This post discusses usage guides, a type of reference work that is commonly consulted in the publishing industry but that may be unfamiliar to many students and other writers. I will survey three books we consult at the MLA, making the case that reading usage guides can help you become a better writer.

A usage guide is a reference work that makes recommendations about how language should be used. These guides differ from dictionaries, as Bryan A. Garner explains: “The dictionary merely describes how speakers of English have used the language. . . . That is why, in the publishing world, it is generally necessary to consult a style or usage guide” (qtd. in Chicago ch. 5, sec. 250). People who write dictionaries generally do not give their opinions about good usage; they simply try to capture how speakers and writers are actually using language to communicate. Usage guides, however, are very much concerned with good usage.

At the MLA we continue to consult many of the classic usage guides written in the middle or late twentieth century. While they do contain some out-of-date usage recommendations (and we therefore supplement them with advice from modern guides), many of their recommendations have endured and remain uncontested. Our readers include authorities on language with a variety of opinions about correct usage, and we aim to publish prose that is unexceptionable in its readability and attention to consensus opinion but also exceptional—eloquent, vivid, and as unique as the author writing it.  

Claire Kehrwald Cook

The concept of good usage is, of course, relative. For our usage questions, we at the MLA turn first to Claire Kehrwald Cook’s Line by Line. Cook, a former MLA editor, notes that while points of usage are debatable, writers should try to avoid usage that sounds wrong to readers’ ears (161). For example, some writers might write “feel badly” instead of “feel bad.” But this, Cook writes, might strike some as wrong. She writes,

If you regret something—say, an accident in which someone was hurt badly—you may say that you feel bad about it. Some writers reverse the adverb and the adjective in these contexts, but if you substitute a synonym for bad or badly, you can usually tell immediately which word to use. You wouldn’t say that you felt sadly about something or that someone was hurt severe. (178)

Some might not flinch at “feel badly,” but some surely would, so it’s best to use “feel bad” instead. 

Many usage recommendations are intended to make writing more concise and logical. Cook writes, “Imprecise and often superfluous, as to borders on uselessness. You can usually delete it before an indirect question, as in There is some doubt as to whether they will comply . . .” (169). In another entry she cautions, “Think twice about assigning degrees to obvious incomparables like mortal, endless, total, wholly, final, absolute, peerless, equal, devoid, and essential” (165). There are exceptions to both of these recommendations. “As to” might help a writer transition between points if used at the beginning of a sentence. And the phrase “a more perfect union” appears in the United States Constitution. But some readers would undoubtedly find fault with the phrase “a more equal distribution,” on the logical grounds that something is either equal or not. When George Orwell writes in Animal Farm that “some animals are more equal than others,” the satirical force of the statement depends on our sense that it violates the rules of logic (118). Then again, a writer might want to invite that sense and might use “more equal” in a nod to Orwell. But in expository prose that aims to be unambiguous, comparing incomparables is generally not advisable.

Roy H. Copperud

Cook’s usage recommendations are not meant to be exhaustive. When necessary, we turn to longer usage guides like Roy H. Copperud’s American Usage and Style. Copperud’s book gathers usage recommendations from many experts and adjudicates the recommendations, telling writers which usages are endorsed by the most experts. Reading through Copperud’s entries can be instructive, because they point out stylistic quirks you may not have been aware of in your own writing. For example, Copperud notes that writers “often seem obsessed with giving the reader small totals that he can perceive unaided: ‘Sports and music are his two hobbies.’ Delete the numbers” (268). In his entry on redundancy, he writes, “The soporific habit of using several words where one will serve may be illustrated by a sufficient number of vs. enoughat the present time vs. now, and in the immediate vicinity of vs. near. These woolly expressions, which occur so often they pop unbidden into the mind, are readily used by the uncritical writer” (321).

A larger philosophy can be seen in some of Copperud’s longer entries. He has harsh words for writing that is unnecessarily complicated and that uses technical language when more accessible language will do. For example, what he calls “Pedagese” causes “its victims to believe they must couch their writing in as unintelligible, polysyllabic, euphemistic, circumlocutory language as possible, or it will not have the desired effect of profundity” (288). Additionally, he finds some phrases needlessly pompous, writing, “Is employed by is more dignified, perhaps, but longer than works forresides is ostentatious for livesposition is highfalutin for job and often applied to routine employment. Adequate in size has dignity, but big enough is better” (297). 

Usage guides double as compendiums of common errors, and they can help give you a sense of what you need to look for when revising or editing your own writing. Consider misquotations. Copperud provides a list of commonly misquoted lines and sayings. But the general principle implied by the list is more important than the list itself: when quoting anything, be sure you know what the quotation means. Copperud recommends leniency about variations of famous sayings, but he observes that often those sayings are misused. He notes, “The quotation from Hamlet, ‘more honor’d in the breach than in the observance’ is generally used to refer to some desirable thing that is not enough observed; in the play, it referred to a custom that is best not observed at all” (247). Even Copperud makes mistakes, though. He writes, “Puck (in The Tempest) saw us as ‘such stuff as dreams are made on,’ not of, though of course of comes naturally to the modern tongue” (248). Puck does not appear in The Tempest, and the line is spoken by Prospero. It’s always a good idea to double-check your quotations.

Wilson Follett

Wilson Follett’s Modern American Usage is another guide we use and one that is commonly consulted in the publishing world. Follett’s prose is lively, and his guide, like the other guides I’ve discussed, is often a pleasure to read. Like Cook and Copperud, Follett encourages writers both to think carefully and to resist overused and overly technical language. And like Copperud’s guide, Follett’s can help us root out bad habits in our own writing. In his entry “logic,” Follett writes,

The writer who tells us that the absence of a preplanned strategy strongly impacted upon the board’s thinking and left management without a loophole is a writer we come to resent after a few pages, because his neglect of logic forces us to do his work for him as we read. What is a strategy, if not planned, and what is the point of the extra remove in time denoted by pre-? How can an absence hit upon thinking and, having done so, leave no loophole? (184)

Follett does concede that usage and idiom often depart from logic; but, having made concessions for common usage, Follett notes that logic prevents the careful writer from confusing the reader.

Follett applies logic throughout his guide. In his entry “number, trouble with,” Follett writes, “Life teaches us that one person has one head, and two persons have two. Language follows suit often enough that we need not uncertainly stagger between singular and plural. Subjects that are obvious plurals should dictate the plural for concrete things they possess: Owners registered for the competition should walk their dog on a leash when outside the enclosure (dogs on leashes)” (211). This may seem intuitive, but many writers get tripped up when the subjects of a sentence are imagined to be doing things individually.

Follett’s longer entries frequently criticize the tendency of modern writing to rely on abstractions and overworked phrases. His entry “forbidden words” argues that in a lot of prose today writers lean on overused terms. As he writes of these terms, “Their abuse has turned them into mere plugs for the holes in our thought. As such they block the way to finding the exact word—one of several possible words. Removing these stoppers and putting the mind firmly on its subject will release the words kept imprisoned by the habit of thinking in disposable lingo.” He forbids many words, such as the nouns “approach,” “bottom line,” “concept,” “factor,” “impact,” “input,” and “potential”; the verbs “emphasize,” “finalize,” “focus on,” “highlight,” “indicate,” and “process”; and the modifiers “basic,” “crucial,” “essential,” “meaningful,” “significant,” and “worthwhile” (130). It is hard not to agree with Follett that in most cases these words are filler.

Follett’s main argument, threaded throughout his book, is one that we at the MLA endorse: writing should not make readers puzzle out the meaning for themselves. It should not draw attention to itself. In his section on the dangers of relying too much on metaphors, Follett illustrates the principle:

When a city official writes, The budget gap must not be closed on the backs of our schoolchildren, the competent reader is vaguely aware of a series of subdued comments within himself: “A budget is a list. How can you close a list on someone’s back, let alone the back of thousands of children? Would they have to be bending over for this to be done?” While this soliloquy takes place, the intended meaning escapes. (195)

While usage guides are read mainly by those in the publishing industry, anyone who wants to become a better writer should read one or several. As I hope I’ve shown, they make for delightful reading and can help you identify what in your own writing might need to change. And being able to see the problems in your writing is an indispensable skill.

Works Cited

The Chicago Manual of Style. 17th ed., U of Chicago P, 2017.

Cook, Claire Kehrwald. Line by Line: How to Edit Your Own Writing. Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Copperud, Roy H. American Usage and Style: The Consensus. Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1980.

Follett, Wilson. Modern American Usage: A Guide. Rev. ed., Hill and Wang, 1998.

Orwell, George. Animal Farm. Harcourt Brace, 1945.

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Joseph Wallace

Joseph Wallace copyedits articles for PMLA and writes posts for the Style Center. He received a PhD in English literature from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before coming to the Modern Language Association, he edited articles for Studies in Philology and taught courses on writing and early modern literature.