This is the fourth in a series of posts about the references writers and editors should have on their physical or virtual bookshelf.
Usage guides explain issues of confused or disputed use of the English language. The best ones provide historical perspective on usage problems, give advice on present-day usage, and provide quotations to illustrate usage and show changes over time.
Usage can cover a wide range of issues, such as grammar, syntax, commonly confused words, capitalization, alternative spellings, and idioms. Here are a few examples of common usage issues:
- they/them/their as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, as in “A person can’t help their birth.”
- “alright” vs. “all right”
- “shall” vs. “will”
- “that” vs. “which”
- “it is I” vs. “it is me”
- “less” vs. “fewer”
- “different than” vs. “different from”
My favorite usage guide is Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. After I bought the book, I showed it to my husband, but he didn’t show much interest at the time. The next day he happened to ask me a usage question, so I grabbed the book and read him the answer. He took the book from me and started to browse through it, and ever since the book has lived on the reference shelf in his office. He even included it in his end of 2007 recommended books list for the Chasing Ray blog, and this is what he wrote:
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage– Forget Strunk and White’s flimsy little style pamphlet. What you’ve got here is nearly a thousand pages of distilled commentary on the most vexing grammar and usage questions of our time, such as whether it’s OK to say that one thing is different than another, or whether “my friend and I” can be used as the object of a sentence. The way you judge such a book, of course, is by seeing how often it supports your side of an argument, and so far, the Dictionary has been right every time.
You can browse some sample pages using Amazon.com’s “Look Inside” feature. For those readers who took issue with the David Foster Wallace quote calling utilize a “puff-word,” here is the M-W entry for utilize, which expresses a different view:
Usage writers dislike utilize because they regard it as a needlessly long and pretentious substitute for use. They generally recommend either that it be disdained altogether or that it be used (not utilized) only when it has the meaning “to turn to practical use or account.” That is, in fact, almost invariably the meaning of utilize in actual usage:
“Scientific knowledge, for example, is developing exponentially–faster perhaps than our culture can… utilize it wisely.” –Milton S. Eisenhower, Johns Hopkins Mag., February 1966.
“…women who want to work at jobs that utilize their full potential.” — Bella S. Abzug, Saturday Rev., 7 Aug. 1976.
Use could certainly be substituted for utilize in any of these passages, but not without some loss of connotation. Utilize is a distinct word having distinct implications. More than use, it suggests a deliberate decision or effort to employ something (or someone) for a practical purpose. Its greatest sins are that it has two more syllables than use and that it ends with the dreaded -ize. It is a common word, nevertheless, and every indication is that it will continue to be one.
Another good usage guide is Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner. Garner includes both word entries and essays addressing larger questions of usage and style. You can browse a few pages on Amazon.com, and Garner’s website has reviews and links to two sample pages from the work.
Here’s an interesting sample entry:
Cummings, E.E. The poet Edward Estlin Cummings (1894-1962), a shy man, early in career used the lowercase i for the first-person singular pronoun. (This habit, now commonplace in Internet exchanges, was highly unusual.) Cumming’s critics then began referring to him sarcastically in print as e.e.cummings. The practice stuck, and that was how his name appeared on book covers. Does this mean we should all use lowercase letters in spelling his name? Those most familiar with the man think not, and they use ordinary capitalization. Norman Friedman, the founder and then president of the E.E. Cummings Society, summed up the poet’s “philosophy of typography” this way: “that he could use caps and lowercase as he wished, but that when others referred to him by name they ought to use caps.” Spring: The Journal of the E.E. Cummings Society, 1992, at 114-21. Nor is it true that Cummings legally changed his name to lowercase letters. That story appeared in the preface to a biography about Cummings, but his widow angrily denied it.
In contrast with M-W, Garner has little to say about utilize:
use; utilize; utilization. Use is the all-purpose noun and verb, ordinarily to be preferred over utilize and utilization. Utilize is both more abstract and more favorable connotatively than use.
There are, of course, other usage guides. Fowler and Follett each have their fans (some are particularly attached to the old 1965 second edition of Fowler, which is very British). As I’ve said before, you should compare different references, find those you like, and use them.