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Reviews A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. 1998. Bryan A. Garner. New York: Oxford UP. Pp. xxix + 723. $35.00. ?? T A Taistband is sometimes, in a gross error, written wasteband" V V Bryan Garner helpfully writes. This gross error he illustrates with quotations from newspapers published in Salt Lake City and Cleveland. Who could disagree with this judgment? My spell-checker eschews wasteband, and the Lexis-Nexis "Academic Universe" database produces only four examples from magazines and newspapers — one from 1974, two from 1987, and one from 1994, including one Garner selects as a quotation. Surely this entry in A Dictionary ofModern American Usage is ill-chosen. With only five known examples , is wasteband a problem to be assailed? Which writer who is even tempted to spell the word wastebandwill look under waistband to be set right? (I omit here speculation arising from the fact that four of the five wastebands refer to the elastic portion of a disposable diaper.) No usage writer, before Garner, has considered a warning about the "gross error" of spelling waistband as wasteband, probably because none of them ever noticed that anyone had done so. Even if they had noticed, it would hardly seem worth the space to fulminate against a mistake that has hardly ever been seen in print. What is the entry doing here? This entry, like many others, affirms the idea that modern usage is debased and that the ignorant foist errors on the innocent and the young. There is a great thirst abroad in the land for this sort of despairing self-flagellation, and the millions will slake their thirst with Garner's book, since it is a "major selection" of the Book-of-the-Month Club and published by a firm with some claim to respect in the field of reference books. Garner is a Texan y 'a??-speaker who believes himself to be genetically conditioned to be interested in language. (This business about genes may be a joke; see p. xiv and j^all.) As an undergraduate at the University of Texas in Austin, and later at Oxford, he "attended many lectures by noted linguists (who, not being positive influences, shouldn't be named)" (xv) — contractions , Garner opines, impart "a relaxed sincerity" (s.v. Contractions). He despised these linguists because they were "dogmatically descriptive in their approach " and they wrote badly: "their offerings were dreary gruel." Fortunately for him, he attached himself to Thomas Cable, whose "history of the English Language (with Albert Baugh) is a classic." Baugh and Cable will, by the end of this review, provide a context for understanding Garner's work. After graduation, Garner discovered that the "usage dictionaries got hijacked by the descriptive linguists" (xi) , and, now a grown-up, he wanted to do something about it. (Oddly, Garner says nothing about the g-oi-passive under either get or passive.) Once again, Garner is reticent about naming 1 52Reviews names. Surely he does not mean Robert W. Burchfield, whom he mentions meeting in Oxford (xv) , though Burchfield's revision of Fowler is a major competitor for his book. Curiously, for an undergraduate at the University of Texas, Garner seems not to have discovered James Sledd, a "noted linguist" there, whose prose might be described in many ways, but certainly not as "dreary gruel." Here, for those who might also have missed Sledd, is a specimen of his work germane to the present occasion: "The constantly changing spoken and written language which the dominant call standard is a creation and instrument of the dominant for purposes of domination, but an instrument in being whose becoming creates the possibility of controlling the controllers or escaping their control" (Freed 1996, 150). It is perhaps not surprising that Garner, given his inclinations, did not seek Sledd as a mentor. So who are these hijackers? Surely not Kingsley Amis, whose posthumously published work (1997) is hardly "descriptive" but charmingly written and unburdened by any historical knowledge of English. Surely not Ward Gilman (1989), who provides an unparalleled history of attitudes toward usage in the context of making recommendations. Surely notJanet Whitcut and the late Sidney Greenbaum (1988), whose Longman Guide to English Usage is introduced by Lord...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2160-5076
Print ISSN
0197-6745
Pages
pp. 151-155
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-04
Open Access
No
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