THE LAST GRAMMARIAN?
Bryan Garner, Garner's Modern English Usage (5th Edition), Oxford University Press, 2022
Reviewed by Michael Ward
In 2001, Harper's published David Foster Wallace's essay "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage." It was a review of Garner's Modern English Usage (Oxford University Press), a tome that rivaled Infinite Jest in size and weight. Recently, OUP released a newly revised fifth edition. The book is less a dictionary and more a guide to words from the viewpoint of one man, Bryan Garner, who has spent most of his life captivated by the English language.
If you're reading this, you likely have an interest in our common language as much as Garner himself. You, no doubt, will have your view on the existence of a word like "irregardless," the nuances of "between" and "among," and the difference between "ultimate" and "penultimate." Yes, those are clear, you say. But what you likely don't have—which is precisely what Garner does have—is an evidential chain of custody that allows you to arrive at the same conclusion as he.
His entry on "irregardless," for example, doesn't just say something like "wrong" or "non-standard." Instead, it clocks in at about 400 words, beginning with a 1991 article about Hoosier basketball and culminating with another about the events of January 6, 2021. On that fateful day, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley (a product of both Stanford University and Yale University) "excoriated Pennsylvania officials for allowing mail-in balloting 'irregardless of what the Pennsylvania Constitution says.'" (619).
Garner has multiple scales for the severity of these violations. Ontheparliamentary scale, he gives Hawley's folly a "censure" rating, which is one step above the worst: expulsion. (Ironically, Hawley was neither censured nor expelled from the actual Senate for anything he said that day.)
English has no keeper. Just as a sagging balloon in a living room is kept aloft by partygoers who swipe, swat, and slap at it, English exists in its perpetual motion, its flexibility, and its alterability. That does not mean many haven't stepped forward to fill the void that institutions such as the Real Academia Española or the Académie Française have for Spanish or French. In another one of his books, Taming the Tongue, a cursory look at the grammar wars between 1711 and 1851, Garner catalogs nearly one hundred "experts" who wrote books or pamphlets describing how the English language ought to be communicated. Garner is, after all, carrying on a long tradition.
If the images one can find of him online are accurate, Garner is a youthful-looking lawyer in his early sixties. He parts his graying hair to his right, and his square face gives off the vibes of conservativeness (small c). Think of lots of books on shelves behind him. Think of him grabbing one of those volumes (which happens to be hiseponymouslynamed fourth edition) while standing in front of those other books authored, no doubt, by usage dilettantes. He also writes a column for National Review and once co-authored a book with (and another about) Antonin Scalia; on second thought, go ahead and capitalize that small c.
He looks like an attorney you could trust, and trusting him is exactly what he asks of us. Like a modern-day Ben Johnson, Elizabeth Elstob, or Jonathan Swift, Garner takes up the mantle of the language expert for a 21st century punctuated by irreverent memes, cryptic text messages, drunk tweets, and questionable neologisms like "goblin mode."
There are others—many others, no doubt—who would argue Garner's background as a white, over-educated, long-tail baby boomer are all features that make him the wrong person to be telling the rest of the English-speaking world (approx. 1.5 billion people) how they should write. Maybe that person should come from a different race, ethnic, or socioeconomic background. Maybe that person shouldn't be one person at all.
Writing and speaking are political acts. Take the word "they." Whereas Garner devotes a few hundred words to "irregardless," he spends about 2,000 on the riveting history of language's most controversial pronoun (1094). "In 1745," Garner writes, "the English grammarian Ann Fischer posited that the masculine singular pronoun includes the feminine." So a sentence like "Everyone can think for himself" remained standard for a couple of hundred years. By the second half of the 20th century, many had begun to wonder if that didn't sound a little sexist. "Everyone can think for himself or herself" seemed more appropriate. Then, Garner argues, some considered whether gender needed to be revealed at all. And that's when "they" was conscripted into the fray. Today, Merriam-Webster gives the pronoun six possible senses, including one that refers to a non-binary individual. To put that into context, "he" has two senses and "she" has three.
At the heart of this debate, and to which Wallace devoted much of his original essay, is the fight between the two linguistic worlds of descriptivists and prescriptivists. That is, those who see English as it is and those who see it as how it should be. Think of it like the anthropologist who cheerily notes the elbows on the dinner table while the etiquette expert stands aside and aghast. Garner writes, however, that "the debate is old, and it has grown stale." (xiv). The path forward, he suggests, is one that accepts both viewpoints.
The technology of the 21st century has made arriving at this negotiated settlement easier. Whereas prescriptivists got by with their wits and wagging fingers, the work of descriptivists was never done. How could they be sure they found enough examples of a given word or phrase to make any sort of pronouncement about its use? Using Google's Ngram, Garner has been able to track a word's usage and spelling over decades. No more library hours sifting through newspapers and books. The amount of data available at his fingertips within seconds must be several times what earlier descriptivists could have recorded in their entire careers. Tipping his hat to the prescriptivists out there, Garner points out that usage is only one metric. Sometimes, a phrase like "to home in on" is correct in a way that "to hone in on" can never be.
Garner's view is his own, and he makes no attempt to hide it. If this vision of English is so diametrically opposed to the majority of its speakers, then we are each obliged to speak and write. In doing so, we cast a vote and swipe, swat, slap one of the world's most democratic languages deeper into the 21st century, irregardless of what the penultimate result might be.