Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

A Q&A with Bryan Garner, "the least stuffy grammarian around"

A Q&A with Bryan Garner, “the least stuffy grammarian around”

The fifth edition of Garner’s Modern English Usage has recently been published by OUP. I was happy to talk to Bryan Garner—who has been called “the least stuffy grammarian around” and was declared a “genius” by the late David Foster Wallace—about what it means to write a usage dictionary. 

What possesses someone to undertake a usage dictionary?

“Possesses” is a good word for it. In my case, it was matter of falling in love with the genre as a teenager. I discovered Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage (1942) and immediately felt that it was the most fascinating book I’d ever held. Partridge discussed every “problem point” in the language—words that people use imprecisely, phrases that professional editors habitually eliminate, words that get misspelled because people falsely associate them with similar-looking words, the common grammatical blunders, and so on. And then Partridge had essays on such linguistic topics as concessive clauses, conditional clauses, elegancies, hyphenation, negation,   nicknames, and obscurity (“It may be better to be clear than clever; it is still better to be clear and correct.”).

At the age of 16, I was going on a ski trip with friends, and the book had just arrived in the mail as I was leaving for New Mexico. I stuck it in my bag and didn’t open it until we arrived at the ski lodge. Upon starting to read it, I was hooked. In fact, I didn’t even ski the first day: I was soaking up all that I could from Usage and Abusage, which kept mentioning some mysterious man named Fowler.

So when I got home, I ordered Fowler’s Modern English Usage (2d ed. 1965), and when it arrived I decided it was even better. By the time I was 17, I’d memorized virtually every linguistic stance taken by Partridge and Fowler, and I was thoroughly imbued with their approach to language. By the time I’d graduated from high school, I added Wilson Follett, Bergen Evans, and Theodore Bernstein to the mix. I was steeped in English usage—as a kind of closet study. I spent far more time on these books than I did on my schoolwork.

I suppose in retrospect it looks predictable that I’d end up writing a usage dictionary. I started my first one (A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage) when I was 23, and I’ve been at it ever since. That was 41 years ago, and it ended up being my first book with Oxford University Press.

There must be a further backstory to a teenager who suddenly falls in love with usage books. What explains that?

You’re asking me to psychoanalyze myself? Okay, it’s true. When I was four, in 1962, my grandfather used Webster’s Second New International Dictionary as my booster seat. I started wondering what was in that big book.

Then, in 1974, when I was 15, one of the most important events of my life took place. A pretty girl in my neighborhood, Eloise, said to me, with big eyes and a smile: “You know, you have a really big vocabulary.” I had used the word facetious, and that prompted her comment.

It was a life-changing moment. I would never be the same.

I decided, quite consciously (though misguidedly), that if a big vocabulary impressed girls, I could excel at it as nobody ever had. By that time, my grandparents had given me Webster’s Second New International Dictionary, which for years had sat on a shelf in my room. I took it down and started scouring the pages for interesting, genuinely useful words. I didn’t want obsolete words. I wanted serviceable words and remarkable words. I resolved to copy out, by hand, 30 good ones per day—and to do it without fail.

“I decided, quite consciously (though misguidedly), that if a big vocabulary impressed girls, I could excel at it as nobody ever had.”

I soon discovered I liked angular, brittle words, such as cantankerousimpecuniousrebuke, and straitlaced. I liked aw-shucks, down-home words, such as bumpkinchatterboxhorselaugh, and mumbo-jumbo. I liked combustible, raucous words, such as blastbrayfulminate, and thunder. I liked arch, high-toned words, such as athwartcalumnycynosure, and decrepitude. I liked toga-wearing, Socratic-sounding words, such as eristichomunculuspalimpsest, and theologaster. I liked mellifluous, polysyllabic words, such as antediluvianpostprandialprotuberance, and undulation. I liked the technical and quasi-technical terms of rhetoric, such as asyndetonperiphrasisquodlibet, and synecdoche. I liked frequentative verbs with an onomatopoetic feel, such as gurgle, jostlepiffle, and topple. I liked evocative words about language, such as billingsgatelogolatrywordmonger, and zinger. I liked scatological, I-can’t-believe-this-term-exists words, such as coprolaliafimicolousscatomancy, and stercoraceous. I liked astonishing, denotatively necessary words that more people ought to know, such as mumpsimus and ultracrepidarian. I liked censoriously yelping words, such as balderdashhooey, pishposh, and poppycock. I liked mirthful, tittering words, such as cowlickflapdoodle, horsefeathers, and icky.

In short, I fell in love with language. I filled hundreds of pages in my vocabulary notebooks.

In the end, I decided that I liked the word lexicographer better than copyist, so I tried my hand at it.

What about Eloise? Did she respond well?

I was trying to impress her, it’s true. I never called her. I just started using lots of big words. It took me about two years to realize that big words, in themselves, have no intrinsic value in attracting females. Perhaps the opposite.

But that’s okay. By the time I was 17, I had this prodigious vocabulary. I thought of SAT words as being quite elementary. I had a larger vocabulary then than I do today. You can see why, at the ski lodge in early 1975, this particular teenager was absolutely primed to relish the work of Eric Partridge and H.W. Fowler.

You’re not limited to English usage, are you? You’ve written other language-related books—what, 28 of them with different publishers?

That’s true. But it all began with words and English usage. Then I moved to legal lexicography and other language-related topics.  

Many if not most lexicographers today are interested in slang, in current catchphrases, and in jargon—the more shifting and volatile parts of language. (Always something new!) I’m different. I’ve always been interested in the durable parts. In my usage book, I tackle the difficult question of what, precisely, constitutes Standard Written English. In any era, that’s a complicated question or series of questions. And so I’ve answered it in a 1,200-page book, word by word and phrase by phrase. It’s intended for writers, editors, and serious word lovers.

Bryan Garner, author of Garner’s Modern English Usage, Fifth Edition

Within Garner’s Modern English Usage, you intersperse essays of the kind you mentioned earlier, don’t you?

Of course. I’m very Fowlerian and Partridgean in my mindset. Though all my essays are original, some bear the same category-titles as Fowler’s (for example, “Archaisms,” “Needless Variants,” and “Split Infinitives” ) or Partridge’s (“Clichés,” “Johnsonese,” and “Slang” [yes, that]). Meanwhile, I’ve created new essay-categories of my own, much in the mold of my admired predecessors: “Airlinese,” “Estranged Siblings,” “Hypercorrection,” “Irregular Verbs,” “Skunked Terms,” “Word-Swapping,” and the like). I have a dozen new essays in the fifth edition, including “Irreversible Binomials,” “Loanwords,” “Prejudiced and Prejudicial Terms,” “Race-Related Terms,” and “Serial Comma” (a big one). These essays are some fun.

You also have lots of new short entries, don’t you? Didn’t I read that there are 1,500 of them?

Yes, something like that. Consider an example. Note that an asterisk before a term denotes that it’s nonstandard:      

  tic-tac-toe (the elementary game in which two players draw X’s or O’s within a pattern of nine squares, the object being to get three in a row), a phrase dating from the mid-1800s in AmE, has been predominantly so spelled since about 1965. Before that, the variants *tick-tack-toe, *ticktacktoe, and even *tit-tat-toe were about equally common. The British usually call the game noughts and crosses

                   Current ratio (tic-tac-toe vs. *tit-tat-toe vs. *tick-tack-toe vs. *ticktacktoe): 96:4:3:1

There are thousands of such entries. As you can see, a usage-book entry is entirely different from a normal dictionary entry.

At the ends of your entries, you include ratios about relative frequency in print.

Yes. Those are key. I’m capitalizing on big data, which makes GMEU entries empirically grounded in a way that earlier usage books couldn’t be. This is a great era for lexicographers and grammarians: we can assess word frequencies in various databases that include millions of published and spoken instances of a word or phrase. By comparison, the evidence on which Fowler and Partridge based their opinions was sparse. In my case, opinion is kept to a minimum, and facts come to the fore. Sometimes that entails inconveniently discovering that the received wisdom has been way off base.

Some people ask why we need a new edition of Garner’s Modern English Usage after only six years.

“People who say they’re sticking to the original Fowler might as well be driving an original Model-T.”

I’ve heard that. It’s a naive view. For one thing, the empirical statistics on relative word frequencies have been updated from 2008 to 2019. The language has evolved: email is now predominantly solid. There are thousands of updated ratios, and some of the judgments differ from those in past editions. For example, overly and snuck are now declared to be unobjectionable.

Every single page of the book has new material. It’s a big improvement. The six years have allowed for much more research.

People who say they’re sticking to the original Fowler might as well be driving an original Model-T.

Here’s something reference books have in common with medical devices. There’s no reason for a new one unless it’s a significant improvement over its precursors. That’s how the field gets better and better.

The book has been praised as “a stupendous achievement” (Reference Reviews) and “a thorough tour of the language” (Wall Street Journal). You’ve been called “David Foster Wallace’s favorite grammarian” (New Yorker) and “the world’s leading authority on the English language” (Business Insider). That’s heady stuff, isn’t it?

I’m just a dogged researcher. That’s all. Research is simply formalized curiosity, and I seem to have an inexhaustible curiosity about practical problems that arise for writers and editors. I certainly wouldn’t call myself “the world’s leading authority on the English language.”

I’ve also been helped by generous scholars, especially by John Simpson, the Oxford lexicographer, and Geoffrey K. Pullum, the Edinburgh grammarian. And then I had a panel of 34 critical readers who minutely reviewed 55-page segments for suggested improvements. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for the contributions of all these erudite friends.

In any event, a lexicographer must be especially adept at delayed gratification. You labor for years and then wait. You’re lucky, as Samuel Johnson once said, if you can just “escape censure.” That some people have praised my work, after all these years of toil, is certainly pleasing. But for me, the real pleasure is in the toil itself: asking pertinent questions and finding useful, fact-based answers to all the nettlesome problems that arise in our wildly variegated English language.

Find out more and buy Garner’s Modern English Usage, Fifth Edition

Recent Comments

  1. Bonita Sbaiti

    I’m hoping to find a definitive opinion on the English–or American–subjunctive, as well as on “alright.”

  2. Graham Elliott

    A fascinating read. “Research is simply formalised curiosity…” is a great quote. Perhaps next time, readers can put the questions to Bryan Garner !

Comments are closed.