Episode #003: Yes, It’s a Word, But Is It One You Should Use?
In this episode, we look at how two non-native English speakers damaged their writing by using perfectly “legal” English words that no English speaker ever heard.
Listen to the episode here:
Full transcript (headings aren’t in audio):
Last week I talked about who gets to decide whether something that might be a word is in fact a word. And I suggested that the right answer is not the makers of dictionaries, but the best writers.
Are Dictionaries Valuable?
Now, that may have prompted the question whether I believe dictionaries are valuable at all. The answer is that I’m sure they are valuable. Reference books on words and grammar and usage are valuable. Some are more valuable than others, of course, because some are better than others.
This week I’m going to talk about two specific instances in my career as a writer and editor in which a dictionary did not provide the right solution to the problem I faced. First, though—spoiler alert—since I’m going to tell you that you can possibly do without a dictionary, I’m going to tell you what one book you really ought to have on your shelf if you want to attain to great heights as a wordsmith.
That book is Garner’s Modern American Usage, by Bryan A. Garner. I recommend the third edition, published in 2009. The last time I looked, it cost only about $26 at Amazon.
Now, a couple of issues to discuss.
Usage and Grammar Guides: Don’t Pay Classroom Prices
First, why do I recommend the third edition? Well, let’s reverse that and ask why I wouldn’t recommend the most recent edition of a book. And that is an excellent question.
There are a number of books that I recommend, but not necessarily in their lastest editions. The reason is that many of these books are used in classrooms. And in nearly every case in which a book is commonly used in the classroom, that book is reissued too often.
Why? Because when your professor puts a book on a reading list, students are expected to buy the specified edition. This makes all kinds of sense. When the professor in class says, “Let’s turn to page 72 and look at the chart there,” it really helps if that chart is in fact on page 72 for everybody. This isn’t very likely if students are using different editions.
Now, if you’re a book publisher, and you publish a new edition every ten years, then during several of those years you’ll see your annual sales decreasing steadily, even though the same number of students are being assigned your book every year. This happens because with every passing year, the number of used copies of your book increases, and students will happily pay less money on the used market than for the new copy, since they get the same book either way. So, if your goal is to maximize profits, you’ll want to issue new editions fairly often, since each time you do so, you make the used copies of almost no value to current students; they have to buy the new.
For example, the Little, Brown franchise publishes a very good book called The Little, Brown Handbook. I bought a copy some years ago, and I was very impressed with it. The first edition of the Handbook came out in 1980. It’s currently in its 12th edition, published in 2011. This means the book has been updated roughly every two and a half years. The current edition lists for $73.49. Used copies of older editions can be had for under ten dollars. Thus, this book is one that I recommend, but unless you’ll need to read the same materials with the same pagination as a group of others, in other words, unless you’ve been assigned the book for a class, I don’t recommend paying the huge price for the latest edition.
Get the Latest from Bryan Garner
Why, then, do I recommend buying the latest edition of Garner’s usage guide?
First, because the changes since the previous edition are considerable. There’s simply a lot more material than there was before. More importantly, Bryan Garner added a new feature to the third edition that I and many others find very valuable. It’s the Language-Change Index, which is a scale of one to five, by which Garner gives you his best estimate of the degree to which a disputed usage is currently regarded as acceptable. On this scale, a score of one means that the usage (or spelling or whatever) is regarded as acceptable by virtually no careful writers. In other words, it’s flat-out wrong. A score of five means that this usage is fully accepted.
Now I’m about to make my boldest statement of all in recommendation of Garner’s Modern American Usage: It’s simply the most important book you can buy if you write in English for American readers. And I say that not even knowing whether you own a dictionary. Yes, that means what you think it means: I’m saying that owning Garner is more important than owning a dictionary.
To explain why, here’s today’s story.
Carmen’s Unabridged Diction
In episode 1, I mentioned that I’ve had some success writing fund-raising letters. One of the few times I’ve done this, it was for a wonderful Salvadoran woman, living in California, who supported women’s cooperatives in El Salvador. Besides raising funds for her, which involved writing a letter in my own name, I also edited her own English-language newsletter, which she sent out periodically to her supporters.
This was after a period of terrible troubles in El Salvador, and as those troubles were passing, she wrote about the challenges faced by the country. One of these was that there was considerable corruption in the military. So, Carmen wrote that the cleansing of the military was among the projects the country would have to perform in the near future. But, in the draft of the newsletter I was asked to edit, Carmen didn’t say “the cleansing of the military”. What she wrote instead was “the depuration of the military.”
I’m not sure I ever got a straight answer to my question where she had learned this word. I did learn that she was confident it was a perfectly good English word, which I would find in my Webster’s Third Unabridged.
If this had been the age of Google, my quandary wouldn’t have been very acute. But it was before not only Google but the World Wide Web, so I had to use my old-fashioned paper dictionaries. The word was in an unabridged dictionary, but not in any collegiate dictionary I owned, and so I suspected that, while it may be a perfectly good English word, it was probably one very seldom used. In a case like this, the best choice is to find a word that is actually in common use. Since “depuration” means “cleansing” or “purification”, the substitution would have been easy, except that one possibility nagged at me: that depuration might be a technical term, might in fact be exactly the term used when the cleansing being discussed is taking place in a military organization.
I can’t even remember how I resolved the issue. My point is that now, given the Web and Google, it would have been easy to learn what I needed to learn. Not only will Google show that the word is seldom used, but also that it has no special military associations. In other words, there’s no good reason to use it.
The more general point, then, is that the web provides not only most of the common information that a paper dictionary provides, but even more. It can provide a quick and broad sampling of how a word is actually used by writers. Now, clearly, these aren’t necessarily the more careful of writers; to look only for those, you’d want to consult a corpus, but even these exist online.
I don’t think it means what you think it means.
Some years later, I had exactly the same problem with another non-native English writer. I was editing for a management consulting firm, and a very intelligent man from Israel used the word “elusory” in his writing. The word was not “illusory”; that word begins with an I and is the adjective associated with “illusion”. Nor was it “elusive”, which begins with an E and is the adjective built from the root “elude”. Instead it was a cross between the two: E L U S O R Y. Turning to Garner, we read that this word I just spelled out is indeed a word, but is a needless variant of elusive. Once again, I had a non-native speaker of English tell me that a word was a perfectly good English word because it could be found in a dictionary, even though one might spend many decades among well-educated Americans and never hear the word. Nor would you see it in print in those same decades’ reading.
In other words, yes, it is a word. But that’s not sufficient reason for using it. To do so is to send your readers to their own dictionaries only to learn that you’ve used an obscure word for which there was a perfectly common substitute handy.
What’s worse, your reader may never be sure whether you meant elusive or illusory. I was never able to learn it from my Israeli writer. Fortunately (or not), the entire paragraph was a tangle, and the paper didn’t seem to require it, so I cut it entirely.
How Not to Use a Thesaurus
I never did learn, in either of these cases, where my writer had found the questionable word. I suspect the thesaurus. This book, handy though it is, is responsible for too many poorly chosen words. These kinds of problems can often be prevented by this simple rule: use a thesaurus only to jog your memory. Never use a word that you met there for the very first time. You don’t know where it’s been. You don’t even know whether it’s been anywhere in recent decades.
I’ve mentioned Garner’s Modern American Usage, and I’ve talked about the limitations of dictionaries. In the next episode, I’ll tell one more story about how a writer got in trouble that a dictionary couldn’t have kept him out of. After that, I’ll start a short series of podcasts that will explain my overall approach to verbal communication.
Until then this is Max Christian Hansen, wishing you a great week, and effective communication.
[This episode does not include Max’s usual call for comments. But please let us know what you’re thinking.]