Another damned, thick, square book. Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Garner?
A copy of the fifth edition of the newly published Garner's Modern English Usage arrived yesterday, and it is even a more impressive work than the previous four editions.
One mark of its impressiveness is the increasing use Mr. Garner has made of online corpora to determine how people are actually using the language in formal speech and writing, which informs and updates his Language Change Index, with its gradations of acceptability. Another mark is the firepower of the people he has consulted, among them the distinguished linguist Geoffrey Pullum, who examined hundreds of entries, and John Simpson, the former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.*
To illustrate, the entry on they, which occupies two and a half double-columned pages, begins by saying that the pronoun "has been under great pressure to take on singular sense--and has been doing so since the late 20th century," which he accounts for by a combination of "natural linguistic evolution and a few social-engineering campaigns."
The natural linguistic evolution is that, given the lack of a common-gender, third-person singular pronoun in the language, English speakers have blithely been making use of they for centuries, despite the strictures of grammarians. The campaigns to accept they as a singular were an aspect of the gender politics of the previous and current century; what was formerly identified as incorrect has come to be seen as nondiscriminatory toward women. Mr. Garner says that roughly in the space of a generation, they answering for indefinite pronouns such as anybody and everyone became fully accepted.
The next stage of evolution, in a citation from Mr. Pullum, was "a radical reform proposal ... [in which] they refers to a single specific individual who purports not to be locatable in within the familiar male/female/neuter ontology."
"Traditionalists won't have it. Progressives champion it," Mr. Garner writes, and he projects that "the progressives will prevail," though the new uses won't be fully accepted in Standard English "until a whole generation dies off."
Obviously, the they entry is far more detailed and sophisticated than this three-paragraph truncation, and it merits your examination as you review your own choices in usage.
That level of examination and reflection is precisely what this book makes possible, and desirable. Standard English, or Standard Written English, however you choose to call it, is a learned dialect. Whatever you may think of the social and cultural values of the people who use it, it is how much of the work of the world is conducted. To participate effectively in that work means mastering its conventions.
I say conventions, not rules. Bryan Garner is no ill-informed stickler; his book explodes any number of superstitions and shibboleths. He recognizes the need to identify natural linguistic evolutions and identify which conventions work most effectively.
So should you.
* Mr. Garner also consulted me on a handful of points, so you can see that he casts a wide net.