The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation

BA Garner (University of Chicago Press, 2016), 552pp, £31.50 (hbk)
ISBN 978 0 226 18885 0

Reviewed by Helen Ward

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This is a book for people who are interested in grammar. Considering the title, you might think that goes without saying, but when I say ‘interested’, I mean seriously interested. This is a book for the grammar and language enthusiast – the grammar and language enthusiast who likes a methodical, scientific approach and who wants rules and clear guidance. On the whole, it has the character of a prescriptive manual (although there is the occasional nod in the direction of descriptive grammar). The blurb claims that Garner ‘has written the definitive guide for writers who want their prose to be both memorable and correct’. The emphasis being definitely on ‘correct’.

Garner has divided the book into five parts: the traditional parts of speech (with sections on nouns, adverbs, etc), syntax, word formation, word usage and punctuation. Each section is subdivided into ‘points’ of varying length that are numbered consecutively throughout the book, finishing at point 558. Most points are a paragraph or two in length, but a few range over a number of pages. Point 434, ‘Glossary of troublesome expressions’, is, I think, the longest at almost 100pp, and features well-known linguistic traps such as affect/effect, as well as less obvious ones such as abrogate/arrogate. (And how revealing, and in a way how charming, is that use of the word ‘troublesome’!)

In spite of the apparent thoroughness and comprehensiveness, there are topics that the author nevertheless has to present in a way that rather skates over the surface. Take the section on the active and passive voice, for example, in the section on ‘properties of verbs’. The author mentions that generally the active voice should be used in preference to the passive, but acknowledges that the passive has a role. This is all well and good. Yes, we may use the passive to reflect a different point of view, and we may use it to ‘evade or to deflect responsibility’, but there’s more to it than that, and in my view the most important thing is not to be able to identify the passive voice reliably, as the author states, but to be able to use it effectively.

However, if you have an interest in the English language, open this book at almost any page and you will find something to inform and entertain you. The very feel and look of the book – its length, its typeface, the slightly yellow colour of the paper – give it a sense of authority. I think it will appeal to native speakers and very advanced nonnative speakers who are not confident speakers or writers, as well as those grammar enthusiasts who can’t get enough of language analysis and who like to know what rules they may be inadvertently breaking. I can think of more accessible and useful guides to English grammar and usage, but who doesn’t want another reference book on their shelves? On a more serious note, if you are editing a book for an American readership, then this book will certainly be useful.

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