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A Dictionary of Modern American Usage

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In every age, writers and editors need guidance through the thickets of English usage. Although some language issues are perennial ( infer vs. imply ), many others spring anew from the well of
* Is it all right to say alums instead of alumni or alumnae ? And should it be spelled alums or alumns ?
* Should I say empathic or empathetic ? Do you home in or hone in ? Is it a couple of dozen or a couple dozen ?
* What's the singular of paparazzi ? Is paparazzis an acceptable plural? What about graffiti --singular or plural? And what about kudos ?
* What's the correct pronunciation of concierge ? Or schism ? Or flaccid ?
This book will tell you. In 750 pages of crisp, precise, and often witty pronouncements on modern American English, Bryan Garner authoritatively answers these and thousands of other questions that bedevil those who care about the language. Garner draws on massive evidence to support his judgments,
citing more than 5,000 examples--good, bad, and ugly--from sources such as The New York Times , The Wall Street Journal , and Newsweek .
Here is a usage guide that, whether you're a language connoisseur or just a dabbler, you can savor in a leisurely way, a few paragraphs at a time. No one can browse through the book without sharing the author's spirited awareness of how words work and his relish for exposing the affectations
that bloat our language. Yet if you don't have the time for browsing, but simply want a quick answer to an editorial riddle, this book is your best bet.
DMAU can justifiably lay claim to being the most comprehensive treatment of how American English is used--and abused--as we enter the 21st century.

752 pages, Hardcover

First published December 3, 1998

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Bryan A. Garner

87 books126 followers

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5 stars
861 (71%)
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237 (19%)
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79 (6%)
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18 (1%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 93 reviews
Profile Image for Jessica.
593 reviews3,365 followers
June 29, 2008
Thanks, Dan! Receiving this book justified my having dragged myself out last night, and made the long G-to-the-A trek home totally bearable, even the part at the end when I was walking home from the train and a group of guys yelled out that they wanted to gang rape me. Hah hah! I just chuckled to myself, knowing that if any of them came close I could brain them with my lethally massive new hardcover Garner's, and then point out some finer points of American usage while the ungrammatical would-be gang rapists were sprawled out on the sidewalk, concussed and bleeding....

This book has the most cogent explanation of the that/which distinction that I have ever seen in my life! Plus, I'd never heard of "remote relatives" until last night, and now I know just what those are (and no, I know my interest in usage is a little goofy, but I still am not your corny grandpa, and can easily resist that obvious pun). If I somehow manage to absorb and remember all the information in this highly readable guide, my usage should become so flawless that sociopaths on the street will instinctively sense my power, and will be so intimidated that they'll leave alone when I'm walking at night.
Profile Image for Nick Black.
Author 1 book738 followers
October 22, 2020
my best friend Twitch gave me this at trivia 2010-12-26. i promptly brought it home and read, enthralled, until 0545 or so. my date was pissed off, but Mssr. Garner and I danced the night away. every true pedant ought acquire and become intimate with a copy. beyond that, i can't say much more beyond DFW's Harper's review (which anyone not damaged in a profound, Oliver Sacksish-way will enjoy).

as another reviewer below has already claimed, this will likely find place on my desk as the first non-math book worth keeping at ready hand.
Profile Image for Steve.
166 reviews28 followers
May 14, 2022
I've wanted a copy of this for many years, since hearing David Foster Wallace and author Bryan Garner chat about Wallace's terrific review/article Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage (a greatly expanded version of which appears in Wallace's book Consider the Lobster, which, cover to cover, I recommend highly.) I finally got my copy of Garner's a couple weeks ago and it's now part of my home's landscape: It's not going on a shelf. It never disappoints, although it can annoy in that I never can look up just one entry! On any page there are so many entries that merit at least a glance, and then of course once you glance you're reading…yeah. This is a reference book you can curl up with.

Garner's style is that of the very cool english teacher: he will darn well correct your usage, but he'll often do it in such an engaging way that you almost don't mind being corrected. And when he sticks it to your own pet peeves you may (as I often do) find yourself nodding—or even vocalizing—agreement.

Here's an excerpt of Garner's irregardless entry: "A semiliterate PORTMANTEAU WORD[over 200 small-capped terms like this have essay-length entries unto themselves] from irrespective and regardless, should have been stamped out long ago," — then Garner, as he does with most entries, cites several examples of misuse in major American periodicals, and he includes the author's name! — "Perhaps the most surprising instance of this barbarism occurs in a linguistics text, four times on a single page…Although this widely scorned NONWORD seems unlikely to spread much more than it already has, careful users of language must continually swat it when they encounter it." A semiliterate barbarism! CAN I GET AN AMEN!?

- Garner has supplied an index of the aforementioned small-capped essays. (As I mentioned, the the book is peppered with at least a couple hundred of these essays.)
- An exhaustive Glossary of Grammatical, Rhetorical and other Language-Related Terms. This alone was worth the price of the book. Here's Garner's primary definition of rhetoric itself: "1. The art of speaking suitably on any subject." See? Understated but firm, lightly stylish, pitch-perfect! (And what's also cool if you ever hear Garner speak—check out the aforementioned conversation with D. F. Wallace—his soft Texas accent and relatively mild manner complement perfectly his gently authoritative writing style.)

If an entry concerns a usage error (as opposed to simple clarifications) the error is rated on a scale of one to five, which scale Garner calls a Language-Change Index—the key for which is included in the bottom margin of every odd-numbered page. On this scale, a one signifies a complete rejection by all writers, with five indicating that while it may have been an error at one time, it is now fully acceptable.
Two examples.
1. Using the word dearth, which means a mere scarcity of something, to denote an absence of that thing is rated one. It is a misuse of the word as defined and therefore to be avoided. While over on the facing page...
2. Using daylight-savings time instead of the technically correct daylight-saving time was considered erroneous recently enough to be included, but is rated five since the only writers today who object to its use are hardcore snoots. (Snoot denotes an arrogant person of course, but is pressed into duty here as the word with which many members of the so-called Grammar Police have begun referring to themselves, and is, in its own entry, defined rather nicely by Garner himself as "a well informed language-lover and a word-connoisseur.")
Profile Image for Erin Brenner.
103 reviews18 followers
April 22, 2016
Bryan Garner has a specific approach to language usage and Garner’s Modern English Usage, the fourth edition of his usage advice, teaches it to others.

I can’t fully endorse that approach, however. While Garner wants his recommendations to be “genuinely plausible,” recognizing the language “as it currently stands,” actual usage is at the bottom of his criteria and can easily be trumped by other criteria, not all of which are objective.

For example, the guide marks a word as undesirable if it is new, seeks to take over another word’s definition, or is simply a variant of another word. To me this is unreasonable. Why impoverish the language by assigning only one word to one meaning?

In English, there are often many answers, something many usage guides, Garner’s included, ignore. Only the quickly aging Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (DEU) takes pains to point out those various answers. So when I use Garner’s, I compare it with DEU and other grammar and usage guides, and then I make a decision. It’s not the only book I consult, but it is an important one.

So how does the new edition compare to the previous?

To find out, read the full review at Copyediting.
Profile Image for Steven.
Author 2 books94 followers
July 9, 2023
Did you know that there are at least ten types of verbless sentences? This fact, including examples, is from his essay on incomplete sentences. These usage essays, which are included in the alphabetical flow of the dictionary, are my favorite feature of this book. I prefer to find these essays randomly when looking up a word. A surprise reading treat.
Profile Image for Atlas Publishing.
9 reviews1 follower
March 29, 2017
Modern English Usage is an indispensable book for writers, editors, and those who give a damn about English. Along with Steven Pinker Steven Pinker , Amy Einsohn, and Carol Fisher Saller Carol Fisher Saller , Garner Bryan A. Garner is one of the world's foremost authorities on the English language. In a world that takes its syntactic cues from the idiotic rantings of media personalities, sportswriters, and (mostly) guys on TV competing to see who can construct the most tautologies during 30-second bursts of inanity, Modern English Usage (formerly Modern American Usage) is a much-needed left hook aimed squarely at addled brains.

I use this book literally every day (and by "literally," I mean that I actually do). It's easily the best of its breed, with Garner its shepherd. Often unjustly accused of being a strict prescriptivist [partly because a large swath of readers either (a) think all things must be 100% black or 100% white or (b) don't like looking things up or changing prose they consider "supercute" simply because it's WRONG—screw those readers who think otherwise], Garner offers perspective and advice both constructive and actionable.

As for changes from the prior edition, the book includes over 1,000 new entries. Garner also procured rights to use Google Ngram charts and word-frequency ratios for many entries. He included a word-change index in the prior edition that numerically rated each word's status from verboten to fully accepted, but the addition of Ngram data adds validity and more context for entries.

Garner's measured wit is still readily evident, and usage examples continue to include plenty of published work by famous writers and famous people in general, which could be interpreted however one likes (I tend to interpret it to mean that many famous people are buffoons when they write, but I may be a little less charitable than most), but mostly they make for real examples in real settings, which is good for perspective at the very least.

I'm glad I was able to write this review without undue snarkiness or sarcasm. I seem to have a habit of that from time to time.
Profile Image for Amar Pai.
960 reviews101 followers
October 2, 2012
Update 9/25/12: so, I bought this book. Glad I did-- been flipping through it some more, and it's quite fascinating. Garner can be quite funny even if he is a snoot.

I have to admit though-- upon further reflection, I still don't get the distinction between "erstwhile" and "former". I re-read Garner's explanation, in which he opines that erstwhile is necessary because "former" and "one-time" aren't sufficient, and realized that he never actually explains when you'd use one vs the other! The single usage example given in his entry on the topic isn't very elucidatory.

I know, "elucidatory" is awkward... no doubt Garner has a sternly worded essay on the subject. Mea culpa.

I checked this out from the library but realizing now, I need to buy it.

A while back, I accused the New Yorker of using fancy words just for the sake of it. One of the examples I gave was "erstwhile"-- why wouldn't you use the simpler word "former" instead? Don't they mean the same thing? Garner's entry on this topic straightened me out, I get it now. Right on
Profile Image for Katja Labonté.
Author 19 books192 followers
June 12, 2021
4 stars & 4/10 hearts. So, granted, I didn’t actually read a lot of this book. I bought it for college, and we read two-three essays and a few entires. Regardless, I definitely see it’s something very useful and that I will be consulting a lot. Garner has a very good perspective as a descriptivist prescriber, and his essays are very good. I shall probably update this review as I use this book more, but for now, it was quite worth buying, it’s well written, and it’s very interesting.
Profile Image for Marc Cooper.
Author 3 books2 followers
November 17, 2017

As a Brit, Americanisms can grate; as can native speakers, at times, truth be told. I bear no ill will. We share a language that diverges and yet often converges owing to our connected world. Bryan brings much of our shared language together sensitively and absorbingly.

If you love language, then this book is a thing of beauty.
Profile Image for Steve.
107 reviews
June 22, 2012
A bowl of cereal and one page from Garner's Modern American Usage is my favorite way to start the day. I haven't been reading this book in the morning so I'm taking it off my list of book currently reading.
Profile Image for Alex Macd.
2 reviews2 followers
January 9, 2022
I wish I could give this book more than five stars. An invaluable resource for anyone who writes.
Profile Image for Dennis Littrell.
1,079 reviews46 followers
July 29, 2019
Roll over Fowler; tell Partridge the news...

This is a brilliant book. It is as erudite and authoritative as a usage book should be, but without offensive cant or needless pedantry. It is scrupulously edited and handsomely presented by the Oxford University Press in their usual exemplary manner. While Bryan A.Garner concentrates on American English usage (that's where the market is) he is no stranger to "BrE" or any other kind of English. Just to give you a hint about what makes the man tick and why he is now considered the preeminent authority on "grammar, usage, and style" (as a blurb on the book's cover--for a change--rightly has it), consider these words from the Preface to the Second Edition:
"People have asked whether enough has really changed in English usage since 1998 to justify a new edition. The answer is that changing usage isn't really the primary basis for a new edition of a usage guide: it's really a question of having had five more years for research."

He isn't kidding. What Garner brings to this usage book that completely dwarfs* all previous efforts is a gargantuan research regimen. This is clear from the thousands of examples of usage presented, both good and bad, from all manner of publications: newspapers, small town and big city; novels, classic and contemporary; magazines and journals, literary and scientific, etc. Garner obviously has a passion for words and seems determined to let no genre or form of reading matter go unread or unscrutinized. I didn't find an example from one of my reviews, but (given the many faux pas that I have, alas, committed in nearly 800 reviews) I fully expect that dubious honor in the third edition!). Yes, Garner is onto the Web and indeed he frequently quotes statistics of use garnered (sorry!) from such sites as NEXIS and WESTLAW allowing him to say, for example, about "analytical" and "analytic" that "the long form is five times as common as the short."

This is an interesting development in usage books. As Garner notes in his introductory essay, "Making Peace in the Language Wars," there are two types of linguists, "prescribers" and "describers," or as it used to be said (more narrowly) there are "prescriptive grammarians" and "descriptive grammarians," and never the twain shall meet. The former in both cases, as Garner has it, "seek to guide" while the latter "seek to discover...how native speakers actually use their language."

Obviously, no one who writes a usage guide can be a strict describer. Indeed throughout the history of usage guidance most of the authors have been primarily prescribers: "this is the way the word should be used"; "this is improper" and even "this is an abomination!" Garner follows the tradition and even goes so far as to label, for example, the employment of "defunk" for "defunct" as a "ghastly blunder."

So he is clearly a prescriber (as he admits). But unlike most of his illustrious predecessors he is a describer as well. He lets us see how the language is actually used and he gracefully bows (on occasion) as much to the preponderance of usage as he does to venerable authority and his own good judgment. Thus we have a usage dictionary for the 21st century, alive, vital and moving carefully with the tide, but not swept away by it.

Needless to say I do have a few disagreements. I will present a couple for sport, fully realizing that he is the authority and I am merely a respectful, sometime critic.

For example, Garner writes a very nice little essay on sexist language entitled "SEXISM." However there is no comparable entry on "racism" or word entries for "African-American," "Afro-American," or "black." I think there should be, as some guidance in word choice here is sometimes sorely needed. I have the feeling that Garner is not so much dodging the subject as he is fully preparing himself for the next edition. There is an entry on "ageism" (so spelled indicates Garner although the similar word "aging" is without the "e"), but no discussion of various usage concerns.

Also, he writes (on page 418 in the essay entry "HYPERCORRECTION" under item "J."): "When a naturalized...foreignism appears, the surrounding words--with a few exceptions...--should be English. Thus, one refers to not (a common error among the would-be literati)." However, I would say that using the French "le" as part of the phrase is a useful emphasis, much as one, when speaking, might emphasize the word "the" by pronouncing it with a long "e."

These and perhaps other picayunes aside, let me say unequivically that this book is a treasure trove of knowledge about our language second to none that I have ever read and a singular please to read and peruse.

I should also mention the three splendid appendices: A 13-page "Select Glossary" on words about words ("gerund," "homograph," etc.); a very interesting "Lifeline of Books on Usage" beginning in 1762; and a "Select Bibliography" of dictionaries, usage books, grammars, and books on style.

*This use of "dwarf" as a transitive verb is not given in Garner's book, although there is an entry on the noun form. I checked Webster's Second International and my spelling (not the ugly "dwarves") agrees with theirs.

--Dennis Littrell, author of the mystery novel, “Teddy and Teri”
Profile Image for Sara Russell.
Author 19 books32 followers
July 23, 2017
My talisman against poor language. I call it my "smarty-pants book."
Profile Image for Lisa.
Author 2 books9 followers
August 18, 2009
Of the myriad dictionaries, grammar books and usage guides out there, one stands out as the argument-ender: Garner’s.
Why is this book so special? Several reasons:
First, it’s comprehensive. Pretty much any question you can think of concerning usage is covered in the nearly 1,000 pages of this book, with detailed explanations, the usage’s history and examples from print. It doesn’t just tell what’s correct or acceptable, it tells you why.
Second, the man knows of which he speaks. His concise, thoughtful entries are based on copious research and meticulous attention. Plus, they are clearly expressed with a minimum of jargon.
Third, Garner is firmly in the middle of the strict prescriptivists and the strict descriptivists. What this means is that he’s not an old fusspot clinging to outdated rules of grammar; neither is he an anything-goes endorser of unclear or ambiguous expression. He knows when it’s hopeless to rail against usages formerly labeled “substandard,” and he knows when to preserve useful distinctions.
Fourth, while many reference guides for English are more British in their points of view, Garner specifically addresses American usage. He does note differences between U.S. and British English, as well as American regionalisms and dialect expressions.
(Full disclosure: I served on the panel of critical readers for the third edition of Garner's Modern American Usage.)
Profile Image for max.
187 reviews21 followers
February 14, 2010
There are a minimum of two works you must have on your reference shelf: (1) dictionary; (2) usage guide. After that, you can make whatever choices you wish. There's a worthy old saying: "usage is king." And usage is anything but static. That's why a book like this is such a treasure. It provides detailed, thoroughly researched discussions of many of the most controversial issues in usage today. If you are serious about the correct use of English, get this book.
Profile Image for Bradley.
11 reviews
July 4, 2023
I read this book because David Foster Wallace wrote about it. The best parts are the short essays on lexicographical evolution. I also learned the reasons for many usages that I knew already only from having encountered them in the wild.
1,125 reviews2 followers
July 16, 2019
Ten plus months at 5-10 pages per day and I have finally finished. This book, as one can imagine, is very informative. It is also, at times, quite amusing in a grammarian's manner. I did learn that I was mispronouncing (internally as I read) several words. I also came to realize that the words you read are not necessarily the ones that you use in speech.
Profile Image for Oriana.
Author 3 books3,372 followers
Want to read
August 18, 2009
If David Foster Wallace can write a sixty-odd-page essay extolling this book's virtues (the central theme of which, proclaimed in all-caps, is WHY BRIAN A. GARNER IS A GENIUS), you're goddamn right I'm going to read it.
Profile Image for Lisa Houlihan.
1,146 reviews3 followers
Shelved as 'zhelf'
July 29, 2017
Yes I'm reading a usage dictionary cover to cover, a to z. That's what I do. But I might cheat with "which" because I want to know what he thinks of its mutation into a conjunction. Instant-gratification prescriptivists forEVAR.
Profile Image for Jean.
44 reviews1 follower
January 2, 2015
Well, I don't know that I would say I read Garner's, exactly.

The forward, about the grammar wars, is a terrific read. Otherwise, I rely heavily on Garner's when I have usage questions, just as any right-thinking person would.
Profile Image for Leigh.
119 reviews1 follower
July 11, 2016
We just added Garner's to our editorial library at work, and I'm thoroughly enjoying the irreverent tone of voice, as well as the Language Change Index he employs to mark the ubiquity of questionable usage. I highly recommend this guide for both professional and amateur word nerds.
Profile Image for Rand.
475 reviews101 followers
April 27, 2013
Quite simply the most current and comprehensive book of rhetoric. This indispensable tome is as entertaining as it is educational.
7 reviews1 follower
August 16, 2016
I read this book to my 9 month old daughter.
Profile Image for Patrick.
7 reviews
September 21, 2018
Nobody really reads this but I can't believe nobody ever told me it existed until law school. An essential reference for the question "am I using this word correctly?"
Displaying 1 - 30 of 93 reviews

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