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How Grammar Girl Does Research

A few of my favorite resources.

By
Mignon Fogarty
5-minute read
The Quick And Dirty
  • Garner's Modern English Usage
  • Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage
  • Google Books Ngram Viewer
  • Online Newspapers
  • Etymonline
  • Digital Style Guides
  • YouGlish and Google Translate

In honor of National Grammar Day, I thought it would be good to share some of my favorite resources with you and explain why I like them, so if you find yourself getting curious about language, you’ll know where to start your research.

Sometimes when I do interviews, people ask me if I were stranded on a desert island, what one book would I bring with me, and I always insist on bringing two:

Garner’s Modern English Usage and Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage because they complement each other so well.

Garner’s Modern English Usage

Garner’s Modern English Usage is written by Bryan Garner, a lawyer and prolific author who also produces Black’s Law Dictionary. Garner’s Modern English Usage is more than 900 pages (with type on the small side), and it covers almost any English usage question you’d have. Only a few times a year do I go searching there and come up empty handed.

Besides its comprehensiveness, another thing I love about this book is that Garner has created a Language-Change Index to rank how common and accepted a changing usage is. For example, Stage 1 is essentially a common error that nobody likes, and Stage 5 is a change that everyone now accepts. 

For example, he defines using “affect” with an A in the phrase “to affect change” as Stage 1 because it happens with some regularity, but it’s something an editor would definitely correct without any debate. But calling the delicious fall drink “apple cider” and calling a graduate of a school an “alum” instead of an “alumnus” or “alumna” are both Stage 5 on his Language-Change Index, objected to at some point in the past, but now completely fine.

Garner is a great source for a quick, clear answer and a bit of explanation.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage

While Garner tends to be on the prescriptive side, with its assigning of numerical rank, the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (affectionately abbreviated MWDEU) is more on the descriptive side, telling the story of how usage has changed and been discussed sometimes going back hundreds of years.

Where MWDEU really shines is the middle range of language change—the 3s on Garner’s scale. For example, on using the word “impact” as a verb that means “affect,” as in “The weather impacted fourth quarter sales,” Garner has a brief entry explaining that “impact” was traditionally only a noun, but that people have started using it as a verb. He generally recommends against it, and labels it Stage 3 on the Language-Change Index.

Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, has a two-page discussion of the topic, going through the evolving opinions of some of the famous language writers of yore and discussing the noun use and the verb use separately with many examples and a nice summary at the end. 

If a topic that interests you is in MWDEU, you’ll know most of what there is to know about it.

Google Ngrams

Another source I regularly use is called the Google Books Ngram Viewer. In this context, “ngram” means phrases that are “n” words long, so a 2-gram is a sequence of two words, a 3-gram is a sequence of three words, and so on. The Google tool lets you search for words and phrases that appear in their Google Book corpus, and it maps the usages over time. 

For example, using the Ngram Viewer, I can see that the use of “schadenfreude” in English publications has dramatically increased since around 1980. And I can compare usages and see that people are more likely to write the phrase “wet your whistle” spelling “wet” as “W-E-T” rather than “W-H-E-T.”

a chart that shows schadenfreude use increasing since 1980

If you’re learning English, the Google Ngram Viewer is also a quick way to check which prepositions you should use in a phrase. For example, you can see that in books, saying something happened “by accident” is far more common than saying something happened “on accident.”

You can also limit your search to books classified as British English, American English, English fiction, and a few other languages now too. I use those filters pretty regularly to search for differences between British and American English.

To get the most out of the Google Ngram Viewer, you need to spend some time learning to do advanced searches that let you limit the part of speech your word can be, for example, and you have to think carefully about how you do your searches, or you can get misleading results. For example, if you just searched for the word “deserts,” you would get results that included usages for “deserts” the noun (as in “We visited all the major deserts,”), “deserts” the verb (as in “When he deserts the project, we’ll avoid saying ‘I told you so,’”), and for the phrase “just deserts,” which is spelled like “deserts.” You’d probably want to filter your results by part of speech or use a more specific search with more words.

Online Newspapers

Another thing I do with some regularity is search big online newspaper sites from companies that still have strong editing departments such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and USA Today. 

For example, regular listeners may remember that I recently talked about searching WashingtonPost.com to see if they still use the term “diabetics,” which they don’t. Instead, they use the phrase “people with diabetes.” 

These sites can give you a quick snapshot of how certain words or phrases are being used today.

Etymonline

One specialized website I like a lot is called Etymonline. It has the best information about word origins that I’ve found anywhere.

A fascinating tidbit I found just a couple of days ago is that the word “pretty” seems to have disappeared from the language in the 13th and 14th centuries. It was there before, and it was there after, but apparently it was absent except in surnames for a couple hundred years. Yet Etymonline says people believe the earlier “pretty” and the later “pretty” have the same origin. Weird, huh?

Digital Style Guides

Regarding style guides, I use a lot of them, and I always try to get digital versions to make them easier to search. For example, I subscribe to the online editions of the AP Stylebook and the Chicago Manual of Style, and I have the e-book versions of the MLA Handbook and the New York Times Manual of Style and Usage. Being able to search saves a lot of time.

YouGlish and Google Translate

Finally, for pronunciation of things like names I use a site called YouGlish, which lets you search for specific words in YouTube videos, and for pronunciation of foreign words, I use Google Translate.

So the next time you have a question—and you know you will—those are the places you can start looking. And of course, you can also always search our website here because with more than 1,000 articles, there’s a good chance I’ve covered it.

A final trick is that you can limit your search to just grammar articles because, of course, Quick and Dirty Tips is a whole network with lots of different topics, but we have a menu on the right side of our search results that lets you limit the results further by topic, and grammar is one of them, so if you click on that, you’ll get just articles that are tagged with “grammar.”

A screenshot showing the topic filter in the right sidebar

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.

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