A Word, Please: Nothing tricky here — just refer to the guides

A magician never reveals his secrets. He can't. If he does, it will be plain for all to see that he has no magic at all.

A grammar columnist reveals her secrets every week, again and again. Yet for some reason people still think she's privy to some mysterious power that no one else can harness.

Take, for example, the woman who contacted me on Twitter some months ago to ask about the proper usage of the word "apropos." When faced with the utterly hopeless quest of finding the answer, she sought out and consulted an oracle of sorts — someone she thought capable of pulling back the curtain on this baffling mystery.

I wish I could have seen the look on her face when she got my response: a link to the word "apropos" in the dictionary.

OK, I wasn't quite that flip about it. I buffered the stark simplicity of the information with some of my own words. But, really, all they amounted to was the qualifier "according to the dictionary ..."

Dictionaries aren't my only secret portal to the great mysteries of the grammar universe. I have others that are, in fact, a little less obvious. They're called usage guides. And for anyone who wants to become a grammar oracle in 10 seconds flat, they're gold mines.

You've probably seen usage guides without realizing it. They look a lot like dictionaries and sit right next to them in a lot of bookstores. In fact, my favorite usage guide has an unfortunate name that makes it all too easy to confuse with a regular dictionary. It's called Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage.

The best-known one is probably Fowler's Modern English Usage, and the most popular for American English is probably Garner's Modern American Usage.

Flip one open and you'll see just how different from dictionaries they are — and just what a genius your local grammar columnist isn't.

For example, thumb through the letter V in Garner's Modern American Usage and the following entry might catch your eye: "vicious circle; vicious cycle." In a few sentences you'll know that both forms are correct, but "vicious circle" is traditionally the more standard term.

Flip through Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage and you might land on an entry titled "possessive with gerund." Here you'll learn the difference between "I appreciate you taking the time to meet with me" and "I appreciate your taking the time to meet with me."

(Spoiler: Both are technically OK, but "I appreciate you taking the time" is considered by many to be an error. So if you want to play it safe, stick with "I appreciate your taking the time.")

What if you wanted to know whether it's "He's not too good of a singer" or "He's not too good a singer"? You could ask friends and family members. Some are sure to have firm opinions, but they probably won't be able to back them up with any research or sources.

You could try doing Google searches on those two sentences, but the advice you'll find on the subject will leave you uncertain, as will just counting the number of hits each gets. But if you have a usage guide handy, you can, on a hunch, try flipping through the alphabetized listings to the word "of." And if that guide is Garner's, here's what a little bit of reading will turn up: "Intrusive 'of.' The word 'of' often intrudes where it doesn't idiomatically belong, as in 'not that big of a deal' (read 'not that big a deal'), 'not too smart of a student' (read 'not too smart a student')."

It's one more mystery solved, no magic required.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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