Book Review: Garner on Language and Writing

Garner on Language and Writing: Selected Essays and Speeches; Bryan A. Garner; Chicago: American Bar Association, 2008; $59.95.

Bryan Garner is author of Garner’s Modern American Usage and editor of recent editions of Black’s Law Dictionary, as such he is one of the leading experts on style, usage, and writing, especially legal writing. This latest work is a collection of essays, speeches, letters, book reviews and the like on the subject of legal writing. For what it is, it is excellent, but one should not make more of it than what it is; its utility is limited in scope.

First, this is a book about legal writing; it is for lawyers. While there are lessons in it that are useful to any writer (e.g., the importance of clarity and brevity, his essays on Pun Control and Cruel and Unusual English which address effective punning), most of the book is rather specialized and is focused on how to write good legal briefs. Non-lawyers will have to sift through a lot of dross to find the nuggets that are valuable to them. Even his section on English Grammar and Usage, which might have general applicability, is almost exclusively devoted to examples from the legal field. And given the book’s price tag, few non-lawyers will want to pay even a discounted price.

Second, it is a book of essays, not a reference. This is not a style or usage guide like GMAU. That’s not to say you can’t learn a lot from Garner on Language and Writing, just that it is not a quick-reference guide. This book is to be read at leisure and the principles applied generally and over time.

But if you are a lawyer or otherwise engaged in the profession of legal writing, this book is a must-have and it would make an excellent text for a law school course on writing. From effective use of legal jargon, to how to write a brief that will persuade a judge, to how to hold a writing seminar in your firm, Garner’s essays cover the spectrum of legal writing. It’s a book that every law school student should read and every lawyer re-read annually.

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