Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The prescriptivist's prescriptivist

Never mind the dilettantes with their misplaced reverence for The Elements of Style. For the past few weeks I have been rummaging about in the third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, 942 pages, $45), and, as Dryden said of Chaucer, there is God’s plenty here.

Bryan A. Garner’s previous edition in 2003 ran to 879 pages. A major component of the additional heft in the current volume is the addition of a new feature, called (a little portentously) the “Language-Change Index,” in which Mr. Garner gives the reader an opportunity to gauge the weight of questionable or disputed usages.

The index is scaled one to five on level of acceptability. Stage 1 is “Rejected,” a usage universally condemned. Stage 2 is “Widely shunned; Stage 3, “Widespread but ...”; Stage 4, “Ubiquitous but ...”; and Stage 5 is “Fully accepted.”* Rejected and shunned by whom, apart from Mr. Garner? In addition to the printed and electronic references he has explored and consultants with whom he has worked, Mr. Garner invited 129 people to be surveyed on usage as a Panel of Critical Readers.**

Some examples of where this leads:

could care less/couldn’t care less Peeve-mongers feel a rush of blood to the head on hearing the former usage because of their demands that language should be logical. Mr. Garner argues, “Although some apologists argue [count me among them] that *could care less is meant to be sarcastic and not to be taken literally, a more plausible explanation is that the –n’t of couldn’t care less has been garbled in sloppy speech and sloppy writing.” He gives could care less an asterisk to represent poor usage and rates the acceptability of could care less as Stage 3.

disinterested, uninterested The erosion of disinterested in the sense of impartial, not having an interest in the issue or outcome, leaves disinterested for uninterested at Stage 4 — on the brink of full acceptability.

mutual Mr. Garner holds fast to the distinction that mutual is understood to mean reciprocal, not common. By this distinction, he and I have mutual respect for each other’s views but have not reached a mutual understanding on this usage. He rates mutual for common at Stage 4, and I think that the battle is over.

none In the sense of not any combined with a plural verb, none is at Stage 5, fully acceptable, as it has been in English for lo, these many centuries, despite the barking from ill-informed prescriptivists who imagine that it exists only as a singular. Same stage with a number of and a plural verb.

On no account, of course, should you surrender your own judgment. As the writer or editor, you know who is in your audience and what level of diction is appropriate to both audience and occasion. Similarly, the Language-Change Index is suggestive but not definitive; you will have your own sense of where a particular usage lies on that continuum.

I was pleased to see familiar entries retained, such as the invaluable set of superstitions. And, since I occasionally hear that readers of this blog are sent fumbling for the nearest dictionary, I’m minded to quote a couple of sentences drawn from the wholesome advice of the entry on sesquipedality, or the resort to big words:

[T]here seem to be three legitimate stances for the writer. The first is that if you truly want to communicate with a wide readership, you have to build your core of small, familiar words. The second is that if one of your purposes is to edify, use challenging words while allowing the context to reveal their meanings. ... The third stance is that if you know you’re writing for a specific audience with a prodigious, specialized vocabulary — whether one particular reader or the intelligentsia generally — then use hard words that are truly unsimplifiable. But question your motives: are you doing it to express yourself well, or are you just showing off?

Bryan Garner is an unapologetic prescriptivist. His aim is to show you what is necessary to write and speak as a literate adult for other literate adults in the American version of the dialect known as Standard English. If that is also your ambition, you should have this book in your hands. Not that you are obliged to agree with him in every particular.
Not that you should disregard the opposing views of descriptivists, particularly the linguists whose work intellectual honesty demands that you consider. Not that this book ought to become a fetish. But, for Fowler’s sake, you have the opportunity to lay hands on 900 pages of thoughtful advice. Don’t pass it up.

*The man has a welcome taste for whimsy. He has a page of ten analogies to the stages under different categories.

The “moral” equivalents:
1 Mortal sin
2 Capital sin
3, Venial sin
4 Peccadillo
5 Virtue

The equivalents under “etiquette”:
1 Audible farting
2 Audible belching
3 Overloud talking
4 Elbows on table
5 Refined

**Disclosure: My name is on that list.


I received a review copy of Garner’s Modern American Usage from the publisher. In addition, if a reader of this blog should order a copy from by clicking on the link below, I will eventually receive a minuscule portion of the proceeds.

1 comment:

  1. One wonders what implement -- or what esoteric technique -- the man uses to refrain from being audible when he farts. Or is he one of those who is quite content to pay the now-obsolete-except-in-metaphors nickel?