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In defense of Bryan Garner

A few days ago, at Wordorigins.org, Dave Wilton took aim at Garner's Modern American Usage. While he says that following Mr. Garner's advice will result in "stodgy, unimaginative prose," his major complaint is with the "Language Change Index" and its stages of acceptability: "rejected, widely shunned, widespread but …, ubiquitous but … fully accepted."

These categories, Dr. Wilton says, are Mr. Garner's method of "battling the cancers that are metastasizing throughout the body of the English language" and "punishing innovation and inventiveness, as well as those in minority communities who habitually use English in a slightly different way than the majority." In the latter stages, "Garner abandons all pretense of democracy and wisdom of the masses, not even acknowledging that the 'well-educated' may have something constructive to contribute. Instead, he becomes the sole arbiter of what is correct, for the difference between 'die-hard snoot' and 'pseudo-snoot eccentric' is, of course, whether Garner himself approves."

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While any text can be put to bad use—look at how E.B. White's innocent little book of advice has been stretched out of shape—we might go beyond Dr. Wilton's fulmination to look at what Garner's Modern American Usage is useful for.*

Garner's Modern American English is prescriptivist and conservative in its approach, openly so. But Mr. Garner is not a retrograde crank; Garner's Modern American Usage is not Gwynne's Grammar. Mr. Garner is an informed prescriptivist, and many of the strictures in his book on superstitions, shibboleths, and "baseless crotchets" are consonant with what linguists would say.

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Mr. Garner's book describes the current conventions of standard written American English. While Dr. Wilton can sneer that the book "is a good guide if you're composing a cover letter for a résumé, where you want language that no one could possibly object to," that is precisely the kind of thing it is good for. It does not pretend to be a guide to imaginative writing; for that, one would go to, for one, Joseph M. Williams's Style: Ten Lessons on Clarity and Grace.

I do not reflexively agree with everything Mr. Garner says. For example, he still lists singular they in the "ubiquitous but …" category. But when I see the rukus over singular they, I can imagine that someone writing a journalistic article, a cover letter, or a memorandum for an editor, a hiring manager, or a boss might benefit from advice to be cautious on that point.

This is something less than what Dr. Wilton describes as an "Orwellian usage guide."

Moreover, while Dr. Wilton deplores Mr. Garner's "arbitrary and subjective" advice, he says, "As a teacher of composition, I tell my students how to write all the time, and hopefully I'm teaching them to write well." Dr. Wilton offers his students his best judgment about current usage, conventions, and tastes, based on his understanding of where the language is today and how literate, educated people use it. I do the same with my students. And so does Bryan Garner. There are no objective standards of taste.

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People who crave authority and are timorous about their ability to make independent decisions, like the Strunkists and the more extreme devotees of the Associated Press Stylebook, may turn Garner's Modern American Usage into a rulebook. But it seems to me that the "Language Change Index" invites the reader to independent judgment rather than slavish obedience.

*Before we go on, the record should show that I have met Bryan Garner, I am listed among scores in the "panel of critical readers" he consulted for the third edition, and I have repeatedly recommended his book to my students and colleagues.

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