Thursday, July 9, 2009

A new Garner

Thank you, @mbrockenbrough, for word that the new edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage is forthcoming.

The third edition, due out this month from Oxford University Press, includes a language change index, which, the publisher says, “registers where each disputed usage in modern English falls on a five-stage continuum from nonacceptability (to the language community as a whole) to acceptability, giving the book a consistent standard throughout.”

Mr. Garner is of the tribe of reasonable prescriptivists. His advice is clear and sensible, though you are, of course, not bound by it. You should, however, pay attention to what he says before you disagree.

This is one of the reference books than any editor serious about the craft should have near at hand.

A disclosure: I was one of people from whom Mr. Garner solicited comments on portions of the new edition.

Making distinctions

Part of the copy editor’s responsibility in achieving clarity and precision of prose is to honor nuances of meaning. The trick is to know which nuances are meaningful and which are not — especially as usage shifts over time. Things that you were taught at the beginning of your career may no longer be valid.

Here is a guide to distinctions of usage that are worth preserving, and some that are not. You disagree with me, you know what comments are for.





between/among Provided that you understand that between can be legitimately applied to more than two parties in some contexts.


criteria Plural only.




imply/infer A writer who does not understand that these are opposite actions should be set straight.

its/it’s Observing the distinction remains a mark of literacy and attention to detail.


phenomena Plural only.

As a conjunction it still sounds colloquial.


raise/rise Former transitive, latter intransitive.


unique For one of a kind, not merely rare.




Since the easiest thing for the author of a usage manual or textbook on copy editing can do is to copy what was in a previous edition, fossilized preferences last a long time. But sometimes it is most prudent to conclude that nothing is to be gained by fighting lost battles.



career/careen Career, for moving recklessly at high speed, has just about vanished.

compare to/compare with

data Increasingly common a singular.

different from/different than

disinterested/uninterested To my profound regret, this one has largely gone away.

due to For because.

everyone/their Prohibition probably best abandoned altogether.


finalize For to complete.

graduate As a transitive, e.g., She graduated high school.


lie/lay Stand firm if you must, but the language is moving away from you.

media Increasingly common as a singular.

shall/will The former is slowly vanishing from both speech and writing.

that/which Could go in the following category. You may well want to use that only for restrictive clauses and which only for nonrestrictive clauses, but that is a personal preference, not a rule of usage.


No one cares that Mrs. Poindexter humiliated you in class in the sixth grade over
using none with a plural verb. She was dead wrong then, and probably dead now.

could care less/couldn’t care less The former is an idiom that no one misunderstands.

hopefully Perfectly idiomatic as a sentence adverb.

however Perfectly acceptable at the beginning of a sentence.

none As a plural. Can be either singular or plural, depending on context.

over/more than

since Acceptable for because. See the comment at the beginning of DISTINCTIONS THAT ARE DISSOLVING. If it didn’t bother you there, it shouldn’t bother you anywhere.

that Can be used in place of who without doing violence to the language.