Roughly Speaking: The president vs. the press

Defending Bryan Garner

The Baltimore Sun

Weary as you must be by now of the hopefully hullabaloo, a post at Language Log by Mark Liberman, "The H-word,"  gives rise to some further observations.

Professor Liberman demonstrates a salient fact about the disparagement of hopefully  as a sentence adverb. After a long slumber as an occasional usage, it awoke in the 1960s and had a vogue. That made it immediately suspicious to language mavenry, which despises such popular effloresces. You cannot, after all, hold yourself proudly aloof from the herd if you speak as the herd does. That seems to be the substance of it, and all the rest is rationalization of prejudice.

I was taken by a comment by Language Hat, about Bryan Garner's listing hopefully as a "skunked term," that is, one, like niggardly, that is innocuous in itself but produces a strong enough reaction that a prudent writer will be careful about it. The Hat's remarks:

Bryan Garner should not be taken seriously (and it is very unfortunate that the otherwise excellent Chicago Manual of Style has outsourced its grammar section to him, a rare step backward into ignorance and prejudice). Like David Foster Wallace, he is able to cloak his random preferences and dislikes in convincing rhetoric and bedazzle readers who (not, of course, having taken any linguistics courses) have no actual facts to go on and are easily suckered by fancy footwork. When all his efforts to hold back the tide over the years have clearly failed and he is forced to admit defeat, he decrees that a term is "skunked," meaning "I clearly can't get people to use it the way I prefer but I still hate it, so STOP USING IT ALTOGETHER, DAMMIT." I don't understand why the man has so much clout in the language biz, but I wish he weren't given authority in these more knowledgeable precincts.

This strikes me as not entirely fair, because Mr. Garner is no mere braying peever of the Clark Elder Morrow stripe.*

I have immense respect for lexicographers and linguists who navigate the swift currents and treacherous shoals of language in their fragile little boats, and I am humble in the presence of Professor Liberman and Language Hat and others whose learning is so far more extensive than my own.

But as much as people need description of how language works and how people are using it, they also want instruction in how they ought to use it for particular purposes, mainly the niceties of standard written English for publication. Bryan Garner meets a deeply felt need, and he does so responsibly.

I wrote previously about editing as a branch of etiquette. Garner's Modern American Usage, perhaps more informed by descriptivist research than Language Hat is willing to concede, addresses that aspect of usage that can be identified as taste. A usage that is acceptable an inoffensive in one context can be gauche in another, and this is a questions of manners and social expectations that are inescapable in human interactions. Just as some writing is more skillful than other writing, avoiding solecisms, some writing is better adapted to tone, occasion, and audience than other.

It is a delicate matter, and as always with personal taste, there is considerable room for opinion. Lord Chesterfield's letters to his natural son were taken by many readers in the eighteenth century as guides to the proper behavior of a gentleman, though Samuel Johnson sneered that they displayed "the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master." Universal agreement is not to be expected.

Just as people profit from reliable guidance about how they ought to dress and comport themselves for particular occasions, so do they benefit from guidance on how they ought to write for particular occasions and audiences. When you consider how much wrong-headed and bogus advice is abroad, Mr. Garner should rather be praised for his reasonable and informed prescriptivism.

Besides, he has not been granted sublunary authority to bind and loose. If you disagree with his recommendations, you're free to disregard them.


*In the interests of disclosure, I am on good terms with Mr. Garner, who once interviewed me at The Sun and who included me among the panel of critical readers for the third edition of Garner's Modern American Usage. You will have noticed that I cite him regularly, though not slavishly.


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