Garner recently spoke with Vice, taking a little time from his busy schedule of lecturing, researching, writing a book with Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia, and generally fighting the good fight of preserving the grace of American English while also tracking its evolution.(I'm no fan of conservative Scalia and haven't read their book. But I don't hold that against Garner.)
Here's a taste of the Q&A's in this interview:
Vice: To start, I’m interested in how English grammar and usage morph over time.
Bryan Garner: Well, grammar is constantly changing. It was changing fairly rapidly from the period before Chaucer wrote in the 1200s through probably the late 1500s, when Shakespeare began writing his plays. ... And most of the speakers were not literate. In those kinds of conditions, when you have a largely oral culture, things can change quickly. ... It’s very interesting that a grammarian like Lindley Murray, who in 1795 wrote his English Grammar, became the best-selling author of the first half of the 19th century. He sold more than 10 million copies of that book.
Nobody else was close, and grammar was something that Americans seemed to care about a lot. Murray was an American lawyer who ended up sort of defecting to England after opposing the revolution and moving to York. But he became very influential as an English grammarian. He outsold Stephen King or J.K. Rowling—and to a smaller population. It really is quite extraordinary.
I’d say that the general decline of proper grammar today has to do with the fact that it’s not really put into practical use by as many people as it once was.
Well, we have lost serious readership in modern culture. It is astounding how few lawyers whom I deal with subscribe to any serious journalism at all.
How do you see the quality of writing and communication on the internet affecting grammar today?
I can’t really tell. Some of it is quite bad and quite sloppy, and some of it is quite good. I just don’t know what most people are reading on the internet. I have the idea that it’s mostly a few middlebrow vehicles that give quick news dispatches.
***Here are some other provocative questions that had provocative answers:
- Do you keep up with the state of grammar as it’s taught in public schools nowadays?
- And if public schools don’t teach grammar as well as private schools do, it would follow that grammar helps to maintain class differences in culture.
- Going back to these points of grammar that you refer to as “superstitions,” such as not ending a sentence with a preposition or not beginning a sentence with and or but… these things were taught as gospel in my high school, and they’re just wrong.
- A lot of people—when they come across somebody who uses abstruse words or a larger than usual vocabulary, or who speaks with noticeably proper grammar—will perceive that person as arrogant or snooty. Do you come across that much?
- In your work on legal writing, there’s a lot of support for plain and simple—a kind of directness that is lacking in a lot of legalese.
- How about giving us a layman’s definition of descriptivism and prescriptivism?
- Will you tell me the names of a couple contemporary fiction writers of whom you’re a fan?
- And when you are reading fiction for pleasure, is it difficult to be so attuned to grammar and usage?
- What advice would you give to people who are in their mid-20s and might feel like they’re lacking in proper education regarding these things? Where can one educate oneself regarding grammar?
The VICE article is featured today, Dec. 31, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.