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Modern American Usage

Jaques Barzun et. al, in Modern American Usage,  described in 1965 two warring camps which are still fighting to this day. Fortunately for us, linguistic correctness has for the most part won the war, at least when we approach an editor with a manuscript.

Despite the modern desire to be easy and casual, Americans from time to time give thought to the language they use—to grammar, vocabulary, and gobbledygook. And as on other issues the divide into two parties. The larger, which includes everybody from the proverbial plain main to the professional writer, takes it for granted that there is a right way to use words and construct sentences, and many wrong ways. The right way is believed to be clearer, simpler, more logical, and hence more likely to prevent error and confusion. Good writing is easier to read; it offers a pleasant combination of sound and sense.

Against this majority view is the doctrine of an embattled minority who make up for their small number by their great learning and their place of authority in the school system and the world of scholarship. They are the professional linguists, who deny that there is such a thing as correctness. The language, they say, is what anybody and everybody speaks. Hence there must be no interference with what they regard as a product of nature; they denounce all attempts at guiding choice; their governing principle is epitomized in the title of a speech by a distinguished member of the profession: “Can Native Speakers of A Language Make Mistakes?” . . . .

Somewhat inconsistently, the linguists produce dictionaries in which they tell us that a word or an expression is standard, substandard, colloquial, archaic, slang, or vulgar. How do they know? They know by listening to the words people use and by noticing—in conversations, newspapers, and books—how and by whom these words are used. Usage, then, is still real and various, even though the authorities refuse to point openly to a set of of words and forms as being preferable to others. “Standard” gets around the difficulty of saying “best” or “correct.”

By contrast, If you want an American dictionary that passes authoritative judgments, get a copy of Webster’s New International Dictionary Second Edition Unabridged. You may find it forlorn at a used book store. Expensive to buy on-line, this World War II era dictionary is still used by many law firms when defining the meaning of an everyday word. The Third Edition, written in the 1960s, took out most of the judgments of the second edition and became an ordinary dictionary, not a grand work.


One reply on “Modern American Usage”

Thought you might like to know that your “Modern American Usage” post is cited in today’s “Strolling with Jacques Barzun” Facebook page at [].

We [Michelle Kamhi–my wife, co-editor, and co-author–and I] have a copy of the ‘Second Edition Unabridged’ as well as a First Edition of another indispensable reference work, ‘Webster’s Dictionary of Synonyms’ (1942), subtitled ‘A Dictionary of Discriminated Synonyms with Antonums and Analogous and Contrasted Words.’

With appreciation,

Louis Torres
Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts)
Editor, “A Jacques Barzun Compendium” []

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