A coder's guide to usage guides (and why you ought to use one)

By Tom Moertel
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Tags: writing, usage, fowler, meu

Note for coders: If you’re one of the fine folks who reads my blog for the coding content, I’ll be up-front with you: this article represents about 2,500 words of non-coding text. Nevertheless, you ought to read it because I am writing about something that’s important to you.

We coders, if you stop to think about it, spend our lives doing some insanely complex and seemingly bizarre stuff. If we want the rest of humanity to understand us and what we do, we must be prepared to explain our world to them; they are not going to figure us out on their own.

Thus the burden of making our world understandable and relevant to others rests upon our own shoulders. To carry the burden, we must be able to communicate complex ideas, share the full depth and beauty of our creations, and help others to see that the things we devote our lives to are worthy and fascinating. In sum, we need to invest in our writing skills. Writing is still the most effective, scalable means we humans have for capturing and sharing complex knowledge. If we want to reach the rest of the world, we must become good writers.

Unfortunately, writing well is difficult. Like programming, writing is a struggle. If you want to improve, you must struggle often. (That’s why I blog.) And while I cannot struggle for you, I can tell you about an unappreciated writing tool that has become my go-to reference when writing. It has made my struggles a bit less difficult and a bit more fun. That reference is not the ever-popular dictionary.1 Rather, it is the usage guide.

Usage guides are designed to explain the finer points of using our language and, if they’re good, they offer sensible advice. Have you ever wondered whether to use affect or effect, compliment or complement, farther or further, compose or comprise, less or fewer, precede or proceed? Do you know why you shouldn’t confuse enormity for enormousness, masterful for masterly, or purposely for purposefully? How should you approach who and whom? And how should you address the thorny issue of sexist language? These are the kinds of questions that usage guides were created to answer.

A good usage guide isn’t afraid to prescribe advice. Some more-recent guides, however, are less prescriptive and more descriptive, following the lead of modern dictionaries. Instead of offering advice on tricky writing issues, these guides describe the many viewpoints in play and let you choose among them. I think this weakens a guide, and so my recommendations below are biased toward prescriptive guides.

Unlike dictionaries, usage guides are not plentifully stocked in book stores. On a recent visit to my local Barnes & Noble, I was disappointed to learn that the reference section contained no usage guides at all. For this reason, I will provide Amazon links to the guides I like.

Let us begin our tour of usage guides at the beginning, with Fowler.

Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage

Of the authors of usage guides, no one is more revered than Henry Watson Fowler. He and his brother Francis wrote The King’s English, a reference published in 1906 that provided lengthy advice on issues of style and grammar. Afterward, the brothers Fowler collaborated on their next major work, but in 1918, after eight years of planning, Francis died, leaving Henry alone with the daunting task of writing the book, which ultimately required another eight years. Published in 1926, this book was to become the influential masterwork, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, most often called Fowler’s Modern English Usage or simply Fowler.

Since its publication, Fowler has become the quintessential prescriptive guide to English usage and is still beloved among picky writers. One can’t help but respect the author, who doesn’t cower behind dry, academic language but instead throws himself vividly onto every page and seems to go out of his way to fight pedantry.

The followers of Fowler prize his precision but love him for his quirky voice. When you read Fowler, you get Fowler. Consider the first edition’s entry on superiority (remember, this was written almost a century ago):

Superiority. Surprise a person of the class that is supposed to keep servants cleaning his own boots, & either he will go on with the job while he talks to you, as if it were the most natural thing in the world, or else he will explain that the bootboy or scullery-maid is ill & give you to understand that he is, despite appearances, superior to boot-cleaning. If he takes the second course, you conclude that he is not superior to it; if the first, that perhaps he is. So it is with the various apologies (to use an expressive colloquialism – if we may adopt the current slang – . . . ) to which recourse is had by writers who wish to safeguard their dignity & yet be vivacious, to combine comfort with elegance, to touch pitch & not be defiled. They should make up their minds whether their reputation or their style is such as to allow of their dismounting from the high horse now & again without compromising themselves; if they can do that at all, they can dispense with apologies; if the apology is needed, the thing apologized for would be better anyway. . . . (Fowler, 1st ed., 1926.)

The editors of Fowler‘s later editions, to the disappointment of Fowlerians everywhere, have muted Fowler’s voice while undertaking the necessary work of making the reference more accessible to contemporary readers and writers. For example, the superiority entry from the 2nd edition, edited by Sir Ernest Gowers, reads as follows:

Superiority. Much misplaced ingenuity in finding forms of apology is shown by writers with a sense of their own superiority who wish to safeguard their dignity and yet be vivacious, to combine comfort with elegance, to touch pitch and not be defiled. Among them are: To use and expressive colloquialism – in the vernacular phrase – . . . . (Fowler, 2nd ed., 1965)

Most writers consider Gowers’s stewardship of Fowler completely respectable. The second edition still speaks with Fowler’s voice, and Gowers’s revisions make the work more practical for modern writers. The second edition is seen in much the same light as the screenplay adaption of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: the original was changed, but the changes were understandably necessary and, most important, the integrity of the original was largely preserved.

The third edition of Fowler, however, is the subject of controversy. Edited by Robert W. Burchfield and published in 1996, The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage differs from the previous editions in two important respects. First, it no longer speaks with a distinctly Fowlerian voice. Second, Burchfield allows descriptivism to creep into the celebratedly prescriptive reference.

Nevertheless, it is a useful reference work. Even the third edition’s detractors admit that it is a perfectly respectable, modern usage guide. Their main complaint is that the work is no longer Fowler, and I am inclined to agree. Burchfield distances himself from Fowler, as the third edition’s entry on superiority demonstrates:

Superiority. Fowler’s term for the use of a slang expression or a socially divisive remark preceded by a distancing or defensive comment implying that in normal circumstances the speaker would not deign to use such an expression himself or herself. Such distancing remarks include as they say; if the word may be permitted; . . . . (Fowler, 3rd ed., 1996)

Burchfield writes that superiority is “Fowler’s term,” putting Fowler in the third person instead of adopting Fowler’s voice. Instead of recommending a position – taking a stand – he tells you what positions others have taken (in this case Fowler himself). He observes and describes. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach, but in a usage guide, I prefer to know what the author himself thinks.

I suspect that many of the third edition’s critics would have welcomed the book had the Oxford University Press not used Fowler’s name in its title. But the OUP (Oxford University Press) did call it Fowler, and the reviewers judged it accordingly. Nevertheless, the third edition is a worthy reference, and I use it second only to Garner, which I will get to in a moment.

Because all three editions of Fowler have their proponents, all three editions are still available today. The first edition was out of print for some time (I found my copy, the original 1926 letterpress edition, at a book sale), but the third edition’s awakening of the Fowlerian hordes led to renewed interest in republishing the earlier versions. Now all three are readily available:

Which version is for you? If you want an up-to-date, practical reference, get the 3rd edition (or, better yet, get Garner, discussed next). If you want less descriptivism and more of the original Fowler flavor, get the 2nd edition instead. You probably should not get the first edition unless you are fascinated by the English language or want to experience the unadulterated, original Fowler, in which case you are the kind of person who probably has all three editions already.

Garner’s Modern American Usage

My favorite book on usage is Garner’s Modern American Usage. Bryan Garner, a pragmatic prescriptivist, has crafted an excellent usage guide of a distinctly Fowlerian flavor. (That he also founded the H.W. Fowler Society ought to tell you something about the way he approaches usage.)

In Garner, the detractors of the third edition of Fowler have found a successor to Fowler in spirit. Where Burchfield describes, Garner prescribes. Consider how the authors approach the subject of sexist language. Burchfield writes:

sexist language. 1. As indicated in numerous articles in this book . . ., feminists and others sympathetic to their views, from about the 1970s onwards, have attacked what they take to be male-favouring terminology of every kind and have scoured the language for suitable evidence and for gender-free substitutes. Their argument hinges on the belief that many traditional uses of the language discriminate against women or render them ’invisible’ and for these reasons are unacceptable. The various types of alleged linguistic discrimination need not be repeated here. Perhaps the most obvious reference works on the subject are . . . . 2. Some landmarks. As rough indicators of the development of feministic views on gender-free language it might be useful to set down in chronological order details of some decisions and discussions that have taken place in various English-speaking countries since 1988: . . . . (Fowler, 3rd ed., 1996)

Burchfield then devotes the next two subsections (3 and 4), representing the balance of the full-page entry, to examples from both sides of the debate and to describing the academic viewpoint on the subject.

In contrast, Garner distills the problem to its essence and offers practical advice:

SEXISM. A. Generally. If you start with the pragmatic premise that you want to avoid misleading or distracting your readers, then you’ll almost certainly conclude that it’s best to avoid sexist language. Regardless of your political persuasion, that conclusion seems inevitable – if you’re a pragmatist.

But does avoiding sexism mean resorting to awkward devices such as he/she? Surely not, because that too would distract many readers. What you should strive for instead – if you want readers to focus on your ideas and not on the political subtext – is a style that doesn’t even hint at the issue. So unless you’re involved in a debate about sexism, you’ll probably want a style, on the one hand, that no reasonable person could call sexist, and on the other hand, that never suggests you’re contorting your language to be nonsexist.

(Garner, 2nd ed., 2003)

Garner then goes on to provide two pages of practical suggestions:

B. The Pronoun Problem. . . .
C. Words with man- and -man. . . .
D. Differentiated Feminine Forms. . . .
E. Equivalences. . . .
F. Statute of Limitations. . . .

Garner also provides a bibliography should you wish “to inquire further into this interesting subject.”

Most of the differences between Garner and Fowler 3 are not so pronounced. Either reference would serve the needs of most writers. Nevertheless, I find myself reaching for Garner first and then, if I want a second opinion, for Fowler 3. So my top choice is Garner.

This ends my brief tour of usage guides. I have overlooked many useful guides, such as Merriam Webster’s, but I don’t find them as useful as Garner or Fowler. If you happen to be in a good library, prowl the reference section and draw your own conclusions.

My advice: if you don’t have a usage guide, get one and use it

If you care about writing enough to own and use a dictionary, you probably ought to have a good usage guide, too. While there are many usage guides available, if you can have only one, my recommendation would be for Garner’s Modern American Usage. If you are the kind of person who likes the luxury of a second opinion, complement Garner with The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage, 3rd ed. . Finally, if you want to experience Fowler unaltered, pick up a copy of the first edition of Fowler. If you find it at a book sale, you might be able to score a copy of the original 1926 printing.

Even if you don’t want to buy a usage guide, you ought to sign up for Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day. Every day you’ll receive an emailed tip from Garner and maybe a quotation or two on writing. Sign up at the OUP (Oxford University Press)’s email-subscription page.

I prefer printed reference books, but if you would rather get your usage information online, here are a couple of starting points:

There you have it: the usage guide – my favorite writing tool. If I haven’t convinced you to add one to your own writing toolkit, at least flip through Garner or Fowler the next time you’re in the library. Maybe then you’ll reconsider. For me, usage guides are a no-brainer: anything that makes writing a bit more fun and a bit less of a struggle is worth having on my bookshelf.


1Because dictionary publishers have made the dictionary-and-thesaurus duo a part of every college freshman’s standard gear, I will assume that you already have a good dictionary and so focus my attention exclusively on usage guides. If I’m wrong about this, I can recommend my favorite dictionary, The New Oxford American Dictionary. (Please do not bother to inform me that the NOAD is inferior to The Shorter OED because if that’s the way you roll, you clearly don’t need my advice.) Another good choice is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th Edition.

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