Roy Peter Clark: Why everyone needs a reliable language guide

February 12, 2020

When I delivered the manuscript of the book “Murder Your Darlings” to my publisher, it came in about a dozen chapters too long. Since I am morally opposed to murdering my own darlings, we present the first of an occasional series of essays on significant writing and language books that are worthy of your attention — in the spirit of “Murder Your Darlings.”

Up first: “Garner’s Modern English Usage,” by Bryan A. Garner and “Modern English Usage,” by H.W. Fowler

Summary? I own lots of dictionaries and usage guides, and so should you.

Garner’s Modern Usage

“Garner’s Modern English Usage” is the best one for our times. The meanings of words change. How do we know when a changing word has achieved a level of acceptability? Bryan Garner creates a rubric – a scale of one to five. To reconcile what writers can do with what they should do requires a journey from the land of right and wrong to the land of cause and effect.

Every writer needs a language guide. It would be nice to have a human guide just a text message away. A fine choice would be Mignon Fogarty, a generous and versatile language expert who styles herself as the Grammar Girl. In her books, on her website, through her podcasts, in all manifestations of her work, Fogarty is a friend, not a scold. I once puzzled over the title of my book “How to Write Short,” and she gave me a thumbs-up, identifying “short” as not an adjective, but a “flat adverb.”

I keep two language guides close at hand. To me they are indispensable along with my three favorite dictionaries: The Oxford English Dictionary (12 volumes plus Supplements); the American Heritage Dictionary (the one with all the pretty pictures); and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (preferred by my publisher). I want to learn something new about the craft every day. While my writing heart feels healthy, my brain feels incapable of holding all the language knowledge I need – when I need it.


I’m not sure any writer could have a better guide than H.W. Fowler, who in 1926 gave us “Modern English Usage.” I don’t read this book enough just for fun, but I keep it close at hand for strategic purposes. When it comes to things like usage, spelling, and punctuation, word people own stubborn preferences. (Don’t mess with my Oxford comma!) When it comes to arguments on technical aspects of language, I use Fowler as a deal closer, a mic dropper.

For example, there are teachers and a few editors who still treat a split infinitive as if it were a cancer cell. Here is Fowler, 90 years ago, from a section on the Split Infinitive that covers more than five full pages:

The English-speaking world may be divided into 1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; 2) those who do not know, but care very much; 3) those who know & condemn; 4) those who know and approve; & 5) those who know & distinguish.

Enjoy the flavor of his first point on the controversy:

Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, & are a happy folk, to be envied by most of the minority classes; ‘to really understand’ comes readier to their lips & pens than ‘really to understand’, they see no reason why they should not say it (small blame to them, seeing that reasons are not their critics’ strong point), & they do say it, to the discomfort of some among us, but not to their own.

Fowler’s voice is not that of the school master, brandishing his pointer like a riding crop. Instead, it is full of fun, aglow with that rare quality: wit. He understands the importance of standards of usage. They are never straitjackets. Nor are they suits of armor. They are tools of meaning, the elements of effective communication, subject to revision and argument.

The Roman poet Horace said that great literature should delight and instruct. So should good usage guides. Let’s dip a toe into a topic Fowler calls Facetious Formations. These are words that are created for fun, or joined together for effect, or are sometimes mistakes that grow legs. Under pun or parody, he lists anecdotage. I take that to refer to endless little stories told by senile citizens. Mock mistakes include splendiferous, an adjective, I must say, that I use all the time. In his lists you will find made-up words that survived the century: chortle, disgruntled (can you be gruntled?), ramshackle and cantankerous.

For the first time I noticed his dedication page: “To the memory of my brother – Francis George Fowler, M.A. Cantab. Who shared with me the planning of this book, but did not live to share the writing….He had a nimbler wit, a better sense of proportion, and a more open mind, than his twelve-year-older partner.”

If this was true of the young Fowler – who died in 1918 at the age of 47 from tuberculosis contracted in the Great War – then we all suffered a great loss, indeed. But it’s hard to imagine a wittier and wiser volume than the one created by the older brother. The life and legacy of H.W. Fowler are preserved by Jenny McMorris in the book “The Warden of English.”

The American Fowler

Bryan Garner is the literary heir of H.W. Fowler and an American to boot. Earlier editions of his work were titled “Modern American Usage,” and as a Yank I could, without xenophobia or colonial paranoia, take patriotic pride in the book’s brilliance. Claiming a kind of literary independence from the Brits can be traced to Emerson and beyond. But capitalist instincts run deep in the U.S.A. and, when it comes to language, English is a bigger word than American, signifying a global market.

The introduction to my book “Writing Tools” imagines a “nation of writers,” a worthy if impossible mission. As a result, warmly sarcastic friends would introduce me at workshops as “America’s writing coach.” I liked it, but I knew I was unworthy. The title should go to Bryan Garner, and I hereby turn it over to him. He might earn it just from his astonishing body of work devoted to effective writing within the legal profession. Through his workshops and a series of writing guides for lawyers – books endorsed by justices of the Supreme Court – he has authorized members of the legal profession to use language correctly, at times creatively, and always in the public interest.

The late David Foster Wallace, a language savant in his own right, praised Garner as a “genius.” Wallace saw in Garner a kind of prophet, a chosen one, who descended from language heaven with a mission that seems almost impossible: to reconcile the practical and philosophical differences that divide the dominant schools of language studies. In short, the Prescriptive school articulates standards of usage that people should follow; the Descriptivists are guided by the ways of speaking and writing that users of language do follow.

When I was going to Catholic School on Long Island, if any of us used the word “ain’t,” we might hear from teachers or parents: “There ain’t no such word as ain’t.”

That memory inspired me to look up “ain’t” in Garner:

Is this word used orally in most parts of the country by cultivated speakers? In 1961 [Webster’s Third] said it was, provoking a firestorm of protests from journalists and academics….Yes, ain’t is used by cultivated speakers, but almost always for either of two reasons 1) to be tongue-in-cheek; and 2) to flaunt their reverse snobbery. For most people it remains an emblem of poor usage – a NONWORD.

A check of the one-page Quick Editorial Guide inside the front cover reveals at a glance the range of Garner’s concerns. From his 100 points, I offer 10:

  • Acronyms overused
  • But needed as sentence starter
  • Chronology needs improvement
  • Disinterested and Uninterested
  • Euphemism
  • Formal word mars tone
  • Hopefully
  • Inelegant variation
  • Jargon needs simplifying
  • Me & I & myself

Garner offers less wit (thus less fun) than Fowler. But Garner is more systematic, more theoretical, but in a useful way. His introductory essay makes his mission transparent: “Making Peace in the Language Wars.” His greatest contribution to this effort was the development of what he calls a Language Change Index. To judge whether a word or phrase has passed into “correct usage,” one can locate it in one of five stages of semantic change.

For example, I do not use the phrase “it begs the question” – an old legal term for a logical fallacy – when I mean “it invites the question.” But many writers, including professional journalists and politicians use it that way.

In which of the following five stages shall we find it?

Stage 1: “A new form emerges as an innovation…among a small minority of the language community.”

Stage 2: “The form spreads to a significant portion of the language community, but it remains unacceptable in standard usage.”

Stage 3: “The form becomes commonplace even among many well-educated people, but it’s still avoided in careful usage.”

Stage 4: “The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts….”

Stage 5: “The form is universally adopted except by a few eccentrics.”

Garner explains how to apply these tests: “Many mutations never progress beyond stage 1. They stay in the shadows of the language, emerging now and again, mostly to the annoyance of educated people. Arguments frequently erupt about words and phrases in stages 2 and 3. But if a mutation makes its way to stage 4, its long-term progression to stage 5 is all but assured: it’s just a question of the passing of time, whether decades or mere days.”

So can I use “begs the question” when I mean “invites the question”? I turn to page 103 and there is the entry “beg the question.” Using a variety of historical examples, Garner explains the original meaning of the phrase, a logical problem, exemplified by what might be called a circular argument, where the conclusion is already argued in the premise.

“All that having been said, the use of beg the question to mean raise another question is so ubiquitous that the new sense has been recognized by most dictionaries and sanctioned by descriptive observers of language. Still, though it is true that the new sense may be understood by most people, many will consider it slipshod.”

Where does Garner place it on the Language-Change Index? Stage 4. That means it is destined for Standard English usage, but his word “slipshod,” which means “wearing shoddy shoes” or “being down at the heel” winks at me, giving me permission to not beg the question, even if others do so. Thank you, Bryan Garner.

Lessons: If you have a friend or colleague who is better at the technical aspects of language than you are, do not be afraid to consult this person when trying to make the best choice as a writer. Collect lexicons – dictionaries of words and usage – and use them in a variety of ways: for pleasure and general language knowledge; to better understand usage controversies; to look up a word or phrase on deadline. When you discover something new or interesting about language, share it with someone else. By “teaching” it, you will better learn it.

Correction: This article originally stated that H.W. Fowler first published “Modern English Usage” in 1927. It was actually first published in 1926. We regret the error. 

Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at Poynter. He can be reached via email at or on Twitter at @RoyPeterClark.