Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

(Still) Groping for Words: Usage and Slang Guides, Revisited: The Grammar Wars: From Gove to Garner

by Edwin L. Battistella

The Grammar Wars: From Gove to Garner

The 1950s and 1960s were a linguistically contentious time, as professional writers echoed the verbal criticism of the previous century. Linguists, too, continued to promote the inevi-tability of change in a controversial report titled The English Language Arts, which was published under the purview of the Commission on the English Curriculum in the early 1950s.

The debate became a cause in the 1960s with the appearance of Webster’s Third, in which chief editor Philip Gove updated Webster’s Second with many new words traditionalists disliked. Gove also revised usage judgments and labels, giving fewer summary dismissals of words: for example, the shibboleth “ain’t” was described as “disapproved by many” but “used orally in most parts of the US by cultivated speakers.” Herbert Morton relates the making of this dictionary and the public furor in The Story of Webster’s Third, including in that history a 1962 New Yorker cartoon that reflected the consternation and bemusement of many: the cartoon shows a receptionist at Merriam’s Dictionary Division informing a visitor that “Dr. Gove ain’t in.” David Skinner’s The Story of Ain’t: America, Its Language, and the Most Controversial Dictionary Ever Published adds to the cultural backstory of the dictionary, fleshing out the cast of linguists and lexicographers and the controversies they attempted to navigate.

One result of the attention to lexicography in the 1960s was the publication of several new dictionaries. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, edited by William Morris (now in its fifth edition), supplemented citations with opinions about usage by a panel of distinguished writers. This tradition continued through 2018 (and the publication of the revised fifth edition), when the publisher discontinued the panel, citing a decreasing demand for print dictionaries. In 1966 Random House entered the dictionary market with The Random House Dictionary of the English Language—which is now known as Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary4—under the general editorship of Jessie Stein.

For the attitudes of journalists in the 1950s and 1960s, one has only to turn to the books of Theodore Bernstein. His Watch Your Language—which evolved from his New York Times language newsletter “Winners and Sinners”—targeted those who were neither “stiff-necked grammarians” nor “soothing champions of the masses” and included fifty pages of “words that need watching.” Included in this book’s advice: the word “menial” is demeaning and “the social distinction between a lady and a woman has no place in the columns of a newspaper.” Bernstein was more prescriptive in The Careful Writer (distinguishing words like “flail” and “flay,” “inform” and “advise”), but his Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears, and Outmoded Rules of English Usage debunks many superstitions of English grammar, as its wordy title promises.

Other 1950s and 1960s usage guides continued to echo Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Margaret Nicholson described her Dictionary of American-English Usage as “a simplified [Modern English Usage], with American variations”; she shortened the longer entries but left intact “Fowler’s own mannerisms and pedantries.” Wilson Follett embarked on an original “American Fowler,” and when Follett died before completing the task, a team led by Jacques Barzun finished Follett’s work and published the book as Modern American Usage: A Guide. In places this volume was more scolding in tone than Fowler’s book, finding much fault with the grammar and society of the day, but the book had many interesting essay-like entries (for example, on “lost causes,” “scientism,” “genteelism,” “pedantry”). A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage, by siblings Bergen Evans and Cornelia Evans, was a straightforward usage guide dealing with British and American variants from an American point of view (listing, for example, “scratch pad” and citing the British “scribbling block” in that entry) and distinguishing between such words as “mad”/“angry” and “anxious”/“eager.” Evans and Evans’s intent was to cover current usage; although they state their preference for literary forms, they encourage readers to inform themselves and make up their own minds.

Current American Usage, edited by Margaret Bryant—which is about “how Americans say it and write it”—represents the linguistic approach. Looking at more than 200 selected points of usage and summarizing the evidence based on studies of actual language use, Bryant emphasizes that conclusions “do not depend upon personal impressions” but rather describe how people speak and write “with clear distinctions among cultivated, less cultivated, and uneducated usage.” Bryant offers the standard advice, but in a much less judgmental way than others: for “ain’t,” for example, she notes that “most standard speakers avoid it except in very informal situations.” At the other end of the spectrum, one finds Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage by William Morris (mentioned above as the first editor of American Heritage Dictionary) and Mary Morris. Written “with the assistance of a panel of 136 distinguished consultants on usage”—i.e., American Heritage Dictionary’s first usage panel—this resource quotes that panel’s opinions on matters such as “hopefully” (accepted in speech by 42 percent of the panel), “finalize” (accepted by 26 percent in casual speech), and “between you and I” (rejected by 97 percent).

The guides by Follett, the Morrises, and Bryant illustrate different mid-20th-century approaches to the problem of disputed usage—the guru, the advisory board, and the citation study, respectively. Some style guides have attempted to finesse the problem by summarizing the advice of other style guides. Roy Copperud’s American Usage: The Consensus makes this explicit. Drawing on Fowler, Follett, Flesch, Bernstein, Bryant, Evans, and his own Dictionary of Usage and Style: The Reference Guide for Professional Writers, Reporters, Editors, Teachers and Students (published six years prior), Copperud notes who condemns a usage and who treats it as standard. A more contemporary synthesizer is Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (first published as Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage), which offers more than 2,300 entries on words and points of grammar, illustrates usage problems, and discusses them with literary, journalistic citations and other style-guide advice. Including a fine essay on the history of usage by E. Ward Gilman, the guiding light behind this resource, this volume couches opinions as “we recommend” rather than “this is right.” J. Stephen Sherwin’s Deciding Usage: Evidence and Interpretation is also a gem, offering usage advice and, in some cases, information about the origins of opinions about correctness.

The American Heritage Book of English Usage updates Morris and Morris’s Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage with recommendations based on usage-panel surveys and a topical organization that includes sections on grammar, word choice and pronunciation, names, labels and gender issues, scientific terms, and electronic communication. And Kenneth Wilson’s The Columbia Guide to Standard American English, a comprehensive dictionary of American usage, relies on the levels of style described by such linguists as Martin Joos and Henry Gleason Jr. in the 1960s, for English both written (semiformal and informal) and spoken (oratorical, planned, impromptu, casual, and intimate). This approach in some ways follows that of Current American Usage, bringing linguistic content to usage advice.

Several books collect commentary on language. Two by Jacques Barzun, A Word or Two before You Go…. and Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers (the latter revised since its first publication in 1976), offer Barzun’s often-scolding essays on abstractions, neology, and slang but also some provocative thoughts on Mencken, Fowler, and linguistics. The late Geoffrey Nunberg’s essays are collected in The Way We Talk Now and Going Nucular: Language, Politics, and Culture in Confrontational Times. Nunberg used language commentary to explore American values rather than simply criticize, and these two titles collect his work for NPR (specifically the program Fresh Air) and the New York Times. Ben Yagoda’s When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse, organized around nine parts of speech, offers witty, mostly tolerant advice on language. Yagoda is a stylist rather than a grammarian, and his unjaundiced approach to grammatical topics is refreshing.

One of the most recent comprehensive works is the third edition of Fowler, published as The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage in 1996, and since revised. Drawing on data from all over the English-speaking world and thoughtfully shaped by editor Robert Burchfield, a professional lexicographer, this revision overwhelmed some users and was unpopular with Fowler purists, as any modernization might be. As a result, Oxford re-released the 1926 version in its “Oxford Language Classics” series in 2003, for the benefit of Fowler aficionados.

If one were to designate a twenty-first-century heir to Henry Fowler, that person would be Bryan Garner. In his comprehensive, well-organized Garner’s Modern English Usage (which updates his Dictionary of Modern American Usage and Garner’s Dictionary of American Usage), Garner aims to be (as David Foster Wallace noted in Harper’s Magazine5) technocratic rather than autocratic, though where a particular judgment falls will depend on one’s perspective. As Fowler did, Garner offers long, helpful entries on broad topics—for example, standard English, superstitions, slang, class distinctions. He also provides an excellent chronological bibliography of about 300 sources and a pair of thought-provoking opening essays: “Making Peace in the Language Wars” and “The Ongoing Struggles of Garlic Hangers.” But the heart of the volume is useful entries on individual points of usage: Garner recommends spelling “Presidents’ Day” with the apostrophe; gives the history of “spitting image” and “shuffleboard”; warns of conflating particular words (“imply”/“infer,” “lend”/“loan,” “hardy”/“hearty”); and so on. And for those seeking an exposition of terminology and rules, Garner has written The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, which offers everything from the history of the parts of speech and sentence diagramming to Google N-grams documenting usage change.
 

Works Cited