Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Tracking the Tide of Language Change

In part two of our interview with usage expert Bryan A. Garner, we talk about a new feature in the newly published third edition of his authoritative guide, Garner's Modern American Usage: the Language-Change Index, an innovative approach to evaluating how linguistic innovations spread and become accepted over time — for better or for worse.

VT: What was the thinking behind incorporating the Language-Change Index into this edition of the book? 

BG: It was one of those ideas that, in retrospect, seems so obvious. It is astonishing to me that I never thought of it before, and astonishing that no one else seems ever to have thought of it before — except two scholars, Louis Heller and James Macris, who were writing about usage in 1967 in an article in American Speech. My eye fell on it one day, so I decided to have it photocopied and take it on a plane trip up to Washington. And lo and behold, the authors were suggesting gradations of acceptability in usage and that there's no reason why a usage guide can't assign levels of acceptability to certain words. But they wrote in a rather academic and dry way, and I thought their own categories needed some tweaking and refining. I made their four-stage categories into five stages, and I completely rewrote what the categories stood for. But the seminal idea was from that 1967 article by Heller and Macris.

Once I started grading things and putting them in the Language-Change Index, probably halfway through the B's, I was starting to think, "Is this a good idea?" The Index really amounted to a major overhaul of the work. But I think it's a useful thing.

VT: Could you describe each of the five stages?

BG: Stage 1: An arrant mistake crops up. It may actually get a little bit of currency, but it is widely rejected. Stage 2: It spreads. It begins spreading to as many as half of the members of the language community, but not the best-educated half. Stage 3: It now is being used by a majority of the language community, including many college-educated people, but the best-educated people reject it. Stage 4: It becomes all but ubiquitous and only a few diehard "snoots," as David Foster Wallace calls them, reject it. Stage 5: It truly is universal, and the only people who reject it are eccentrics.

VT: The way you describe it makes it sound like these changes move from the less educated to the more educated. Is that the way that you'd characterize all of these changes in the language?

BG: Not all of them, no. But I think it's often the case, and probably the most frequent case. Let's say somebody talks about a corollary between violence on television and violence in the real world. And the person clearly means correlation, but uses corollary. I don't think you would call it a learned blunder. The person at least knows that there's a word correlation and is reaching for correlation but uses the word corollary. It is reminiscent of the kind of blunders that Shakespeare would put into the mouths of his clowns in "Love's Labour's Lost" and other plays, where he's making fun of how ill-educated speakers reach for a fancy term but use the wrong word.

VT: Or Mrs. Malaprop.

BG: Mrs. Malaprop is the best example of that. I don't think anybody would say Mrs. Malaprop was a careful user of language or even highly educated. But I do know that you will also find a lot of the same kinds of mistakes in learned journals, typically when people are writing very opaquely, such as Ph.D. candidates who are going for profundity and writing in a very inaccessible way. This happens with law students as well, as they're trying to pick up new legal jargon. They fall over themselves with simple things like subject-verb agreement problems. As some writers have pointed out, some change for the worse begins with academic writers and penetrates down into the language.

VT: Would you see all of these as changes for the worse, a kind of degradation, or are there some changes you would consider neutral or even positive?

BG: Some changes are helpful. The fact that there was a neologism for Internet, or for e-mail, that's a fine change. We need a word for that. But the idea that people would begin misusing corollary to mean correlation, I don't know anybody who could make a case for that as being a useful innovation of the language. To me that's inconceivable, unless you really want to say, "This is complete linguistic relativism and we should make no judgments at all about language, not one negative judgment about anything that somebody says or writes." Well, that's just silly, and I don't know anybody in the world of affairs who would take that position.

VT: Rather than a black-and-white type of prescriptivism, the Language-Change Index demonstrates the shades of gray and shows how some points of usage really are in dispute. At Stage 2 or 3, there may be quite a lot of disagreement about whether to use one particular variant or another, but once it gets to Stage 4 or 5, then in some ways the battle may be lost, or the traditionalist side of the argument may need to be abandoned.

BG: I think that's a pretty fair way of characterizing it. I abstain from Stage 4 usages. I would not want to be caught using something that I have labeled Stage 4.

VT: Does that make you a snoot, according to David Foster Wallace?

BG: I think that does, yes. In fact, that's probably a good definition of a snoot: somebody who would not engage in Stage 4 misusages. But the nice thing about the gradations is that if you do happen to use hopefully to mean "I hope," which I think is Stage 4, there's no way that a snoot or anybody else can condemn it too strongly. Almost everybody does this. There are only a few of us who abstain. And so you're with the vast majority, and there's some consolation in that. Maybe you're not a snoot, but you are at least with the tide of the language.

With almost every Stage 4 misusage, I think it is a fait accompli that it will at some point become Stage 5. I have not seen examples of any usages that have gotten as far as Stage 4 and then been turned back. So it is inevitable, I think, once it gets to Stage 4, but it's just a question of time. It doesn't mean I think we should readily embrace the changes. There are some linguists who have taken the position that change is inevitable and that change is constant in language. Now, I agree with both of those propositions, but that does not mean that each new misusage should be readily embraced. It doesn't mean that at all.

VT: But by the time it reaches Stage 4, is it even fair to call it a misusage?  Does it make sense to refer to something like that as an error?

BG: I think "misusage" is a slightly harsh word for it, even for hopefully.  I call it a "Stage 4 misusage," but "Stage 4" should take the sting out of the word, "misusage." It's a peccadillo, a linguistic peccadillo.

VT: Would you say then that the traditionalists who are concerned with these points of usage should then pick their battles and not worry so much about Stages 4 and 5 and raise more objections to things that are more in flux, say, at Stage 2 or 3?

BG: I think that's wise, yes.

VT: At least for your blood pressure? Otherwise you'll be irate about everything.

BG: Well, I don't get irate. I actually love finding new misusages, especially new Stage 1 and Stage 2 misusages. I get genuinely excited about it because it gives me something new to write about. Really, if I can find usages that no other writer has discussed before as a problem — and I think corrolary/correlation is one of those — for me, that's very exciting because it means that it's a contribution to the literature on English usage. I don't like confining myself to the same old canon that most usage writers more or less imitate each other on.

I like the idea, too, of changing the rulings of earlier usage authorities. For example, I think I'm the first ever to say self-deprecating is Stage 5 in American English. All the other authorities had insisted on self-depreciating. But I was the first one to throw in the towel on that one and say, "Look, it's silly for us to continue insisting on self-depreciating when nobody says that anymore." I regret it a little bit, but I'm a realist. To that degree, my principles are very much informed by a pragmatic kind of descriptivism.

VT: Early on in the development of a language change, when there's more flux, do you see that as the kind of arena where books like yours can make a real impact on the way that people use English? Do you think that your book is most useful for people who are on the fence, deciding between one form or another?

BG: Well, it's not as if people are stopping in mid-sentence to go rush off and look at a usage book and figure out how to complete the sentence. One major use of a dictionary of usage is for editors and writers, to guide them to wise choices when they're deciding, "Hmm, should it be this way or should it be that way? What's our editorial policy going to be?" I want Garner's Modern American Usage to answer 98% of the questions that would arise anytime anyone is preparing a book, a newsletter, an article, anything like that. Any time someone would pause and wonder which of two forms is the better way, I'm hoping that I've given reliable guidance 98% of the time.

A second major use for a usage guide is if somebody says something like, "You're trying to harp back to a previous age," and the other person in the conversation says, "I'm sorry, did you say harp back?"  "Yes, harp back." "No, I think it's hark back." It's a way of immediately checking to see which should it be.  You find some people do misuse harp back for hark back. And do you spell it heark or hark? Or is it harken back?  There are conversations like this all the time, in which people just idly wonder and then never look into it.

I think that more people ought to have enough curiosity about the language to take a moment and just look into it later. Or even if somebody that you're talking to says something that you think is wrong, "Hmm, I don't think that's right, I don't think that's the right word," a usage book is an incomparable place to look up this kind of thing, as opposed to a general dictionary because you'll find a much more informed, pointed essay on the point than you would find typically in a usage book.

The third major use of a usage book is for just the fun of browsing through it. David Foster Wallace used to say it's great bathroom reading. You read it for 90 seconds or two minutes a day and just browse through it. It will sensitize you to all sorts of linguistic issues that you may not have known were even in the language.

Click here to read more articles from Behind the Dictionary.

Part one of our interview with Bryan Garner about the latest edition of his usage guide.
Garner on Plain Language
An excerpt from "Garner's Modern American Usage" exposes the perils of muddy prose.
Prostate With Grief
How to avoid becoming a modern-day Mrs. Malaprop.