Usage Guides


There are a lot of different kinds of books you can use for language studies and editing. Style guides are indispensable. Dictionaries are more useful than many people realize, offering not just spellings but past participles and other inflected forms like superlatives plus variant spellings and  more. A good “grammar” like The Oxford English Grammar offers a sort of scientific analysis of sentence mechanics, which can be extremely useful.

But my real secret weapon is a good usage guide. Usage guides look like dictionaries. One of them – probably the best one – even has the word “dictionary” in the title: Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. This could be why most people don’t know about them: at a glance they look like they offer nothing you can’t find at But a closer look reveals these books are goldmines. Yes, they’re voluminous tomes of alphabetized entries about language. But they’re not just definitions and pronunciations. Each entry contains everything you want to know about the usage and correctness of the term.

Turn to the Ls and you’ll find a whole discussion on the difference between “less” and “fewer.” Turn to the Ps and you’ll find very a thorough discussion of pronouns and how to make them agree with their subjects (as well as other nuances of the pronoun). Under the I’s, you’ll learn the difference between “imply” and “infer.” Under the Ps there’s a discussion about the “possessive with gerund.” Under the Cs you can learn about “complement” and “compliment.” Under the U’s you’ll get an earful on whether sticklers are right to complain about the word “utilize” as well as some insights into the colloquial “used to could.”

Almost every question you could ever have about word usage is right at your fingertips in one of these guides. And if everyone knew about them, there’d be a lot less confusion about language, though there would be a lot more confusion about what I would do for a living.

The best-known usage guide is Fowler’s Modern English Usage, kind of the daddy of them all. But it’s from a British perspective and so is sometimes less useful to American English speakers.

Garner’s Modern American Usage is an antidote for this. It’s good, asking good questions, but sound a little prescriptive at times.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage is written in the voice of someone exasperated with silly language myths, and the contrarian undertones can get tiresome. But this point of view forces the authors to rely exclusively on research to arrive at conclusions. As a journalist taught that sourcing of information is crucial, this appeals to me most of all. But really, you can’t go wrong with any of them.


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