Bryan Garner on Words

Language to Live By: 19th-century author's posthumous advice on use of words and meaning

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Photo of Bryan Garner by Winn Fuqua Photography

Our series of interviews with long-gone authors continues with Richard Grant White (1822–1885), a lifelong New Yorker primarily known as a critic of music and theater. He achieved renown as an erudite editor of the complete works of William Shakespeare. In mid-April, I sat down to “interview” two of his books: Words and Their Uses, Past and Present (1870) and Every-day English (1880). Except for slight edits, such as changing men to people, his answers come verbatim from those books.

BAG: Your most popular book was Words and Their Uses. Why did you write it?

RGW: I have discovered that there are people all around me, of intelligence and character, who, although they cannot be called illiterate—as peasants are illiterate—know so very little of the right use of English that, without venturing beyond the limits of my own yet imperfect knowledge of my mother tongue, I might undertake to give the instruction that I find many of them not only need, but desire. 

BAG: Why does good usage matter?

RGW: The influence of people upon language is reciprocated by the influence of language upon people; and the mental tone of a community may be vitiated by a yielding to the use of loose, coarse, low and frivolous phraseology. Into this people fall by the mere thoughtless imitation of slovenly exemplars.

BAG:  Who is your target here?

RGW: Language is rarely corrupted, and is often enriched, by the simple, unpretending, ignorant person, who takes no thought of his parts of speech. It is from the person who knows just enough to be anxious to square his sentences by the line and plummet of grammar and dictionary that his mother tongue suffers most grievous injury. It is his influence chiefly which is resisted in this book.

BAG: Although you’re a teacher, and you write a great deal in opposition to ignorance, your real enemies are the manipulators of language, aren’t they?

RGW: Simple and unpretending ignorance is always respectable, and sometimes charming; but there is little that more deserves contempt than the pretense of ignorance to knowledge. The curse and the peril of language in this day, and particularly in this country, is that it is at the mercy of people who, instead of being content to use it well according to their honest ignorance, use it ill, according to their affected knowledge; who, being vulgar, would seem elegant; who, being empty, would seem full; who make up in pretense what they lack in reality; and whose little thoughts, let off in enormous phrases, sound like firecrackers in an empty barrel.

BAG: It seems to me that what you’re saying has strong practical implications for lawyers.

RGW: How many lawsuits have ruined both plaintiff and defendant, how many business connections have been severed, how many friendships broken, because two people gave to one word different meanings! The power of language to convey one person’s thoughts and purposes to another is in direct proportion to a common consent as to the meaning of words. The moment divergence begins, the value of language is impaired.

BAG:  Let’s talk about some particular words and phrases. You object to the common use of the exception proves the rule.

RGW: This pretentious maxim infests discussion and pervades the everyday talk of men, women and children. A mere exception never proved a rule; and that it should do so is, in the very nature of things, and according to the laws of right reason, impossible.

BAG:  Then what sense do you make of the phrase?

RGW: The maxim, as we have it, is merely a misleading translation of the old law maxim Exceptio probat regulam, which does not mean that the thing excepted proves the rule, but that the excepting proves the rule. It is the act of excepting or excluding from a number designated, or from a description. We receive the maxim as meaning not that the excepting proves the rule, but the person or thing excepted; and upon this confusion of words we graft a corresponding confusion of thought. The maxim, in its proper signification, is as true as it is untrue in the sense in which it is now almost universally used.

BAG:  That’s true even today. Although you’re well-known as a Shakespearean scholar and critic of the arts, you studied law and passed the bar in 1845. You often invoke legal maxims. What’s another favorite?

RGW: The child and the statesman both act in accordance with the maxim Expressio unius, exclusio alterius. Both this maxim and [Exceptio probat regulam] are founded upon the intuitive perception common
to people of all times and races, and which is developed in the very earliest exercise of reasoning powers, that
an exclusive affirmation implies a corresponding negation.

BAG:  Are you strict in matters of grammar?

RGW: English grammar is to all intents and purposes dead. The little life it had was so purely fictitious that one smart assault extinguished it forever. The time is coming, and it will be here erelong, when there will be no more thought of teaching an English-speaking child to use his mother tongue by grammar rules than of teaching him astrology. I am often asked why I do not write an English grammar as a textbook according to my own principles. How can I do so, when the very first of my principles, if I have any in regard to English, is that it has no appreciable grammar; that all English grammar books, even the best of them, should be burned; and that the study of language, as one that requires trained faculties, a cultivated judgment and no little knowledge of literature, should be postponed until a late period of the time passed by young people in study—a notion horrible to many teachers of schools, and utterly abominable to all publishers of schoolbooks.

BAG:  Linguists would be most astonished by your pronouncement that English has no grammar. I take it you mean it has few case endings, compared with Latin and Greek. What you’re really arguing for is care with English usage, as opposed to English grammar—right?

RGW: The most important part of our everyday English has not to do with grammar, or with spelling, or with pronunciation. It has to do with the right use of words as to their meaning and their logical connection; and this may be learned by study and by care at almost any time of life.

BAG: Let’s talk about linguistic evolution. Almost everyone accepts that language is constantly changing.

RGW: Although most words are more immutable, as well as more enduring, than people are, some of them within the memory of one generation vary both in their forms and in the uses which they serve, doing so according to the needs and even the neglect of the users. And thus it is that living languages are always changing. This [point] is recognized so submissively by some philologists that Dr. [Robert Gordon] Latham has propounded the dogma that in language whatever is, is right.

BAG: I take it you strongly disagree. You seem opposed to changes in the language.

RGW: Unless the meaning of words is fixed during a generation, language will fail to impart ideas, and even to communicate facts. Unless it is traceable through the writings of many generations in a connected course of normal development, language becomes a mere temporary and arbitrary mode of intercourse; it fails to be an exponent of a people’s intellectual growth; and the speech of our immediate forefathers dies upon their lips, and is forgotten. Of such misfortune there is, however, not the remotest probability.

BAG: Thank you for the time. You’re a most fascinating author. n


Bryan A. Garner is president of LawProse Inc., editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary (available this year in an expansively remade 11th edition) and author of The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation (2016). Twitter: @bryanagarner

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