Even the most careful, educated writers occasionally need some guidance on questions of proper usage. Since 1998, Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage has been a trusted and comprehensive source on everything from the choice between a and an to the spelling of zwieback.
The fourth edition has recently been published, and “given the book’s broadly inclusive approach to World English, not just to American English and British English,” the title has been changed to Garner’s Modern English Usage. There are also other changes. Language is a living thing, after all, and usage norms are not static. Since the third edition, Garner has used a language-change index to rank the acceptability of many of the entries. These rankings allow a more fine-grained understanding of proper use than a simple right/wrong judgment. A given usage can be captured by one of the following:
Stage 1: Rejected (e.g., the use of every since for ever since.) Stage 2: Widely shunned (e.g., the use of to gift for to give.) Stage 3: Widespread but… (In this stage well-educated people might use it but not when being formal or careful, e.g., the figurative use of literally.) Stage 4: Ubiquitous but… (In this stage most people have accepted it, but a few die-hards are not giving in, e.g.,he use of healthy to mean healthful.) Stage 5: Fully accepted
One of the great achievements of Garner’s guide is that it can track the shift from one stage to another over time. Indeed, a number of entries have switched rank in the seven years since the third edition was published. What’s more, the rank assignments in the new edition are informed by the vast collection of English usage data in Google Books. Garner used Google Ngram Viewer to look at the relative frequency of words and phrases in English books and those numbers to support his judgments.
For example, even though spitting image began as a corruption of the phrase spit and image, it is now a fully accepted Stage 5. The ngram numbers back this up. Over millions of English books, the ratio of spitting image to spit and image is 23 to 1. The ratio tells you that if you still think spitting image is incorrect, you’re sitting on a pretty lonely perch.
Garner’s Modern English Usage is a living usage manual, and that makes it a useful usage manual. Here are seven words that changed their rankings from the last edition to the new one.
1. GANTLET OR GAUNTLET
The phrase running the gauntlet began as running the gantlet. The gauntlet version has now moved from a Stage 4 to a Stage 5, fully acceptable, choice. The ngram ratio of gauntlet to gantlet in this phrase is 11:1.
2. DAMN OR DAMNED
Is it one damn thing or another or one damned thing or another? In phrases like this, the damn form has now gone from a Stage 4 to Stage 5. The ngram ratio of damn thing to damned thing is 3:1.
3. DIVED OR DOVE
Dived has long been considered the correct past tense of dive, but the use of dove has been growing for decades under the influence of drove. Dove was a Stage 4 that has now made it to Stage 5. The ngram ratio of she dove to she dived is 1.2:1.
4. STRODE OR STRIDDEN
After someone strides into a room, have they strode or stridden into it? Strode has made strides here, raising in ranking from a Stage 3 all the way to a Stage 5. The ratio for had strode to had stridden is 3:1.
5. FREE REIN OR FREE REIGN
The original formulation of free rein points to an image of a horse, not royalty. But reign is on the rise in this phrase. It was a Stage 2 that has now been judged a Stage 3.
Impactful is still called “barbarous jargon,” but where in the last edition it was deemed Stage 1 ("rejected"), it has moved up to Stage 2 and is merely "widely shunned."
7. CORD OR CHORD
Properly it’s vocal cord and strike a chord but people often get cord and chord confused. Vocal chord for cord has gotten more common, moving from a Stage 2 to a Stage 3, but strike a cord has gone down in rank, from Stage 2 to Stage 1 at a ratio of 25:1, showing that acceptability rankings are not a one-way ticket to everything becoming acceptable.
Learn more about subtle distinctions in the way we use words from the 6000 other entries like this in Garner's Modern English Usage.