John's Reviews > A Dictionary of Modern American Usage

A Dictionary of Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner
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's review
Mar 24, 12

bookshelves: unfinished, unrated
Recommended for: Lynda
Read from March 10 to 24, 2012

As a result of not finishing this book, I did not rate it. In particular, this review is not zero stars.

It is a folly for me to write a review of this volume, given the limited ability I have for the construction of prose, made even more limited by the fact that I have already returned this book to the library. I apologize to the individuals who attend to the nuanced use of English as found in this book, who care not only for choosing the appropriate words and constructions, but who are so in contact with the written word that they can see its trends and formations, moving pragmatically with the stream of the changing language to take only the most effective uses of its new formations. Please take mercy in your criticisms if not in the red ink you apply to these words.

Given that I am employed as a software developer, as much as a half of my writing is not in English but instead is in a programming language. When I do write, it is usually for quite instrumental purposes, the kinds of instructions, reports, and coordination that comes with the operations of a technical infrastructure. The better part of my reading also tends to come from technical non-fiction and architectural speculation, areas also where the construction of prose is not perhaps the first concern. I certainly enjoy essays and fiction, but I would say I'm only aware of prose at all when its style is so unusual as to be a technical wonder in its own right.

Of course, the only path by an individual such as myself comes to a volume such as this was from David Foster Wallace's review of the book (http://instruct.westvalley.edu/lafave...), which cited this dictionary's opening as working demonstration of how one undertakes being an expert while maintaining a democratic spirit of pluralism. Although I (quite easily) maintain ignorance of the subtleties of the prescriptivism/descriptivism divide, I do think the sections about Garner exemplifying qualities of a good technocratic expert are fair. However, I remain unable to vouch for the expertise itself. Overall, I read the front material describing the process and ethics by which the dictionary was made, and then began reading the essay pieces, which describe particular subjects or constructions instead of the use of specific words (such as ANIMAL ADJECTIVES or COMPUTERESE). I particularly enjoyed CHRONOLOGY, but I confess I was not prepared to integrate the guidance those that I read offered, and so didn't proceed very far among them.

Overall, it does wonders for one's humility to turn to an expert at something one does everyday to find another level of skill behind it. I can only hope that in my writing that there is occasionally some morsel of insight achieved, likely mostly by accident. In this, my mom's microwave chocolate cake gives me hope. Although she's not a pastry chef by any means, it's still a favorite of mine. In writing it might yet be like Satchel Paige said: "Not everyone can be above average, but no man need be common." Even my lowly usage might find an audience to which it is appropriate.

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