Saturday, December 10, 2022

Length, 1,200+ pages; weight, about nine pounds

 Another damned, thick, square book. Always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Garner? 

A copy of the fifth edition of the newly published Garner's Modern English Usage arrived yesterday, and it is even a more impressive work than the previous four editions.  

One mark of its impressiveness is the increasing use Mr. Garner has made of online corpora to determine how people are actually using the language in formal speech and writing, which informs and updates his Language Change Index, with its gradations of acceptability. Another mark is the firepower of the people he has consulted, among them the distinguished linguist Geoffrey Pullum, who examined hundreds of entries, and John Simpson, the former chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.* 

To illustrate, the entry on they, which occupies two and a half double-columned pages, begins by saying that the pronoun "has been under great pressure to take on singular sense--and has been doing so since the late 20th century," which he accounts for by a combination of "natural linguistic evolution and a few social-engineering campaigns." 

The natural linguistic evolution is that, given the lack of a common-gender, third-person singular pronoun in the language, English speakers have blithely been making use of they for centuries, despite the strictures of grammarians. The campaigns to accept they as a singular were an aspect of the gender politics of the previous and current century; what was formerly identified as incorrect has come to be seen as nondiscriminatory toward women. Mr. Garner says that roughly in the space of a generation, they answering for indefinite pronouns such as anybody and everyone became fully accepted.  

The next stage of evolution, in a citation from Mr. Pullum, was "a radical reform proposal ... [in which] they refers to a single specific individual who purports not to be locatable in within the familiar male/female/neuter ontology."

"Traditionalists won't have it. Progressives champion it," Mr. Garner writes, and he projects that "the progressives will prevail," though the new uses won't be fully accepted in Standard English "until a whole generation dies off."

Obviously, the they entry is far more detailed and sophisticated than this three-paragraph truncation, and it merits your examination as you review your own choices in usage. 

That level of examination and reflection is precisely what this book makes possible, and desirable. Standard English, or Standard Written English, however you choose to call it, is a learned dialect. Whatever you may think of the social and cultural values of the people who use it, it is how much of the work of the world is conducted. To participate effectively in that work means mastering its conventions. 

I say conventions, not rules. Bryan Garner is no ill-informed stickler; his book explodes any number of superstitions and shibboleths. He recognizes the need to identify natural linguistic evolutions and identify which conventions work most effectively.

So should you. 

* Mr. Garner also consulted me on a handful of points, so you can see that he casts a wide net. 

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Clergy, what are you going to do about them?

 The New York Times tells me this morning that in the Georgia race for the U.S. Senate "the Warnock campaign wanted to make the race a contrast between a reverend and a running back." 

Hmm. My copy of the Times stylebook (admittedly dating from 1999) and the current Associated Press Stylebook maintain the traditional distinction that reverend is to be used as an adjective (synonym of revered), never as a noun. And even as an adjective, there are restrictions: always "the Rev. Firstname Lastname" or "the Rev. Mr./Ms. Lastname," never "the Rev. Lastname" or "Rev. Lastname." 

Among U.S. Christians, Episcopalians tend to be strictest about this convention, perhaps because they prize so many levels of reverence. Deacons and priests are "the Rev.," deans of cathedrals are "the Very Rev.," bishops are "the Right Reverend" ("the Rt. Rev."), and the presiding bishop is "the Most Rev." Bryan Garner says that use of the title without the article "has long been stigmatized as poor usage. And if the stigma is wearing off, it's doing so very gradually."*

But you know that U.S. Protestants, regardless of stylebooks, regularly use reverend as a title and speak of "Reverend Lastname" and describe that worthy as being "a reverend." (Reverend, incidentally, has been in use as a noun in English since the early part of the seventeenth century.)

Religion, I used to tell my editing students, is a thicket in which one quickly becomes entangled. All the Christian denominations have varying titles and practices, making it very easy for a writer to look like a fool. The problem, as Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage sums up, is that "there seems to be considerably greater acceptance of 'Reverend Moomaw' than most authorities recognize." And "this is really a matter of etiquette more than linguistic propriety, and the preference of the clergy involved should be taken into account if it can be determined." 

So what are you, trying to sort out Reverend and the cluster of other current titles (Father, Mother, BrotherPastor), going to do? You will first have to ascertain the conventions of the denomination you are writing about and then, if possible, the preference of the individual subject. Luck to you. 

As for "a reverend," I'd steer clear of it as still too colloquial and allow it only in direct quotation. 

* That citation is from Garner 4. My copy of Garner 5 has not yet arrived; when it does, I'll look to see if the entry has been revised.

Monday, December 5, 2022

The common comma

A couple of times a week I come across an online forum with people who are wobbly about the use of commas, so let me set this straight: Should the comma be used to indicate syntactical relationships, or should it mimic pauses in speech?

The answer is yes. 

We'll start with syntactical conventions. And let's keep our focus on conventions and not talk about rules; all punctuation is convention. Some are relatively trivial. In the United States we use double quotation marks to introduce a quotation and close; in Britain they use single. In the U.S. we use a period with Mr. In the U.K. they omit the full stop. You'll just want to observe the conventions your intended reader is familiar with. 

I'll take a moment to suggest that you could, FOR FOWLER'S SAKE, STOP CLAMORING ABOUT THE OXFORD COMMA. The serial comma, the final comma in a series, is endorsed by the Chicago Manual of Style, omitted, except when needed to avoid ambiguity, by the Associated Press Stylebook. I use either, depending on the house style of the publication I'm editing for, and you should do the same. You are not a paragon of virtue and cultivation if you prefer the Oxford comma, and you are not a stout-hearted freethinker if you omit it. Just shut up.

Observing the syntactical conventions enables you to make your meaning clear. Using a comma when the conjunctions and, but, and or introduce an independent clause assists the reader in identifying separate thoughts, particularly with longer constructions: I am merely acquainting you with the conventions common in formal writing, but you are free not to follow them if it suits your purpose. 

Setting off appositives and nonrestrictive clauses with commas allows you to add information without gumming up the main thought: You, the writer, whose job is to make choices, must always keep in mind your reader. 

It will make sense for you to use the comma as in common practice, with dates, introductory phrases, and the multiple other instances enumerated in style guides. 

But yes, there is also something to a freer use of commas to indicate pauses as in speech. Punctuation was invented in antiquity to indicate pauses for readers of a text. David Crystal, in his history of English punctuation, Making a Point, quotes Richard Mulcaster's The Elementarie (1582) that the period "in reading warneth vs to rest there, and to help our breth at full."

You can consider the standard punctuation marks, comma, semi-colon, colon, and period, as the equivalent of musical rests for reproducing the rhythms of spoken English, the comma the briefest and the period the longest. The comma has proved extremely useful in the effort to reproduce demotic speech, particularly in fiction. 

But it requires some discretion, to avoid the hazard of beginning to sound like Henry James "Experience is never limited and it is never complete: it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider-web, of the the finest silken threads, suspended in the chamber of consciousness and catching every air-borne particle in its tissue."

Discretion requires judgment, and judgment means decisions, so keep in mind Oscar Wilde's account of proofreading his own work: "In the morning, after hard work, I took a comma out of one sentence. ... In the afternoon, I put it back again."