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Reviewed by:
  • Garner’s Modern English Usageby Bryan A. Garner
  • Edward Finegan (bio)
Garner’s Modern English Usage, 4th ed., by Bryan A. Garner. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. lvi + 1,056. $50.00. ISBN: 978-0-19-049148-2.

“Prescriptivism is as American as apple pie or the NRA, and as inevitable as sex, death, and taxes,” John Algeo (2000, 246) has written. Unlike perennial popular interest in the subject, scholarly interest has waxed and waned, although a recent upswing can be noted in a series of Prescriptivism Conferences, initiated in Sheffield in 2003; the sixth has been announced for Vigo, Spain, in 2020. Values of competing kinds have been at the heart of prescriptivism and anti-prescriptivism for centuries, and the 2017 Prescriptivism Conference in Park City, Utah, identified “Value(s) and Language Prescriptivism” as its theme. Another thread among the 2017 participants was the putative distinction between descriptivism and prescriptivism: Is it a dichotomy or a continuum? In the discussion, I don’t recall anyone mentioning that Bryan Garner characterizes himself as “a kind of descriptive prescriber” (xxxvi) in the fourth installment of his series of usage dictionaries, titled Garner’s Modern English Usage( GMEU), “English Usage” now replacing the “American Usage” of earlier editions. 1

GMEUis unwieldy, weighing five pounds and registering over 1,100 pages. 2A couple of things differentiating it from the third edition (Garner 2009) highlight a more up-to-date approach. In the 2009 dust-jacket photo, Garner wears a dark suit with a shirt and tie, the shirt appearing to exhibit French cuffs, but in 2016 the shirt collar is unbuttoned, the tie is tossed, and Garner sports a light-colored jacket: iconically, an eye-catching reorientation to English usage. The hallmark of GMEU’s substantive jazziness is its reliance on Google ngrams to uncover frequency ratios of variant usages. First described by Michel et al. (2010), Google ngrams can trace the frequency of occurrence of any word (and some expressions) over the course of centuries as represented in millions of books digitized in the Google Books project. Multiple [End Page 120]expressions can be compared in the same ngram view (a useful feature relevant later in this review), and exploring ngrams is informative and often surprising. 3Reliance on corpora isn’t new for Garner, but reporting quantitative findings from the Google Books corpus is.

The fourth edition’s fifty-six pages of front matter include the first edition’s lengthy preface, lists of essay entries and abbreviations, and a pronunciation guide (repeated on the inside back cover). New to the third edition and continued in the fourth are a key to Garner’s language-change index and two long essays: “Making Peace in the Language Wars” and “The Ongoing Tumult in English Usage.” 4While the two essays display less peace and more tumult than the title of the first essay suggests, GMEUoffers a limited course correction to Garner’s generally prescriptivist route and a possible opening to a modest accord among prescriptivists and descriptivists, something Garner has both encouraged and frustrated in earlier writing. Now GMEUdraws in part on the 25 million digitized volumes searchable via Google’s Ngram Viewer (, a body of texts about which interested parties can talk with reliability.

GMEU’s back matter contains a glossary of grammatical, rhetorical, and other language-related terms in fifty-two tri-columned pages; a timeline of books on usage in eleven tri-columned pages; a select bibliography; and a select index of approximately 350 of the writers quoted or mentioned in the book. At the heart of GMEUare 983 pages of alphabetized entries in a section called “Garner’s Modern English Usage,” mirroring the title of the book. The name is apt in that the English usage described is, in the end, filtered through Garner’s eyes and ears and represents his view of what’s enshrined in Google Books and elsewhere. He conceded in the third edition that he “relied—unabashedly—on [his] own sense, based on a lifetime of serious linguistic study, of where a given usage falls on the spectrum...