INTERVIEW BY JESSE PEARSON
PORTRAIT BY LAURA PARK
ryan Garner—author of Garner’s Modern American Usage, editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary, and a contributor to The Chicago Manual of Style—is our favorite grammarian. He was also David Foster Wallace’s favorite grammarian, and that, for savvy grammar fascists under the age of 40, is like a recommendation from Jesus. Garner occasionally borrows in his writing the term SNOOT, which is a Wallace family acronym (standing for “Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance” or “Syntax Nudniks of Our Time”). A SNOOT is a person who cares a great deal about grammar and usage. A SNOOT will often correct a person’s bad speech or writing but will always try to do so in a kind rather than a snobbish manner. D.F.W. was a SNOOT. Bryan Garner is a SNOOT. We all should aspire to be SNOOTs.
American English is under attack by many varieties of lazy, misguided, and careless usage. Have you seen Idiocracy? If we don’t, as a nation, get on this soon, people two generations from now will talk as they talk in that movie, but for real. It won’t be anywhere near as funny when it’s real.
Garner recently spoke with Vice, taking a little time from his busy schedule of lecturing, researching, writing a book with Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, and generally fighting the good fight of preserving the grace of American English while also tracking its evolution. For this, we thank him. Also, at the end of this interview, you’ll find a test from Garner’s Better Grammar for Lawyers course that he has graciously allowed us to republish. It may seem simple. But try it. You will likely be surprised by how elusive the finer points of grammar and usage prove to the average bourgeois reader today (that’s you).
Vice: To start, I’m interested in how English grammar and usage morph over time.
Bryan Garner: Well, grammar is constantly changing. It was changing fairly rapidly from the period before Chaucer wrote in the 1200s through probably the late 1500s, when Shakespeare began writing his plays. In that period, of course, there was this mixture in the English language—a combination of Norman-French dialect and Anglo-Saxon Middle English—which became sort of an amalgamation of French and English. And most of the speakers were not literate. In those kinds of conditions, when you have a largely oral culture, things can change quickly. As we saw the rise of literacy over the next few hundred years, especially in the beginning of the 18th century, the language became relatively more fixed. It’s very interesting that a grammarian like Lindley Murray, who in 1795 wrote his English Grammar, became the best-selling author of the first half of the 19th century. He sold more than 10 million copies of that book.
Nobody else was close, and grammar was something that Americans seemed to care about a lot. Murray was an American lawyer who ended up sort of defecting to England after opposing the revolution and moving to York. But he became very influential as an English grammarian. He outsold Stephen King or J.K. Rowling—and to a smaller population. It really is quite extraordinary.
I love the thought of earlier generations of Americans arguing points of grammar.
With the rise of literacy, especially in America, there were strong notions of correctness. And, by the way, Murray was a good grammarian. He’s often derided. But he did not, contrary to maybe not popular belief but popular academic belief, tell people not to end a sentence with a preposition or never to split an infinitive. He didn’t. A lot of the popular notions about grammar are just wildly false.
Those are just two of the strange directives that we receive in school that don’t really have a basis in the rules of grammar.
Today we seem to be descending back into this kind of Renaissance oral culture. I think that a lot of people go through their daily lives and read very little. That’s unlike, say, the 19th century, in which reading was a mainstay form of entertainment. Today there are so many other competing demands that it’s quite possible to go through life with minimal reading except maybe what can be seen on a handheld device.
I’d say that the general decline of proper grammar today has to do with the fact that it’s not really put into practical use by as many people as it once was.
Well, we have lost serious readership in modern culture. It is astounding how few lawyers whom I deal with subscribe to any serious journalism at all.
How do you see the quality of writing and communication on the internet affecting grammar today?
I can’t really tell. Some of it is quite bad and quite sloppy, and some of it is quite good. I just don’t know what most people are reading on the internet. I have the idea that it’s mostly a few middlebrow vehicles that give quick news dispatches.
News aggregators and things like that.
I don’t think that we have a substantial percentage of Americans who read seriously now. I suppose that to some extent that may have been true 50 years ago, but if you took, say, upper-middle-class readers or people of a certain socioeconomic status, what we might call upper-middle-class people, half a century ago and asked how many of them were serious readers, if 75 percent of them were serious readers, then today it seems to me more like 20 percent. We’ve lost a lot of serious readers.
Because of competing media, probably—television, games, film.
Yeah. I think that’s all part of it.
And with the internet, I also think of how people express themselves via things like Facebook or Twitter, where there’s a large value based on not only being as brief as possible—which can be a good thing in terms of clear writing—but also a lot of shorthand and use of acronyms. Those things might lead to interesting evolutions in language as time goes on, but in the short term, it’s just a mess.
What most linguists seem to think is that there are some conventions that will probably not stray far beyond tweeting and instant messaging, and that they can be useful. I myself tweet and I use pretty much complete words. I find it interesting to try to get it down to 140 characters and at least to say something meaningful.
Do you keep up with the state of grammar as it’s taught in public schools nowadays?
I do. I have a very substantial collection of grammars as used in schools from the beginnings of the republic. I probably have about 3,000 or 4,000 grammars.
That’s a lot.
And I do have the definite impression that there’s a great disparity. The private schools, the preparatory schools, continue to teach it in a rather serious way, but public schools on the whole do not.
And if public schools don’t teach grammar as well as private schools do, it would follow that grammar helps to maintain class differences in culture.
Well, I think it does. I don’t know if you read my entry called “Class Distinctions” in Garner’s Modern American Usage. It’s one of my favorite entries.
I have. It’s a sort of book that I really like in that I can pick it up, open it at random, and jump in.
Look at that little entry called “Class Distinctions.” When I wrote it, I thought it was mildly incendiary. But nobody has ever mentioned it in a review of the book. It’s kind of interesting.
What’s the gist of it?
My impression is—and there’s quite some literature on this—that the public schools have simply stopped trying to teach it. It’s not that they don’t do a good job of it. They don’t even try. It’s not even a subject that is offered in most public schools. Part of why that is, I think, is a misguided egalitarianism that suggests that we should not put teachers in the position of criticizing language as it’s used at home by various students.
It might look as if the teacher is criticizing the parents of the pupils. And there is a view among some inane linguists that says that we shouldn’t be teaching nonstandard speakers the standard dialect—that it’s simply the dialect of the people in power. Instead, we should be teaching everyone to be accepting of linguistic differences.
This I’ve encountered before.
But when it comes to getting hired as a receptionist, for example, or for any number of positions in corporate America, it simply becomes impossible for people who are not at least bi-dialectal, who don’t really have a grasp on what has traditionally been called “educated English.” This problem has gotten much more serious since the 1960s, and now most of our educational systems are simply drifting. We’re seeing a lot of linguistic drift.
How does this relate to the ongoing battle between descriptivists and prescriptivists?
Well, I think it was derived from descriptivism and from structural linguists in the 1940s and 50s. A lot of it can be laid at the doorstep of one man, Charles Carpenter Fries, who was responsible for essentially eliminating grammar from secondary education in this country. There’s a great book by Harry Warfel called Who Killed Grammar? He wrote it in 1951. It was very insightful. He essentially makes a compelling case that it was the National Council of Teachers of English, under the influence of Charles Carpenter Fries, who systematically dismantled our traditional ways of teaching grammar in American schools.
What was the logic behind doing that?
Well, it was several things. One of them was this egalitarianism that essentially said that we should not disapprove of certain dialects, that we should treat dialects as equal, and that the English teachers will find it more fun to teach literature than to teach the rudiments of good grammar and good usage.
[laughs] Well, as long as the teachers are having fun…
It’s a little bit like trying to teach people to play piano, and to play pieces that are well beyond their capabilities. If you don’t learn the rudiments, you can’t go on to more advanced activities.
Going back to these points of grammar that you refer to as “superstitions,” such as not ending a sentence with a preposition or not beginning a sentence with and or but… these things were taught as gospel in my high school, and they’re just wrong.
That’s right. And by the way, just to clarify things for your readers, I should note that I am a product of public schools all the way through. Public high school, public university—University of Texas. I grew up in West Texas. I did actually have a high-school course in grammar that was taught by a coach. Picture this, in Canyon, Texas, a coach who stood at the head of the room dipping snuff while teaching, and filling up a Styrofoam cup with his gross, brown saliva, and he didn’t know a damn thing about English grammar. So I had no educational advantages in terms of picking up standard English.
But as you’ve written, you were lucky enough to come from a family that had a long-standing interest in grammar, usage, and linguistics.
That’s right. My father minored in English at Texas Tech University, and he had a very healthy interest in grammar and language, and so did his father, my grandfather.
So was there a parallel self-education going on for you when you weren’t really getting what you wanted out of your public school education?
Yes. I kind of trace it back to a comment made by a girl I went to high school with, who complimented me by saying, “You have a really big vocabulary.” And that was great. I mean, I had a big crush on her. I thought, “Wow, she likes a big vocabulary,” and I then spent a couple of years building a huge vocabulary, not realizing that this was not working on females at all. [laughs] But I started a vocabulary notebook that I still have today. It’s about 600 pages of words that I copied out of dictionaries, some of them very difficult and very recondite words. My mother used to play a dictionary game with me to see whether she could find a word in the dictionary that I didn’t know. If you took out scientific words that were of no value to me, she could rarely stump me. I had a much bigger vocabulary when I was 17 than I do today. One interesting thing to me is that David Foster Wallace apparently had a very similar experience. You know, David was a friend of mine.
I know. I think that his work was where I first heard of you.
The University of Texas recently acquired his papers, and among them is a vocabulary notebook that he started as an adolescent, and it’s very similar to mine.
I’ve seen some of that collection online. It looks great. He was kind of alone among his contemporaries in his precise care for grammar and vocabulary, and his willingness to use obscure words and to write these daring, long, complicated sentences.
Just as I was. It’s a very lonely experience. Although I did have one friend, J.P. Allen, who is now a moviemaker, novelist, and playwright out in San Francisco. He and I were in high school together, and we pursued this interest very strongly. So I wasn’t entirely isolated.
A lot of people—when they come across somebody who uses abstruse words or a larger than usual vocabulary, or who speaks with noticeably proper grammar—will perceive that person as arrogant or snooty. Do you come across that much?
I’m aware of it. Although I think that if you have the right approach, if you’re a down-to-earth sort of person, and you just happen to speak well and use language well, nobody really knows. A lot of SNOOTs, I think, are pedantic, cold, sort of unpleasant, superior people. And that’s no good. That gives prescriptivism a bad name.
Just to clarify, “SNOOT” is a term that Wallace coined to describe people who care a great deal more about grammar than most people do.
I like friendly, warm, robust people who care about the language and use it well, and there are lots of them around. That’s the kind of SNOOT to be, it seems to me—not someone who’s going to be scowling and all upset by whatever somebody happens to be saying.
Or a person who is constantly correcting other people’s speech.
That’s right. That’s no good.
In your work on legal writing, there’s a lot of support for plain and simple—a kind of directness that is lacking in a lot of legalese.
I’m all in favor of plain English. The problem with most legal writers is they entered law school as rather inept writers, then they’re exposed to a lot of very bad writing and a lot of unduly complex writing, and this pollutes their own writing habits. So not only are they very weak in grammar and very weak in just putting together good, strong sentences, but they are also trying to ape something that’s much more complex and archaic. They end up being execrable writers.
Is looking for examples to use in the next edition of Modern American Usage a daily practice for you?
Yes. I’m constantly taking notes, and I’m very fortunate to have dozens of allies around the world who send me things out of magazines and newspapers, and I’m always grateful to have those examples. All I need to have is the beginning page of the article and the page where the mistake occurs. I like to be able to verify it, and I like, frankly, print sources. I have not gone in for citing things that are rather unverifiable, although I suppose at some point I might have to cite net materials. But I like print because it shows that a certain level of care should have been taken in producing it. For me to venomously call out some associate professor at the University of Toronto for a mistake in a book is quite legitimate. But to take something from somebody’s website is maybe not as legitimate. But Garner’s Modern American Usage is a compilation of faults, basically, that I have found in all kinds of writing. I try to do it with a kind smile, not with a scowl.
Are you able to tell me one or two of the more common mistakes that you find?
There are about 10,000 in Modern American Usage. When people ask me, “What are your biggest pet peeves?”—well, maybe this is because it’s my profession, but I’m beyond the state of pet peeves. There are 3,000 things that seriously bother me, but I find that having the outlet of the usage book to record them in and disapprove of them—sometimes with some denunciatory fun—is a great way of coping.
I guess that the difference between you and a lot of grammarians is that you do something constructive with the things that you find to criticize. You use them as examples.
True. That’s why I sent you this little diagnostic SNOOT test, and I would wager with you that most of your readers will not do better than getting four of the seven questions right. I bet that most of your readers will miss at least three, and probably a majority of them will miss four. It’s a tough little thing for people.
How about giving us a layman’s definition of descriptivism and prescriptivism?
Let me just try this off the top of my head. A descriptivist is someone who tries to study language scientifically with absolutely no value judgments—to simply describe how certain speakers use the language, without any of its sociological significance, but instead to record grammar dispassionately. And that means that whatever the dialect, if it’s West Texas, if it’s black English, if it’s cockney, there is no such thing as good or bad. A prescriptivist looks at the language from the point of view of the standard dialect and judges deviations from the literary standard as being less than ideal. To a prescriptivist, it is possible to make a mistake. To a descriptivist, a mistake is impossible. In the world of affairs, virtually everyone is a prescriptivist. Descriptivism is a very artificial construct, developed by linguists for purposes of recording grammars. Descriptivism has its place, but it has no place in the world of affairs.
It’s more like cultural anthropology than grammar.
That’s right. It’s very much in line with that, to talk about how a society does things and not judge them at all. If you were an anthropologist studying cannibals, there would be no disapproval of their eating habits. That’s something that’s hard for most people to fathom, just as it would be hard for most businesses to hire someone who answers the telephone by saying, “He ain’t got no business today.”
Will you tell me the names of a couple contemporary fiction writers of whom you’re a fan?
I don’t read as much fiction as I should, although I have a large collection of fiction. I also tend not to read contemporary things. I spend a lot of time reading classics. But I like David Foster Wallace. I like Larry McMurtry. I find myself staying away from the best sellers of the day. For me, anything that is currently the rage is something I have absolutely nothing to do with. I kind of wait until books are at least ten years old to look at them. I have no knowledge of the New York Times best-seller list.
You’re not missing much, believe me.
I just bought The Collected Works of Joseph Conrad, and I want to read that.
That is great stuff.
I try to read things that have enduring value. I cannot imagine reading J.K. Rowling.
Well, you’re not nine years old.
And when you are reading fiction for pleasure, is it difficult to be so attuned to grammar and usage?
That is a huge distraction. I cannot lose myself in a novel. That is to say, I am constantly aware of technique. And because I’m such a utilitarian reader, when I’m reading most books, the stuff that I’m looking at can plug into any one of 15 of my books. It could be a usage point. It could be something about advocacy. It could be about public speaking. A lot of the stuff I read is law. So every time I’m reading, it’s with an eye to somehow capitalizing on what I’m looking at by incorporating it into any one of the various books that I’ve written. I can never read without a pen in hand.
That’s kind of rough.
I think it’s at least a mild curse.
It’s a shame to miss out on the emotional impact of good fiction.
I suppose. Although when I read Charlotte’s Web to my daughter, I was streaming tears by the last several pages. I could barely read it to her. And Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms—I find that a very difficult final part to read.
His technique is wonderful and I’m holding the book and crying while reading. So I can react very strongly to the stuff that I read. And I’ve written some tributes for friends of mine who have died, and I’m crying while I’m writing it, and a lot of people have told me they had similar reactions in reading them.
Didn’t E.B. White write Charlotte’s Web?
That’s sort of a funny coincidence—a book that moved you to tears is by somebody who also coauthored The Elements of Style, a classic grammar and usage guide. Do you pay attention to public-speaking trends in terms of the speeches given by politicians and CEOs?
I’m a very serious student of public speaking. I do a lot of it myself. I do about 120 seminars a year of six hours each. That’s a lot of public speaking.
It is indeed.
I’m a very keen observer of good speakers. I’ve learned a lot, actually, from televangelists. They are often some of the best speakers around. I think that politicians, on the whole, are maladroit and inept. But I collect books on public speaking, and I love to hear great speakers. One of the best in the world is Theodore Olson, a lawyer in Washington, DC, and the former solicitor general of the United States. He is a man who really knows how to speak. He knows how to say the right thing at the right time. I once heard him give a eulogy for a friend of ours who died, Tex Lezar. It was the most perfect eulogy I’ve ever heard, and it had everybody in tears.
What are televangelists doing right?
Delivering words with great emphasis in interesting ways. What they’re mostly doing wrong is giving the message that they’re giving. [laughs] But I enjoy the way they modulate their voices, the way they have a greater range than most public speakers do. Some of them, of course, are barnstormers. But some of them actually have a good message for people, and they tend to use very few notes. If you appropriately discount the message, there’s a lot you can learn from them about how to speak.
And sermonizing is certainly one of the oldest traditions of public speaking.
It is, yes. A lot of the early rhetoricians were people like George Campbell and Hugh Blair, whose 18th-century books on rhetoric I’ve used in a lot of my own writing. They were all about sermonizing. I’ve used them in things like my book with Justice Scalia on persuasion to address how do you persuade judges? Those classical rhetoricians were tremendous.
What advice would you give to people who are in their mid-20s and might feel like they’re lacking in proper education regarding these things? Where can one educate oneself regarding grammar?
Well, if you don’t have that mindset of feeling behind the eight ball educationally, you need to acquire it. No matter where you went to school, and no matter what your supposed educational advantages have been, I think that every really effective writer or speaker is largely self-taught. You need to start paying attention to what really effective writers and speakers do. You ought to have a couple of dictionaries of usage by different authors just to become conscious of words, and the potential problems with English words. There is simply no way that anyone’s normal schooling would have prepared the person to know what he or she needs to know about English grammar and English usage. There’s simply no way. And so you need that reference source. I think it’s a good idea to browse through it, read a little bit at a time, learn more and more about words and language. That’s the way I did it. And then I read the Economist and the New Yorker, and pay very close attention to how sentences and paragraphs are put together. Start understanding how the paragraph is the basic unit of composition.
Can you explain that a little more?
A really good discourse proceeds by paragraphs, and a paragraph is sort of the building block of a good essay. Too many people see the sentence as the building block, and they don’t pace their ideas well. They have bumps between sentences, not a smoothly flowing development of thought. Advanced writers know that the paragraph is the basic unit of composition.
That’s a good way to look at it. Any more concrete advice?
You have to write a lot. You ought to keep a journal and write a lot of letters, and I mean old-fashioned handwritten notes. Read very attentively, keep a vocabulary notebook, and read a couple of books on writing. My first recommendation would not be Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. That would be my second recommendation. First would be John Trimble’s Writing With Style. It’s just a wonderful book. The subtitle is Conversations on the Art of Writing. So you read a couple of books, you’ve got your usage books you should look at two minutes a day, you pay a lot of attention to the best fiction and nonfiction writers of our day, and then you start writing a lot, either by journaling or writing letters. You can make a lot of progress very quickly if you do those things.
You mentioned the New Yorker, and generally I think its grammar and usage are great, but I’m really bothered how, when the same vowel occurs consecutively within a word, they place an umlaut over the second occurrence of the vowel.
It’s not actually an umlaut. It’s technically called a diaeresis. The umlaut occurs in German words only. But it’s the exact same mark. It is a weird quirk of New Yorker style. I just think of it as a quaint thing that the editors there do. The other thing that they do that I hate is putting a comma between the month and the year. It drives me crazy when they do that. That has not been good editorial style for the past 50 years, but it was enshrined somehow in their stylebook years ago. If you discount those two things, however, the New Yorker is excellent. [laughs]
I guess, as a whole, the archaicism at the New Yorker is sort of charming.
Yeah. But when you print what you just said, you want to make it archaism.
Oh God, of course. Sorry. Between the diaeresis and that, you’re killing me right now.
I can’t help telling you!
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