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USAGE GUIDANCE AND CRITICISM The concept of USAGE and usage criticism in English dates from the 17c, when the first grammars of the language were written by William Bullokar (1586), Ben Jonson (1640), John Wallis (1658), and others. A more critical approach to the use of English emerged with literary figures such as John Dryden, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, and Jonathan Swift. Bishop Robert Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar was published in 1762; it attempted to show that good use of language could be determined by the application of rules, and it became the largely unacknowledged source of the better-known work of Lindley Murray, an American grammarian who lived in England and wrote the school grammars English Grammar, English Exercises, and others, published from 1795 onwards. Robert Baker's Reflections on the English Language (1770) was one of the earliest works that would now be regarded as a usage book. The genre developed in the 19c, with Henry Alford (Dean of Canterbury) in Britain, author of A Plea for the Queen's English (1864), and Edward S. Gould (Good English, 1867), and Richard Grant White (Words and Their Uses, 1870) in America. Since the turn of the century, usage criticism in print has proliferated, in the form of reference books, usually arranged alphabetically as dictionaries, and columns on language in newspapers.

Another strand of usage criticism is represented by George ORWELL. Explicitly in a number of essays, and implicitly in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), Orwell criticized language use that he saw as artificial and bureaucratic, and remote from the language of ordinary people. In his view, it had the effect of confusing and obscuring rather than communicating effectively, for example by writing ‘in my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumtion that …’ instead of ‘I think …’. He was not attempting to set standards of ordinary usage, but was condemning authoritarianism, seeing misuse of standard English as its instrument. This theme has also been pursued—though not with the same political implications—by Ernest Gowers and Ifor Evans (see below), and others, and in the work of scoieties promoting the cause of ‘plain’ or ‘direct’ English. See PLAIN ENGLISH, SOCIETY FOR PURE ENGLISH.

British usage books

The most famous and controversial British usage book is H. W. FOWLER's A DICTIONARY OF MODERN ENGLISH USAGE (1926), in which he developed ideas presented earlier in the thematically organized The KING'S ENGLISH (1906). MEU is a blend of prescription, tolerance, and idiosyncrasy, and was the first usage book of its kind to be organized as a dictionary, thereby departing from the traditional codified grammar. It was also the first to include the name usage in its title. Fowler wrote about what he thought usage should be, not about what it was, and his evidence, as far as can be judged from the citations in the book, was selected to show where he thought users of English went wrong. None the less, it is to Fowler's credit that he avoided (especially misplaced) pedantry, as in his article on the split infinitive. The book was published in a 2nd edition in 1965 with revisions by Sir Ernest GOWERS, a senior civil servant who twenty years earlier had attempted to persuade the British Civil Service to avoid pretentious and often incomprehensible jargon in Plain Words (1948), in later editions The COMPLETE PLAIN WORDS. Other works on usage include Eric Partridge's Usage and Abusage (1942, with many revisions), B. Ifor Evans's The Use of English (1949), G. H. Vallins's Good English (1951) and Better English (1953), Logan Pearsall Smith's Words and Idioms (1925), A. P. Herbert's What a Word (1935), and Ivor Brown's Words in Our Time (1958) and other works. Current guides include Martin H. Manser's Bloomsbury Good Word Guide (1988), Sidney Greenbaum and Janet Whitcut's Longman Guide to English Usage (1988), The Oxford Guide to English Usage (1983), and John O. E. Clark's Word Perfect (Harrap, 1987).

Today, no major British reference publisher can afford to lack a usage guide, and some boast several, each with its own philosophy and style. In some cases, guidance is associated with a publisher's house style, as in The Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors (1981), a work largely concerned with spelling and hyphenation. Most current usage manuals are written by grammarians and lexicographers in alphabetical format and concentrate their advice on specific points, usually with made-up examples of use; an exception is The Oxford Miniguide to English Usage (1983), which organizes its material into thematic sections covering grammar, vocabulary, etc., and bases its advice on usage examplified by established writers, mostly of fiction. None of these, however, has attained the level of authority achieved by Fowler and by Partridge.

American usage books

Usage criticism in the US has tended to be in the conservative, prescriptive tradition of Lindley Murray, whose works remained in print to the end of the 19c. Standard works include Bergen and Cornelia Evans's A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957), Wilson Follett's Modern American Usage (1966), which derives its format and approach from Fowler and Fowler's US adaptation by M. Nicholson as A Dictionary of American English Usage (1957), and William and Mary Morris's Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (1975, 1985), which drew on a usage panel of 166 consultants. A recent work that examines a wide range of issues, quoting extensively from printed sources, is Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1989). H. W. Horwill's Modern American Usage (1935; 2nd edition, 1944) is primarily intended to help Britons with AmE, and Norman W. Schur's British English A to Zed (1987) is intended to help Americans with BrE.

Usage criticism in newspapers

Usage criticism and guidance is provided on a regular basis as a column in newspapers and other periodicals. The doyen of usage columnists in the US in the late 20c is William Safire of the New York Times, whose articles are widely syndicated. American journalism has also been the foundation of systematic usage and style guides, notably Theodore Bernstein's The Careful Writer (1965) and William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White's The ELEMENTS OF STYLE, known affectionately as ‘the little book’ (3rd edition, 1979; earlier editions 1959, 1972). In Britain, Philip Howard in The Times, John Silverlight in The Observer, and Robert Burchfield in The Sunday Times have a more limited following, often seeming to entertain and inform the converted rather than advising the doubtful. A feature of some columns is a response to queries from readers, on which the columnists provide personal comment along with quotations from dictionaries and usage guides.

Usage panels and usage notes

Current general dictionaries of English often include usage notes attached to individual entries. The first such work to employ a team of advisers was the Random House American College Dictionary (1947). The practice was extended by Houghton Mifflin in the American Heritage Dictionary (1969), whose usage notes were compiled from replies to questionnaires from a panel of consultants including linguists, writers, journalists, and broadcasters. The results are often colourful and distinctive, as at hopefully: ‘this usage is by now such a bugbear to traditionalists that it is best avoided on grounds of civility, if not logic’ (2nd edition, 1982). The editor of the AHD was William Morris; with Mary Morris he took the panel approach further in the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage (above), in which a range of controversies was treated with reference to the opinions of panellists, often quoted in full or given statistically. The panellists included writers, journalists, broadcasters, and academics, with many famous names among them, such as Isaac Asimov, W. H. Auden, Saul Bellow, Anthony Burgess, Alistair Cooke, Walter Cronkite, Jessica Mitford, and William Zinsser. The method affords flexibility, with different levels of usage distinguished. Panellists' comments are varied and colourful: ‘The English language is the finest tool for communication ever invented. Since it is used indiscriminately by hundreds of millions, it is no wonder that it is badly misused so often’ (Isaac Asimov); ‘The English language began to curl up and die, instead of being regenerated, sometime after the Second World War, until now it has become like, wow!, you know’ (Douglas Watt). The use of usage notes is now common in dictionaries on both sides of the Atlantic, for native speakers and foreign learners alike.


With the current proliferation of usage books publishers will need to strike a balance between two kinds of authority: that based on received opinion (backed up by their name and the names of their authors) and that derived from intellectual argument. This argument will in its turn depend on a model of English grammar that has yet to evolve.


The nature, style, and content of the guidance provided by usage guides over the years is illustrated in the following sequence of advice and comment on a classic controversy, the split infinitive: ‘to boldly go’ as opposed to ‘boldly to go’ and ‘to go boldly’. The comments range from 1851 to 1983.
Of the infinitive verb and its preposition to, some grammarians say that they must never be separated by an adverb. It is true, that the adverb is, in general, more elegantly placed before the preposition than after it; but, possibly, the latter position of it may sometimes contribute to perspicuity, which is more essential than elegance ( Goold Brown , The Grammar of English Grammars, US 1851)
A correspondent states as his own usage, and defends, the insertion of an adverb between the sign of the infinitive mood and the verb. He gives as an instance, ‘to scientifically illustrate’. But surely this is a practice entirely unknown to English speakers and writers. It seems to me, that we ever regard the to of the infinitive as inseparable from its verb, and when we have a choice between two forms of expression, ‘scientifically to illustrate’, and ‘to illustrate scientifically’, there seems no good reason for flying in the face of common usage ( Henry Alford , A Plea for the Queen's English, UK, 1864)
If you do not immediately suppress the person who takes it upon himself to lay down the law almost every day in your columns on the subject of literary composition, I will give up taking the Chronicle… Your fatuous specialist … is now beginning to rebuke ‘second-rate newspapers’ for using such phrases as ‘to suddenly go’ and ‘to boldly say’. I ask you, Sir, to put this man out … without, however, interfering with his perfect freedom of choice between ‘to suddenly go’, ‘to go suddenly’ and ‘suddenly to go’ ( George Bernard Shaw , in a letter to the Chronicle, UK 2 Sept. 1892)
A constant and unguarded use of it is not to be encouraged… On the other hand, it may be said that its occasional use is of advantage in circumstances where it is desired to avoid ambiguity ( C. T. Onions , An Advanced English Syntax, UK 1904)
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 and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish… Those upon whom the fear of infinitive-splitting sits heavy should remember that to give conclusive evidence, by distortions, of misconceiving the nature of the split infinitive is far more damaging to their literary pretensions than an actual lapse could be… The attitude of those who know and distinguish is something like this: We admit that separation of to from its infinitive… is not in itself desirable, and we shall not gratuitously say either ‘to mortally wound’ or ‘to mortally be wounded’; but we are not foolish enough to confuse the latter with ‘to be mortally wounded’, which is blameless English… We will split infinitives sooner than be ambiguous or artificial; more than that, we will freely admit that sufficient recasting will get rid of any split infinitive without involving either of those faults, and yet reserve to ourselves the right of deciding in each case whether recasting is worth while ( H. W. Fowler , A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, UK, 1926)
The name is misleading, for the preposition to no more belongs to the infinitive as a necessary part of it, than the definite article belongs to the substantive, and no one would think of calling ‘the good man’ a split substantive ( Otto Jespersen , Essentials of English Grammar, UK 1933)
(1) There is no doubt that the rule [against the split infinitive] at present holds sway, and on my principle the official has no choice but to conform ( Ernest Gowers , Plain Words, UK, 1941)
. (2) A friend whose opinion I value has reproached me for this… I ought, he tells me, to have the courage of my convictions. I ought to say about the split infinitive … that is right for the official to give a lead in freeing writers from this fetish… My friend may be right. Rebels will find themselves in good company ( Ernest Gowers , The Complete Plain Words, UK, 1954)
Avoid the split infinitive wherever possible; but if it is the clearest and the most natural construction, use it boldly. The angels are on our side ( Eric Partridge , Usage and Abusage, UK, 1947)
The temptation to split an infinitive is extremely rare in spoken English, because the voice supplies the stress needed by the unsplit form or conceals by a pause the awkwardness of the adverb placed before or after. It is in written work that splitting is called for, and desk sets should include small hatchets of silver or gold for the purpose ( Wilson Follett , Modern American Usage, US, 1966)
The split infinitive is another trick of rhetoric in which the ear must be quicker than the handbook. Some infinitives seem to improve on being split, just as a stick of round stovewood does ( Strunk & White , The Elements of Style, 3rd edition, US, 1979)
It is often said that an infinitive should never be split. This is an artificial rule that can produce unnecessarily contorted sentences. Rather, it is recommended that a split infinitive should be avoided by placing the adverb before or after the infinitive, unless this leads to clumsiness or ambiguity. If it does, one should either allow the split infinitive to stand, or recast the sentence ( E. S. C. Weiner , The Oxford Miniguide to English Usage, UK, 1983)