It’s always a pleasure to find that a publisher has sent me a book for review. Sometimes the pleasure evaporates as soon as I open the packaging: polemics and monographs are not my favourite bedtime reading.

My heart also tends to sink when I find a tome of around 1,000 pages, such as the one that reached me the other day. I know one should never judge a book by its title, but Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage (third edition) is not one to set the pulse racing.

Worse still, though it is published by Oxford University Press it is clearly an American book written by an American author, Bryan A. Garner. Why should I be interested in US legal terminology? How very wrong I was. The book, a snip at $65, is quirky, entertaining and utterly gripping. Every page tells a story. And the author turns out to know more about English and Scots law than most British writers.

My copy fell open at the entry for ‘hanged/hung’. Garner points out that coats and pictures are hung, and sometimes even juries. Criminals found guilty of capital offences are hanged. That gives him the opportunity to point out that a grammarian such as Henry Higgins would never have made the elementary mistake that Lerner and Loewe give him in My Fair Lady: that people should be ‘hung/for the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue’. You can imagine Garner wincing every time he hears it.

On the same page, I spotted a definition of ‘hard cases make bad law’, a cliché I have never really understood. Garner tells me it refers to the danger that a decision operating harshly on a defendant may lead a court to make an unwarranted exception or otherwise alter the law.

The author is particularly good at words that are commonly misused.

I am well aware, for example, that ‘fulsome’ means cloying: Garner defines it as ‘abundant to excess; offensive to normal tastes’. But Richard J Whitt and Stephen J Schultz, in a footnote to a paper they published in 2009, wrote ‘more fulsome’ when they meant ‘fuller’; their error was spotted by Garner and carefully cited, qualifying them for a place in his index of shame. For once, this was a bibliography in which I was pleased not to find my name.

But one should never be smug. Though I knew about ‘fulsome’ I didn’t realise ‘noisome’ was not the same as ‘noisy’. It actually means ‘noxious, malodorous’ and is related to ‘annoy’.

There is, inevitably, a long article on ‘articles’. Garner accepts the US practice of omitting the ‘the’ before words such as ‘plaintiff’ and ‘respondent’. But he is clear this concession to brevity should not be extended beyond standard party designations. And he is even firmer on what he calls ‘titular tomfoolery’ - using descriptions as if they were titles. He rightly excoriates phrases such as ‘black motorist Rodney King’, ‘juror Franklin’, ‘lawyer Hamm’ and ‘attorney Rogers’. Garner attributes this style to US weekly news magazines, but it has become much more widespread than that. And, of course, it leads to errors.

We learn that senior members of the US judiciary are in the habit of addressing attorneys general and solicitors general by the title ‘general’, as in ‘General Starr’. Garner has to explain that ‘general’ is an adjective that follows the noun, reflecting the Romance syntax used in Norman French. Just as you can’t abbreviate ‘court-martial’ to ‘martial’ or ‘notary public’ to ‘public’, you can’t address lawyers as if they were army officers.

In 1992, the author assures us, one lawyer wrote to another saying ‘I really enjoyed seeing you and your two (2) sons in the park last week.’ Garner comments: ‘The noxious habit of spelling words out and putting numerals in parentheses decreases the readability of much legal writing.’ The practice seems to have originated in a fear of typographical errors. But the words did not draw the eye to the all-important figures, so the parentheses were then added. The result, he says, ‘is often a bog’.

I was pleased to see that Garner warns against misuse of the suffix ‘-ee’, which is inherently passive. It is correct to speak of a ‘detainee’ (one who is detained), acceptable to refer to a ‘telephonee’ (one who is telephoned) and even, it seems a ‘tipee’ (one who is tipped off). But, as he says, it is wrong to use ‘standee’ for ‘one who stands’ and ‘arrivee’ for ‘one who arrives’. He adds that words such as ‘probatee’ (for ‘probationer’) and ‘abscondee’ make no sense at all.

I particularly liked the section on back-formations, created by removing a suffix from words wrongly assumed to be derivatives. Thus, someone responsible for interpretation is called an ‘interpretator’, even though there is a perfectly good word ‘interpret’. By the same token, we find ‘administrate’ for ‘administer’; ‘evolute’ for ‘evolve’ and ‘cohabitate’ for ‘cohabit’.

But other such words have proved their usefulness. We have a verb ‘to burgle’, although the Americans find this amusing – just as we are amused by ‘to emote’. On the other hand, nobody would now object to the verb ‘to type’ (from ‘typewriter’).

Garner, who is not above citing his own errors, has spent a lifetime collecting and working with words. You might say he was destined for it under the principle of nominative determinism. After all, what word do we use to describe gathering and storing evidence? I was disappointed to find no entry for the verb ‘to garner’.