language-Related Terms,” and a “Key to the Language-Change Index.” With this last item, Garner assigns stages to the usage status of a given form. Stage 1 is for a form that is an innovation; Stage 5 is for a form that is universally accepted. This is a huge step forward from the older tradition of declaring forms standard or nonstandard. Garner used linguistic corpora in his development of this scale.
  • Fowler’s Modern English Usage (FMEU): Fowler’s Modern English Usage has in the past stood as the usage junkie’s reference of choice. Fowler, like his predecessor Follett, often couldn’t resist being obscurantist (but, hey, everyone was doing it in his era). (Wilson Follett wrote the original content of MEU. It was in draft form when he died. Fowler used that material to create his version.) Garner’s MAU, on the other hand, is longer, more detailed, and more annotated (and by inference more researched). It’s also notable for its breadth of knowledge on linguistics, lexicography, and discourse. I would also argue that GMAU is more clearly written than FMEU.
  • Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage: Webster’s Usage Dictionary (as it’s known informally) is also well written and researched. For example, it has the longest and best discussion I’ve found on notional agreement. And its article on the subjunctive runs to five pages. I would not want to do without it. But it still doesn’t quite have the scope, depth, and polish of Garner’s.
  • Amy Einsohn’s The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A very good reference on publishing. One is tempted to call it the Chicago Manual manqué. It covers virtually the same major topics. And like Chicago, its focus has more to do with publishing than with usage per se. However, it does have excellent recommendations on the actual act of editing—which Chicago does not. I’m thinking specifically of her sections on “Editorial Triage,” “Eyeballing Every Mark,” and “Mark-by-Mark Pitfalls.”
  • Words into Type: Last updated in 1974, but it’s still useful (and still being printed). It is built more like a reference book than a guide. That is, there are lots of clear explanations and easy-to-find lists, and it’s got a cracking fine index. It’s also the only style book I know with a handy guide to preposition usage. But Garner still leaves it in the dust when it comes to usage coverage.
  • Theodore Bernstein’s The Careful Writer: Beautifully written, but not really a practical usage guide. Also Bernstein finds the use of the serial comma distasteful—while in the world of technical writing, we consider the serial comma a sine qua non. (Bernstein died in 1979, and no one has taken up his work.)
  • Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style: A lovely little essay about writing style. If you must have it on your desk, by all means do so. Just don’t expect to resolve a usage argument by referring to it.
  • The college handbooks (for example, The Little, Brown Handbook; Hacker’s A Writer’s Reference; and Lunsford’s St. Martin’s Handbook; Hodges-Harbrace; Penguin): Every editor should have at least one college handbook around—but it’s not going to answer the questions that Garner answers. I’ve kept these titles on my reference shelf in assorted versions for the past thirty years. I find them essential for quick reference on points of grammar and punctuation. Most of the titles in this category, I suspect, are worthy.

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