Our Favorite Books: Garner’s

People have asked where we find answers to all the grammar and usage conundrums we run across. Every Eagle editor has a row of books spanning his or her desk, and they aren’t just for decoration. We use them to explore questions we have and arrive at a conclusion (often there is not a consensus on usage; grammar is usually more straightforward). Some we use daily; others less often. Some books everyone has a copy of; others are personal favorites. Some are serious, no-nonsense guides; others are whimsical and fun. We’d like to share our references, so we’re introducing Our Favorite Books, a feature that will appear occasionally on Grammar Monkeys.

Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner (Oxford University Press, second edition, 879 pages, $39.95)
Of the myriad dictionaries, grammar books and usage guides out there, one stands out as the argument-ender on The Eagle’s copy desk: 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 What this means is that he’s not an old fusspot clinging to outdated rules of grammar; neither is he an anything-goes endorser of unclear or ambiguous expression.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.

“What does Garner say?” is the question that suspends the discussion and starts the turning of pages.

Update (April 2011): The third edition of Garner’s (Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Bryan A. Garner, Oxford University Press, 1008 pages, $45) has come out since this was first posted. The new book is revised and expanded, and contains a handy new feature called the “language-change index.”

The index is a number from 1 to 5 assigned to usages in transition: 1 = rejected, 2 = widely shunned, 3 = widespread but …, 4 = ubiquitous but …, 5 = fully accepted. This number lets readers know where something is on the level of acceptedness and make a usage decision accordingly (for some contexts, “ubiquitous but …” is fine).

Full disclosure: I was a member of the Panel of Critical Readers for the third edition, but did not receive any compensation for this and do not receive any from book sales.