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The Cambridge Guide to English Usage by Pam Peters (Cambridge University Press, 2004)


The conventional ways in which words or phrases are used, spoken, or written in a speech community.

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From Latin, "to use"


  • "English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment, and education--sometimes it's sheer luck, like getting across a street."
    (E. B. White)

  • "This usage stuff is not straightforward and easy. If ever someone tells you that the rules of English grammar are simple and logical and you should just learn them and obey them, walk away, because you're getting advice from a fool."
    (Geoffrey K. Pullum, "Does It Really Matter If It Dangles?" Language Log, Nov. 20, 2010)

  • "The thoughtful, nondichotomous position on language depends on a simple insight: Rules of proper usage are tacit conventions. Conventions are unstated agreements within a community to abide by a single way of doing things--not because there is any inherent advantage to the choice, but because there is an advantage to everyone making the same choice. Standardized weights and measures, electrical voltages and cables, computer file formats, the Gregorian calendar, and paper currency are familiar examples."
    (Steven Pinker, "False Fronts in the Language Wars." Slate, May 31, 2012)

  • Arbiters of Usage
    "The present-day scholarly concept of usage as a social consensus based on the practices of the educated middle class has emerged only within the last century. For many people, however, the views and aims of the 17th-18c fixers of the language continue to hold true: they consider that there ought to be a single authority capable of providing authoritative guidance about 'good' and 'bad' usage. For them, the model remains that of the Greek and Latin, and they have welcomed arbiters of usage such as Henry Fowler who have based their prescriptions on this model. In spite of this . . ., no nation in which English is a main language has yet set up an official institution to monitor and make rules about usage. New words, and new senses and uses of words, are not sanctioned or rejected by the authority of any single body: they arise through regular use and, once established, are recorded in dictionaries and grammars. This means that, with the classical model of grammar in rapid decline, the users of English collectively set the standards and priorities that underlie all usage."
    (Robert Allen, "Usage." The Oxford Companion to the English Language, ed. T. McArthur. Oxford Univ. Press, 1992)

  • Usage and Corpus Linguistics
    "English is more diverse than ever in all hemispheres. Research into 'new Englishes' has flourished, supported by journals such as English World-Wide, World Englishes and English Today. At the same time, the quest for a single, international form for written communication becomes more pressing, among those aiming at a global readership. . . .

    "Many kinds of resource have been brought to bear on the style and usage questions raised. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage is the first of its kind to make regular use of large databases (corpora) of computerized texts as primary sources of current English. . . . The corpora embody various kinds of written discourse as well as transcriptions of spoken discourse--enough to show patterns of divergence between the two. Negative attitudes to particular idioms or usage often turn on the fact that they are more familiar to the ear than the eye, and the constructions of formal writing are privileged thereby. Corpus data allow us to look more neutrally at the distributions of words and constructions, to view the range of styles across which they operate. On this basis we can see what is really 'standard,' i.e. usable in many kinds of discourse, as opposed to the formal or informal."
    (Pam Peters, The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2004)

  • Linguists and Usage
    "As a field of study, usage doesn't hold much interest for modern linguists, who are drifting more and more toward qualitative psychology and theory. Their leading theorist, Noam Chomsky of MIT, has acknowledged, with no apparent regret, the pedagogical irrelevance of modern linguistics: 'I am, frankly, rather skeptical about the significance, for the teaching of languages, of such insights and understanding as have been attained in linguistics and psychology.' . . . If you want to learn how to use the English language skillfully and gracefully, books on linguistics won't help you at all."
    (Bryan A. Garner, Garner's Modern American Usage, 3rd ed. Oxford Univ. Press, 2009)

  • Correctness
    "In the past, unproven ideas about 'the Standard' have often been used to forward certain social interests at the expense of others. Knowing this, we do not describe the misuse of the conventions of punctuation in some students' writing as 'a crime against civilization,' although we do point out the mistakes. What interests us far more is that these apprentice writers have interesting ideas to convey, and manage to support their arguments well. They should be encouraged to turn to the task of writing seriously and enthusiastically rather than be discouraged because they cannot punctuate a restrictive clause correctly. But when they ask, 'Does spelling count?' we tell them that in writing, as in life, everything counts. For academic writers, as for writers in a wide variety of fields (business, journalism, education, etc.), correctness in both content and expression is vital. . . . Language standardization may have been used as a tool of social oppression, but it has also been the vehicle of broad collaboration and communication. We are right to treat usage both warily and seriously."
    (Margery Fee and Janice McAlpine, Guide to Canadian English Usage, 2nd ed. Oxford Univ. Press, 2007)

  • "Usage is trendy, arbitrary, and above all, constantly changing, like all other fashions--in clothing, music, or automobiles. Grammar is the rationale of a language; usage is the etiquette."
    (I. S. Fraser and L. M. Hodson, "Twenty-One Kicks at the Grammar Horse." The English Journal, Dec. 1978)
Pronunciation: YOO-sij

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