Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Author! Author!

People who write are "writers," though many call themselves "authors," especially if their products are books, or legislation. More and more, they say that they "authored" what they wrote.

"Author" as a verb is what is politely called "disputed usage." (It’s also called, less politely, "self-centered balderdash" and "pomposity.")

Garner’s Modern American Usage notes that, while "author" is close to being standard, it is "a highfalutin substitute for write, compose, or create," and is only at Stage 3 of its five-stage Language-Change Index, meaning that just because people use it, it don’t make it right. Garner’s particularly abhors "author" as a verb applied to lawmakers sponsoring a bill: "This seems irresponsible, given that few legislators today actually write the bills they promote." (Garner’s curiously lists the verb "co-author" as standard.)

A usage note in The American Heritage Dictionary says "author" as a verb is often criticized as a "pretentious synonym of write," and should never be used for unpublished works, such as love letters. And while its usage panel still sides with those who oppose the verb "author," "this sympathy has been slowly eroding over the decades." This dictionary, however, is "more tolerant" of the legislative use of "author." Most important, it predicts that "the verb will eventually be accepted by most people."

But the Oxford English Dictionary says "author" has been used as a verb since 1598, even as it lists it as obsolete in US usage. So why it is not completely standard is something of a mystery. Anyone want to author that?

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday September 20th 2012, 11:37 AM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Garners five-stage Language Change Index is really intriguing and useful, obviously! I did a Google search for Garner's Modern American Usage just now, and all roads led to a dead end. Can you tell us how to find it? (I was going to ask how we could "access" it, but I didn't want to get yelled at. Oops - sentence ending with a preposition ... what I meant to say was that ... um ... yelled is something that at me I didn't want to get?)

The Happy Quibbler
Thursday September 20th 2012, 11:58 AM
Comment by: Ben Zimmer (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus ContributorVisual Thesaurus Moderator
Hi Kristine,

We've added links above to the Amazon page for GMAU, as well as our interview with Garner in which he discusses the Language-Change Index.
Thursday September 20th 2012, 2:11 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
Excellent interview - fascinating - thank you! Now, is any portion or semblance of the GMAU available online?
Thursday September 20th 2012, 2:52 PM
Comment by: Rae (Titusville, FL)
The idea of author or authored being pompous is pretty well spread throughout the population. I'd be embarrassed to use it in conjunction with my own work and I would feel downright Victorian if I used it for any one else's, but it just won't fly away, will it?

On a comment-I listened to an excellent course on grammar from a professor at Wheaton and he says the idea that you can't use a preposition at the end of a sentence is wrong. He says we learned that from Jr. High School teachers who didn't know what they were talking about. I found that quite refreshing.
Thursday September 20th 2012, 6:13 PM
Comment by: mac
" . . . just because people use it, it don't make it right."? time for a cheek and tongue inspection. otherwise, tsk, tsk.

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