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Review of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage

Peruse the bookstore section on Grammar and Usage and you’ll see we’ll never face a shortage of experts who tell you how the English language works and how to deal with issues of usage. But most of these books suffer common shortcomings:

  1. They’re not researched. In fact, they’re based less on English as real writers actually use it than on how the writer imagines everyone ought to use it.
  2. They repeat what’s already been said a thousand times.
  3. They’re hyper-focused on error, a focus which has a way of inculcating paranoia amongst writers who follow the one-size-fits-all dictums too rigidly. Imagine the way a runner might tip-toe through a minefield. That’s the kind of writing these other books breed.

Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage bucks the conventions of the genre. It’s scholarly, ambitious, and innovative.

“English usage today is a discourse,” this book begins, and that key observation is central to its approach. This observation might seem obvious to research-oriented Linguists, but other grammar handbooks (Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style and Diana Hacker’s Rules for Writers, for instance) are written in a bubble outside of this discourse. They’ll read like theirs is the first and the definitive treatise on correctitude in English. This attitude is part of the tradition of grammar books, which has changed surprisingly little in the past 300 years.

Merriam Webster’s diverges from the tradition by stepping back and summarizing the history of the discourse in a way that puts modern quibbles in a perspective that’s missing. It turns out that most of the contemporary controversies date back decades, if not centuries. The authors cite liberally from usage guides, language commentators, and armchair grammarians to bring them into conversation, sometimes in ways that make the “experts” sound clownishly ignorant. For instance, the editors note how commentators have been wrongly predicting the death of the subjunctive and the death of “whom” for over a century!

This book doesn’t pronounce in over-simplified strokes what’s “right” and what’s “wrong.” This choice will certainly narrow the readership. Such authoritative pronouncements can soothe the anxieties of students and novices, but correctness is not a fixed binary. Language changes. Attitudes change. Many critics confound style and taste with correctness. Correctness is a living, changing polarity.

Merriam Webster’s never falls into the correct/incorrect trap because the editors are well-grounded in the systematic study of language. How refreshing! The truth is that the writers of most grammar handbooks are not research-oriented linguists—they’re writers. Noteworthy writers of course can teach us a lot about writing, but when they try to explain the maddening complexities and variations of the English language, they step outside their expertise. It’s like childcare workers giving advice to the public about the details of pediatrics.

Whereas other handbooks generate example sentences to fit their prescriptions, Merriam Webster’s is grounded in real-life usage. 20,000+ illustrative citations are drawn from their corpus to show how respected and published writers actually use English. For every tsk-tsk rule of writing that your seventh grade English teacher might have taught you, this book provides ample citations of writers that follow it, and writers that flout it. Thanks to the editors’ diligent research, we can see that Shakespeare would have failed a quiz on how we are traditionally taught to use “who” and “whom.” When critics label the adverb “hopefully” as the “un-English” result of “hack translators,” the editors point out that their assertions are “very ingenious but…not supported by a shred of evidence.”

An alphabetical listing of 2,300+ entries covers just about every sticking point in the English language that any language-watcher has ever commented on. I’ve read dozen of grammar and usage guides (which never agree on what should be listed)  and Merriam Webster’s covers nearly every controversy I’ve heard, plus many I never imagined existed. Even seemingly uncontroversial usage issues involving words like “claim” and “gap” have made it into this book. More complicated issues—such as the choice of accusative or nominative pronoun—are broken into separate sub-issues.

The discussions are scholarly and nuanced. They always steer clear of all those directives that are part of the grammar book tradition, and instead allow you to draw your own informed conclusions.

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