Microinterview with Bryan Garner

Josh Fischel
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This issue features a “micro-interview” with Bryan Garner conducted by Josh Fischel. Garner is the editor of a bounty of English- and legal-usage texts, including Black’s Law Dictionary and Garner’s Modern American Usage. Pooh-poohed earlier in his career for embracing the study of a “mere” skill—legal writing—he now gives seminars and lectures all over the world to judges and lawyers on how to write and argue more persuasively. He spoke entirely in complete sentences during the interview.


THE BELIEVER: You often argue for clarity and plain language, but for your entry on sesquipedality—the use of big words—in The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style, you quote Sheridan Baker saying, “For distinction, we need words not heard every minute, unusual words, large words, foreign words, metaphors.” Is that at odds with your broader aim?

BRYAN GARNER: Perhaps a little bit. I really appreciate someone with a good vocabulary, and, in fact, I spent many years building a huge vocabulary. I was fascinated by a lot of the really arcane, esoteric words in the language, words like cunctation, which means “a delay.” I once wrote a college paper referring to a three-month cunctation, as opposed to delay, and actually got a better mark for that because I knew my audience. It was a professor who was always depending on me to help him build his vocabulary, and he appreciated my sending him to the dictionary. Most readers don’t. Although it’s surprising: Time and Newsweek will sometimes include words that are well beyond the normal reader’s ken. I think some mixture is good, as Sheridan Baker says, between mostly words that are within a reader’s comfort zone, but still interesting words—words that would not just be the first to pop into anybody else’s mind. So you’ll find among good writers, typically, some unusual expressions of ideas, but mostly some good combinations of ordinary words. But sometimes there’ll be a lexiphanic writer, like John Updike or William F. Buckley, who will use really recherché, recondite, words.


THE BELIEVER: Why do you think legal writing isn’t taken seriously in academia?

BRYAN GARNER: Somehow, skills training is very much derided within the legal academy. It’s a strange phenomenon, because words are the primary tools of lawyers—the only tools that lawyers have—and writing and speaking are the two most important things that a lawyer can do. The longer I live, the more I realize that any kind of reform is difficult to establish, to have it take root. Legal academia’s no different, and the law’s a very conservative, stodgy profession, so the idea that legal education would be revamped to put legal writing and oral presentation at the forefront is quite a remote possibility. But I love that fact, because I make my living teaching practicing lawyers and judges how to write and how to speak more effectively.

BLVR: In what ways are court opinions written better now, and how have they fallen?

BG: Judicial opinions on the whole have gotten to be a lot less jargonistic. There’s much less legalese than there used to be, fewer references to “said wagon in said road carrying said oats,” that sort of thing, than in yesteryear. The biggest problem with modern judicial writing is that it’s way too long. Justice Holmes used to write his opinions while standing at a writing table in his chambers, and he was quoted as saying that nothing conduces to brevity like the caving in of the knees.


THE BELIEVER: Do you think the Constitution is a well-written document?

BRYAN GARNER: If, through time travel, I could tutor the founding fathers on constitutional drafting, I’d (1) show them how treacherous shall can be and have them abstain from it in favor of the unambiguous must; (2) persuade them to omit the superfluous comma in the nominative absolute of the Second Amendment; and (3) persuade them not to use same as a pronoun in Article II or elsewhere, thereby avoiding the necessity of the Twenty-fifth Amendment. I’d praise them on their excellent arrangement of constitutional provisions while encouraging them to be more fastidious at the sentence level.

BLVR: Is there a Supreme Court case that you think people should read because it’s well written?

BG: There’s a really well-written opinion by Justice Stevens called McLaughlin v. United States which was done in five paragraphs. It was about whether an unloaded gun is a lethal weapon. It’s just wonderfully done in five paragraphs, and I wish more of the justices would write that way more of the time.


THE BELIEVER: Why is it that people seem so terrified by grammar?

BRYAN GARNER: Probably a lot of people consider grammar to be a very rule-bound field. The interesting thing is that people who think they’re sticklers for grammar typically have no idea what they’re talking about. They’ve never actually looked in a grammar book. They just think that their own ill-supported prejudices are somehow fixed rules of grammar. It’s so frustrating that more people don’t know about dictionaries of usage and the very sound rulings you can get in a book like Fowler’s Modern English Usage or Bernstein’s The Careful Writer.

BLVR: Where would you place yourself on the linguistic spectrum between prescriptivism—telling people how language should be used—and descriptivism—telling people how language is being used?

BG: I’m more on the prescriptivist side. I’m a prescriber. I use solid descriptive evidence in support of my editorial rulings or linguistic rulings, but I’m more on the prescriptive side of things. That’s why linguists are often so unhappy with my methods: I use their methods to support making judgments about language. The extreme linguists think that a native speaker of English cannot make a mistake, and if a native speaker says it, it must be ipso facto correct. I’ve torpedoed that view pretty effectively. I have outed some of the extreme descriptivists and shown their fallacious ideas to be fallacious. But I think I’m fairly centrist in my editorial judgments.


THE BELIEVER: Do you think 24-7 news coverage, combined with the decline of newspapers, has had a negative influence on language and usage?

BRYAN GARNER: It has certainly had a harmful impact. Even when TV journalists are reporting law cases, they grossly oversimplify, to such an extent that it’s often difficult to recognize what they’re talking about. The readership of print media has gone way down, and the result is that we are reverting to something like an oral culture. Otherwise-literate people are today carrying on, day in and day out, with minimal reading. This results in misunderstandings of words, so words fall into flux a great deal more. I think we’re actually degenerating into something more like Shakespearean English, in which the language was less fixed and there was much more rapid change going on. I think it’s happening now. I may be overstating the case, but only slightly.

BLVR: What’s been the effect of Twitter, Facebook, and texting on usage?

BG: I’m not really sure. I think each is a new medium of communication that may not have much of an impact outside its own medium. I’m not bothered by all the abbreviations in texting, because it is a usable shorthand. I think emoticons—smiley faces—are kind of nice, but I wouldn’t want to see them in a printed letter, for example. I will say this: email and texting probably do have the effect of having more people write than otherwise would. People are actually writing.


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