Why I dislike Bryan Garner

I don’t dislike the man. I’ve never met him. I’m sure he’s a very nice guy, and given a chance, we’d probably get along just fine. But I don’t like Garner’s Modern American Usage, an Orwellian usage guide published by Oxford University Press.

Why don’t I like it? It’s not simply because it’s “prescriptivist.” I have no problem with giving advice on how to write well. As a teacher of composition, I tell my students how to write all the time, and hopefully I’m teaching them to write well. And it’s not because consistently following Garner’s advice will result in stodgy, unimaginative prose. There is a place for stodgy, unimaginative prose. For example, I tell my students that Garner’s 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. What I object to is Garner’s attitude toward language and the methodology—if you can dignify his arbitrary and subjective process with that label—he uses to formulate his pronouncements.

Garner’s attitude about language is summed up by the Language Change Index that he includes with the entries to the latest editions of his guide. In the index, Garner assigns a rating, or “stage,” from one to five for each change or “mutation” to the language. With his change index, he takes on the role of an oncologist, battling the cancers that are metastasizing throughout the body of the English language.

Garner defines Stage 1 as, “a new form emerges as an innovation (or a dialectal form persists) among a small minority of the language community, perhaps displacing a traditional usage.” He also analogizes Stage 1 as “F,” “quadruple bogey,” “foul,” “bungler,” “dishonorable discharge,” “audible farting,” “$500 fine and jail time,” “expulsion,” and “mortal sin.” So Garner is intent on punishing innovation and inventiveness, as well as those in minority communities who habitually use English in a slightly different way than the majority. Chaucer and Shakespeare, two great linguistic innovators, would not have been treated well by Garner had he lived in their eras.

In Stage 2 “the form spreads to a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage.” And in Stage 3 “the form becomes commonplace even among well-educated people but is still avoided in careful usage.” Note the subtle shift here. As the change spreads, Garner alters the criteria by which he rates the change; in other words, he moves the goalposts. No longer is popularity the measure; the metric of “standard usage” becomes “careful usage,” and even the “well-educated” are no longer competent to judge what is acceptable. Those who are allowed to judge a usage dwindle in number as the usage becomes more and more commonplace. And at the end of the line, only he himself is competent to judge. In Garner’s world, democracy is great if he agrees with the wisdom of the crowd, but anathema if he doesn’t. Garner analogizes Stage 3 as “C,” “double bogey,” “smelly,” “rank amateur,” “discharge for the good of the service,” “overload talking,” “$100 fine,” and “venial sin.”

Garner’s descriptions of Stages 4 and 5 are virtually indistinguishable except for one factor. In Stage 4 a change to the language “becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent ground by a few linguistic stalwarts (die-hard snoots),” where in Stage 5 it is “universally accepted (not counting pseudo-snoot eccentrics.)” In these 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. His analogies for Stage 5 are confused, shifting back and forth between unobjectionable and favorable, with descriptions like “A,” “par” (not under par; evidently Garner believes that mediocrity should be rewarded with top marks; in my classroom “par” is awarded a grade of “B,” not “A”), “neutral,” “professional,” “honorable discharge,” “refined,” and “virtue.”

Garner has his devotees, but I’m not sure that they have truly considered what his approach to language represents. Among his fans was the writer David Foster Wallace who penned a glowing tribute to the first edition of Garner’s guide, titled “Authority and American Usage.” And it was Wallace who coined the term snoot as a label for prescriptive pedants, a term that Garner himself readily adopted. But Wallace’s paean is a horror of double-speak in which democratic values can only be upheld by Garner’s unilateral dogmatism. (I wonder if Wallace wasn’t playing a great joke on Garner, creating a satire worthy of Swift.) Wallace writes:

Garner structures his judgments very carefully to avoid the elitism and anality of traditional SNOOTitude. He does not deploy irony or scorn or caustic wit, nor tropes or colloquialisms or contradictions...or really any sort of verbal style at all. [...] It’s like he’s so bland he’s barely there.

In other words, Wallace is saying that Garner can’t be an elitist because he’s banal. Never mind that he excludes the language of minority communities, youth, the dispossessed, and the working class. He can’t be elitist because he doesn’t engage in the rhetoric of the traditional upper classes. Wallace concludes that Garner’s usage guide is “as Democratic these days as you’re going to get.” In other words, it’s democratic because Garner is a self-appointed autocrat. That’s as Orwellian these days as you’re going to get. 

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