My enthusiasm for The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), which I hereby declare, will make immediate sense to those who refer to it in their own investigations of English usage. To the majority, who are more likely never to have heard of it, or then only in passing, such enthusiasm may seem idiosyncratic or downright nerdy. So be it.
The uninitiated can, if it helps, think of MWDEU as a classic of its kind, though its profile is much lower than that of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style or Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, which are often iconically shortened to Strunk & White and Fowler, respectively. To summarise what MWDEU offers I can do no better than its editor E. Ward Gilman, whose preface says it:
examines and evaluates common problems of confused or disputed usage from two perspectives: that of historical background, especially as shown in the great historical dictionaries, and that of present-day usage, chiefly as shown by evidence in the Merriam-Webster files.
That it does this in such a thorough and unbiased way is what elevates MWDEU so far above the ordinary. Each entry is presented in a much broader context than is typically the case in books that advise on English usage and style. Take for example its short entry on insightful:
This relatively new adjective (first recorded in 1907) has lately become something of a minor irritant to a few usage commentators, who have described it variously as ‘journalese’ (Zinsser 1976), ‘a suspicious overstatement for “perceptive”’ (Strunk & White 1979) and ‘jargon’ (Janis 1984). Dictionaries, on the other hand, routinely treat it as an ordinary, inoffensive word. Its use is common and has been for several decades. Here is a representative sampling of the ways in which it is used…
All language reference books have their blind spots, prejudices and unconscious axioms, and MWDEU has been criticised for being too liberal, too prevaricating, too descriptivist. These criticisms are fair, but they pale in comparison to what the book supplies: great and balanced content in abundance, and no dogmatic prohibitions or intolerant admonishments. Alongside each word and phrase we get a historical overview of its usage, interpretation and application; clear and astute analysis; and repeated advice to judge for oneself.
The lasting impression is of being treated without condescension as a person with the good sense to assess the evidence and arguments and to make up one’s own mind. MWDEU does not hector its readers with shoulds, oughts, musts and don’t-even-think-about-its. There are neither emotional outbursts nor emotive appeals. Since English usage is, has been and is likely to remain a hotbed of contention, MWDEU’s polite and level tone is as refreshing as its broadminded counsel is constructive.
To paraphrase Thomas Aquinas, beware the grammarian of one reference book – especially if that book is The Elements of Style. In any edition, EoS is an eminently useful book: it is short, direct and efficient, and it has plenty of good advice. It is also rather simplistic and occasionally self-contradictory. It positively quivers with imperious finger wagging, which has helped fuel decades of ill-judged fussiness. Its tight, parsimonious rules, useful in their way, have unfortunately been adopted by some readers as universal commandments.
In a sense it is unfair to compare EoS, a short style guide, with MWDEU, a hefty usage dictionary. But the former remains so popular, and the latter so comparatively unknown, that I wanted to do my bit to redress the balance; and I find their antithetical attitudes interesting and worthy of examination.
If in writing something you are racing the clock, consulting MWDEU might not be in your best interest, since it doesn’t provide yes/no answers but rather opens one can of worms after another. For this reason it is less likely to be favoured by journalists, or anyone who prefers a short, definitive answer even at the expense of context. Those with more time on their hands, and indeed anyone with an interest in the history of the English language, could not fail to appreciate its contents, which are lucid, informative and entertaining.
To appeal to authority I’ll cite Geoffrey K. Pullum, a linguistics professor at the University of Edinburgh and contributor to the Language Log blog, who described MWDEU as “the finest work of scholarship on English grammar and usage I have ever seen, in thirty years of doing research on English grammar”. The book also comes in concise and pocket editions, which are shorter but newer; i.e., they are not just abridged editions. Best of all, at least for those of you persuaded by my zeal, MWDEU is now online. Should you prefer a physical book, you are likely to find it excellent value. Happy reading!