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American Speech 75.2 (2000) 199-207
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Review of Two Handbooks on Style and Usage
Robert S. Wachal
It will be useful to make a distinction at the outset between STYLE and USAGE. As readers of this journal know, there are two meanings of the term usage. The commonsense use of the term in books under review here might better be called usage conventions or usage rules. It is often the case that when such usage pronouncements were first made, they did not reflect the actual facts of usage by major writers of the time; hence, the term usage can, in reality, be quite misleading. However, it is also the details of actual usage that one often means by the term usage. On logical grounds one might well think that this would be the primary sense of the term. The reason it has not been the primary sense may well be because until recently the record of actual usage was nowhere well or sufficiently documented. However, with the appearance of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (WDEU 1994), this lack was well satisfied. I would argue that the term usage should be limited to refer to actual use in edited and printed American English, and the term style should be employed to refer to the so-called usage conventions introduced by stylists over the last few centuries. Thus, style is what many writers on the subject think a given construction or word choice should be. Usage is a matter of what the written record shows publication practice actually to be. Style is determined rationally and idealistically. Usage is determined empirically and factually. Style is determined by one's preferences, ideally influenced by years of reading excellent authors. Usage is discovered by surveying the actual practices of published writers. [End Page 199] (The ancient Roman Quintilian made the point that usage rules are discovered, style rules are created.) The two may be at variance when authors avow a certain precept but violate it in their writing.
It has been agreed from the earliest times down to the present that the standard of proper usage should be the speech and writing of educated people. However, even authorities who have espoused such a criterion have overridden it in their pronouncements; hardly any of them have consistently applied it. Some who have are Joseph Priestley in the eighteenth century, Bergen and Cornelia Evans in the middle of the twentieth century, and E. Ward Gilman and the editorial staff of WDEU more recently. Attention to usage in English arose during the eighteenth century. Since then, hundreds of usage books have been published, most of them useless because they are ungrounded, often unfounded, frequently copies of the ill-formed opinions of others, and usually quite idiosyncratic. Many more have been produced in the United States than in Britain, perhaps because of a greater degree of linguistic insecurity in America. Also, folk mythology has it that when Americans want to know how to say something, they consult a book, whereas the British consult a friend.
In subsequent centuries students have struggled to learn proper usage, often misled by such popular but unempirical and often wrongheaded books as Strunk and White's Elements of Style and less often helped by the excellent Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957), by two Welsh people who adopted America as their home: Bergen and Cornelia Evans. But even their work was incomplete and is now somewhat out-of-date. Gilman's WDEU, a 978-page, award-winning masterpiece selling initially for the amazing price of $18.95, is today's usage bible, based as it is on empirical data from hundreds of thousands of examples taken from printed sources.
Strunk and White
There is so little revision in this new edition of...