Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Are You an Informed Prescriptivist?

Bryan A. Garner wears many hats: he is a lawyer, a prolific lecturer, and an equally prolific author. Since 1995, he has been editor-in-chief of Black's Law Dictionary. He is also the author of Garner's Modern American Usage, a widely respected guide to contemporary usage that has just been published in its third edition. In this, the first of our two-part interview with Garner, we learn what it means to be an "informed prescriptivist," and why you should be wary of anyone who uses prior to instead of before.

VT: What first motivated you to write A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (the first edition of what became Garner's Modern American Usage)?

BG: When I started the first edition, no major book on usage for American English had appeared in many, many years — not since the mid-60's, with Theodore Bernstein or Wilson Follett, and they were pretty badly dated. As far as I was concerned, no one was really upholding the tradition of H. W. Fowler and the kind of sensibility that he showed so astutely in his own writings on English usage.

VT: So there was really nothing recent of its kind that was comprehensive?

BG: No. I collect books on usage, and I have several hundred of them. In fact, several come out every year, but they're typically of ephemeral interest and not with the kind of scholarship behind them that I would like to see. They tend to be inadequate to the needs of somebody who is very much taken with a serious book like H. W. Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage, Eric Partridge's Usage and Abusage, Theodore Bernstein's The Careful Writer, or Wilson Follett's Modern American Usage. There were none of that caliber.

VT: What is your opinion of Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU)?

BG: That book does have substantial scholarship behind it. But my problem with it is that the point of view is all off. The presumption is essentially that Fowler, Follett, Bernstein, and Partridge didn't know what they were talking about, and that if a native speaker of English says it or if we find it in our files, then it must be a legitimate usage. That's not my presumption at all. I really cannot read a page of that book without having a significant rise in my blood pressure.

VT: Would you consider yourself on the other side of the descriptivist/prescriptivist divide, compared to MWDEU?

BG: Oh, sure. I consider myself an informed prescriptivist.

VT: You talk about this in the new introductory essay for the third edition, "The Ongoing Struggles of Garlic-Hangers. " Could you summarize what you see as the role of the informed prescriptivist?

BG: I think most fairly well-educated people in our society would subscribe to the position of an informed prescriptivist. There ought to be judgments about more effective and less effective uses of language. There's nothing wrong with saying that a given expression is bad usage. What I decry is the notion current in some halls of academia that if a native speaker of English says something, it must ipso facto be correct, and that people cannot misuse language any more than whales can emit their cries incorrectly. I find that to be an exceedingly retrograde and befuddling point of view.

VT: When it comes to a practical guide to usage, as you've created, that's an area where people are not necessarily looking for a descriptivist argument of the type made in MWDEU. Do you see your role in providing usage advice to be an aesthetic one, as opposed to a kind of descriptivism that methodically looks at the way different forms are used without passing judgment? 

BG: Typically, aesthetics plays a role, but not the primary role at all. I think predominance of usage plays a role. You have to talk about who in the language community uses a given form. What is the level of education of the people who use this form as opposed to that form?  And the mere fact that even college-educated people may use a given expression does not make it good either, as far as I'm concerned, because of the gradations that I've tried to document. There's a lot of flux in language.

I do want to clarify one thing. I am wholly on board with descriptive linguistics and lexicography when it comes to general lexicography, as I am in my work on Black's Law Dictionary. That is a purely descriptive dictionary of law, and it includes some definitions that people have argued with because they don't think they're proper definitions. But if certain legal words and phrases are used by judges and lawyers in a given way, I duly record it, and I think it has to be that way. When I put on the hat of a usage expert, though, everything changes.

Well, maybe not everything! The principles of lexicography still hold true, but the judgments are quite different — because then you are actually writing essays on what uses of language are more effective than others and what's the most powerful way of expressing yourself.  Why is before, for example, better than prior to?  That's a matter of some import, as far as I'm concerned. That's not just a neutral question, whether before or prior to is a better way of expressing the idea. For somebody who wants to have credibility, with lots and lots of listeners and readers, what would a professional editor do?  That's more what a usage book addresses.

So I am not against the project of descriptive lexicographers at all. In fact, I am a descriptive lexicographer in several of my books. But when it comes to a usage book, a whole different set of talents has to come into play. Somebody like Fowler, for example, was both a lexicographer and a usage writer. But a lot of lexicographers, I think, simply don't have the tools to do what a usage expert does. And some usage experts don't have the tools to do what a lexicographer does. But if you can marry the two sets of talents, that's really ideal for writing a good usage guide.

VT: Let's take prior to as an example. In Modern American Usage, you say that it is "one of the most easily detectable symptoms of bureaucratese, commercialese, and legalese," and that it's "terribly overworked."  Would it be fair to say that prior to might be more appropriate in certain registers of English, related to certain lines of work like law or the corporate world?

BG: I would never say that. I would say that lawyers or corporate people who say prior to are probably not very linguistically astute. They don't care a lot about language. I think it's a huge negative mark, just as I think subsequent to is. These are genteelisms, and they typify people who slightly puff up their language on the mistaken notion that it makes them more professional or gives them more status, when in fact what it does is just the opposite. I cannot imagine a context in which prior to is better than before, unless it were in the punch line of a joke at the speaker's expense. To be honest, I can't read a sentence with prior to in it, without having very adverse inferences about the writer. And the same is true with previously to, and antecedent to, and anterior to. These are all just puffed up ways of saying before.

VT: What if you found it in a piece of official writing, say in a statute or something that emanates from Congress or from a state legislature?

BG: I would shake my head at the incompetence of the drafters. In fact, it often is in statutes, but I'll put almost no stock in the style of legislative drafters. What I love to see, of course, is a legislative drafter who avoids expressions like those and uses good, straightforward, plain English. That's just a very refreshing thing to see, and you do see it sometimes.

VT: Are you in favor of plain-English campaigns that would make legal and legislative writing less burdened by this kind of indirect or unclear language?

BG: Plain-English campaigns, like good-usage campaigns, can be enlightened or they can be benighted. There are some who think that the whole battle is won if we can just eliminate phrases like hereby and prior to. It's not that simple. There's much more that goes into it, and I've written about that in the entry on "Plain Language."  But absolutely the most sophisticated legal writers and legislative drafters try to meet Einstein's goal of expressing the idea as precisely as possible, without any extra words, without any extra syllables, and in the simplest possible way. I very much agree with Coleridge, who said that anything translatable into simpler words in the same language is bad.

Next week, in part two of our interview with Bryan Garner, we discuss a fascinating new feature in the third edition of Modern American Usage: the Language Change Index.


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Comments from our users:

Wednesday September 16th 2009, 5:28 PM
Comment by: Joseph H. (Santa Barbara, CA)
Great work! Reminds me of prescriptivist Mark Twain's itemization of the requirements of the eighteen "rules governing literary art in the domain of romantic fiction" violated by Fenimore Cooper "in the restricted space of two-thirds of a page" of Deerslayer, especially

5. ...that when the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.

7. ...that when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship’s Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it.

and that the author

12. Say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

14. Eschew surplusage.

and

18. Employ a simple and straightforward style.

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