A Witty, Scholarly Dictionary of English Usage

MWDEU : Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (Hardcover), reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted September 5, 2009 (2 of 2 people found the review helpful.) – See all my reviews

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU) is a thoroughly researched and witty compendium on usage. Unlike ‘Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary,’ which has only occasional usage notes, MWDEU presents 2,300 detailed entries. Each MWDEU entry, typically, comprises a history of its usage, with examples cited from classic and contemporary texts, and concludes with a recommendation — not a prescription — from the editorial board. As an example of the MWDEU editors’ comprehensive review, let’s take a look at the “less/fewer” distinction.

The authoritative usage reference in academia, “The Chicago Manual of Style, fifteenth edition,” prescribes a simple-to-follow rule: “Reserve ‘less’ for mass nouns, or amounts–for example, less salt, dirt, water. Reserve ‘fewer’ for countable things–fewer people, calories, grocery items, suggestions. One easy guideline is to use ‘less’ with singular nouns and ‘fewer’ with plural nouns” (p. 221). This simple prescription, however, is oversimplified. It is inaccurate as MWDEU notes below.

MWDEU begins its detailed entry (pp. 592-94) by commenting on the above rule: “This rule is simple enough and easy enough to follow. It has only one fault — it is not accurate for all usage…. ‘Less’ refers to quantity or amount among things that are measured and to number among things that are counted.

“As far as we have been able to discover, the received rule originated in 1770 as a comment on ‘less’: ‘This Word is most commonly used in speaking of a Number; where I should think Fewer would do better. “No Fewer than a Hundred” appears to me, not only more elegant than “No less than a Hundred,” but more strictly proper–Baker 1770.

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Teach Yourself the Craft of Editing

★ : The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago (or, How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself) (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing) (Hardcover) by Carol Fisher Saller, reviewed by C. J. Singh on amazon.com, copy posted June 2, 2009 (62 of 63 people found the review helpful.)  – See all my reviews.The Subversive Editor

While teaching courses in editing at UC Berkeley extension, I always assigned The Chicago Manual of Style and Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose (5th Edition) for the introductory course. For the advanced course, we studied Joseph Williams’s Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace (ninth edition). As noted in my detailed reviews of the two latter books, most students found them excellent. I’m sure they’d be just as enthusiastic about The Subversive Editor by Carol Fisher Saller. In fact, I’d place this book near the top of the reading list for anyone interested in learning how to edit. Saller, a senior mansucript editor at the University of Chicago Press, also edits “The Chicago Manual of Style Online’s Q&A.” Written with charming wit, her brief book presents numerous tips. For several samples from the book, please read on.

Introducing her book, Saller writes: “Although people outside the Press address us `Dear style goddesses’ and assume we are experts on everything in the `Manual,’ most of the time I feel more like the pathetic little person behind the curtain in `The Wizard of Oz.’ It’s only because I’m surrounded and protected by knowledgeable and generous coworkers that I can assemble the authoritative front that appears in the Q&A” (p. xi).

From the Q&A: “Q/ Oh, English-language gurus, is it ever proper to put a question mark and an exclamation mark at the end of a sentence in formal writing?” (p. 31). “A/ In formal writing, we allow a question mark and an exclamation only in the event that the author was being physically assaulted while writing. Otherwise, no” (p. 43).

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