In his new book, “Garner’s Modern English Usage” (Oxford), Garner has made extensive use of big data to write more precisely than anyone ever before about English usage. Google gave him license to delve into its Google Books Ngram Viewer, which displays graphs showing how words have occurred in books over centuries.
In many ways, usage books have always been based on a good deal of guesswork. That’s why Garner calls the use of ngrams “absolutely revolutionary” in the field of usage lexicography.
Back in the day, I earned a Master’s degree in applied linguistics. One thing I looked at a bit in my studies was corpus linguistics, which is the use of a huge store of language data (a corpus) to see how language is used. The corpus we had access to was quite limited, and taken from a few hundred books, magazines, and newspaper articles.
But now, with Google, linguists have a huge corpus at their fingertips. This interview with Bryan Garner, author of books on English usage and other topics, explains how this is revolutionizing the way we look at language.
For a long time, some descriptive linguists have complained that usage books with a prescriptive bent are written by people who just sit back and say, “I like this better than I like that,” and I don’t think that’s ever been so, because the best usage books, even prescriptive ones, have been based on lifetimes of study — when you consider people like H.W. Fowler and Wilson Follet and Theodore Bernstein and others.
But still, they were having to guess. Even the editors of the “Oxford English Dictionary” were having to guess based on the few citation slips in front of them. But now we can apply big data to English usage and find out what was predominant until what year.
The big difference is that now linguists can see how language really is used, and, if they are descriptivists (those who see language as something that lives, and that changes as it is used) rather than prescriptivists (those who think everyone has to follow their rules), they will be able to better show how people really use words. Fascinating stuff.