Thursday, 14 February 2013

MWDEU gone from Google Books!

I just had a major bibliographic disappointment: I find that Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, which for years has been available in full on Google Books, has been removed.

Alongside the full Oxford English Dictionary (which I can access via Devon Library Services) MWDEU is probably my favourite reference book. As the introduction says, it arranges in dictionary format a collection of "common problems of confused or disputed English usage" from a historical background and present-day usage. Despite being an American reference, it covers US and UK usage equally, and the neat aspect of it is that it's resolutely descriptive, often with page-long lists of citations to well-known authors to demonstrate that an allegedly wrong usage has actually been used widely by writers who knew their craft.

I've noted over the years a few examples:
  • Its demonstration that a list of notable writers - Swift, Byron, Thackeray, Lewis Carroll, Robert Frost, Noam Chomsky - have used "if I was" for the hypothetical form where traditional grammar says it should be "if I were".
  • The evidence of many respectable writers using the non-possessive form ("Do you mind me eating chips?") rather than the 'possessive with gerund' ("Do you mind my eating chips?").
    The construction, both with and without the possessive, has been used in writing for about 300 years. Both forms have been used by standard authors. Both forms have been called incorrect, but neither is.
  • The evidence, with a long list of prestigious examples, of the use of "whose" for inanimate entities.
    The notion that "whose" may not properly be used of anything except persons is a superstition: it has been used by innumerable standard authors from Wycliffe to Updike, and is entirely standard as an alternative to "of which the" in all varieties of discourse.
  • A description of the use of "off of":
    "Off of" is an innocuous idiom ... that has been in use since the 16th century ... Ayres 1881 seems to have been the first to question the phrase ... It is an idiom that occurred naturally in the speech of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Harry S. Truman, and James Thurber, among others. If it is part of your personal idiom and you are not writing on an especially elevated plane, you have no reason to avoid "off of".
  • The evidence on preposition stranding:
    recent commentators — at least since Fowler 1926 — are unanimous in their rejection of the notion that ending a sentence with a preposition is an error.
  • An analysis of the equal correctness, depending on register, of "It is me" and "It is I" (where traditional grammar says "It is I" is solely correct):
    Clearly, both the "it is I" and "it's me" patterns are in reputable use and have been for a considerable time. "It is I" tends to be used in more formal or more stuffy situations; "it's me" predominates in real and fictional speech and in a more relaxed writing style.
  • On the use of "oldest" for one of two:
    The rule requiring the comparative [for two] has a dubious basis in theory and no basis in practice.
  • Split infinitive:
    the objection to the split infinitive has never had a rational basis.
  • The evidence for the use of "that" for people:
    In current usage, "that" refers to people or things.
  • On the idea that it's wrong to use "can" to ask permission:
    we are dealing with a pedagogical tradition. The "can"/"may" distinction is a traditional part of the American school curriculum. The fact that the distinction is largely ignored by people once out of school is also a tradition
  • On the vague perception of wrongness that attaches to the verb "to get":
    One of the more important verbs in English, "get" is handled with considerable diffidence in the handbooks. Part of the problem, as the handbooks see it, is the large number of vigorously expressive idioms get enters into; the "Choice English" — to use the term of Roberts 1954 — that college freshmen are expected to cultivate much prefers colorlessness to vigor. Vigorous expressions are often suspected by usage critics of being "colloquial" — that is, slightly improper in some way or other not easily specified. If you are writing with the idea of getting your point across, however, you will not avoid the rich fund of idomatic phrases with "get".
  • and so on ...
MWDEU is a brilliant and extensively-researched work, invaluable to any beleaguered descriptivists looking for confirmation based on solid evidence (it features quotations from some 20,000 authors). Its Wikipedia entry mentions endorsements from the linguistics blogger Stan Carey (In praise of a reference book: MWDEU) and top linguist Geoffrey Pullum (Don't put up with usage abuse). Pullum says:
MWCDEU explains what actually occurs, shows you some of the evidence, tells you what some other usage books say, and then leaves you to make your own reasoned decision. It won't tell you either that you should split infinitives, or that you shouldn't. But it will give you a number of examples of writers who do, and point out that the construction has always occurred in English literature over the last six or seven centuries, and that nearly all careful usage books today agree it is entirely grammatical, and it will then leave you to decide.
I'm not sure this is strictly true; though it's ostensibly neutral, at times its studied acerbic commentaries quietly drip with hostility toward the prescriptivist position. It's a delight to read.

I don't know why it's been removed from Google Books - perhaps too many people like me were using it rather than buying the print version? - but it's a loss.

- Ray

Addendum: Stan Carey has commented that he's told that the issue appears to be at Google Books' end. More on this later, perhaps.


  1. I noticed this a week or two back and was similarly disappointed. I consult my paperback copy frequently (as well as the Concise and Pocket editions), but I also often link to relevant pages online to encourage others to browse it — and perhaps buy their own copy.

    I've asked someone who might be able to tell us whether it will be returned to full view on Google Books.

  2. Thanks, Stan. I wondered if it was a US-only thing, but a peek through a proxy server finds it's gone there too. I did wonder at times why such a recent book should be in full view, but I assumed they knew what they were doing.

  3. And here I thought all those stranded infinitives would come back to haunt me in another life. Bless you, Ray Girvan for shriving my soul.

    1. Oh, Dr C ... you cradle catholic, you! [grin]