On Garner’s Usage: In Praise of Exacting Prose

February 6, 2008 | 4 books mentioned 1 2 min read

Derek Teslik is still in his 20s for 15 more days and lives in Washington, DC.

A few weeks ago Max posted about the “rules of writing.” About a week later, Garth revisited David Foster Wallace’s essay “Up, Simba!” which was published in the 2005 essay collection Consider the Lobster. “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage,” another Wallace essay from the same collection, reviews Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, or at least begins to, before veering into autobiography and the politics of grammar nerds. The crux of the essay, which DFW helpfully announces as such, is that Garner manages to transcend 40 years of infighting in the grammar world by being subtly persuasive rather than overly accepting or overbearingly authoritarian. I’ll spare you the extrapolation of this crux onto today’s political landscape; for that you can go here and draw your own parallels.

coverI had encountered Garner’s work previously without realizing it: Garner is the modern editor of Black’s Law Dictionary, required buying, if not reading, for every incoming law student. I entered law school in 2004 after a mostly unsuccessful attempt to become the next Russell Simmons, and dutifully purchased Black’s upon arrival. Over the ensuing years, I consulted the book when necessary but gave it little consideration until reading Wallace’s essay. To be honest, I have given it little consideration since, but I have spent hours reading, for pleasure and for justification, Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage and his Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage.

When I arrived for my first day of law firm work this last September, I was surprised to find the Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage on my desk already, next to a few pencils and a legal citation manual. Garner believes that the best lawyers don’t write in legalese but in exacting English. I held out hope that first day that the lawyers for whom I’d work would understand this, and for the most part they have. A few so fear splitting any verb phrases that they instead twist their sentences into awkward ambiguous messes. Garner describes this practice, and the refusal to ever split an infinitive, as superstition. I don’t think I’ll be able to pry these older lawyers out of their comfortable superstitions, but thanks to Garner I can take their “corrections” to my writing with quiet grace knowing that I’m right. Wallace nails in his essay the reasons why Garner’s dictionaries are so entertaining and so effective. All I mean to do here is second the endorsement.

is a writer, runner, and lawyer living in Washington, D.C.

One comment:

  1. I forgot to mention that you can sign up for a surprisingly welcome daily e-mail that consists of an entry from Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage and a usage-related quotation.

    Today's quotation, for example: "Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon." William Zinsser, "Simplicity," in About Language 50 (William H. Roberts & Gregoire Turgeon eds., 2d ed. 1989).


    I don't mean to be shuch a shill.

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