Two More for the Bookshelf.

1) Five years ago, I wrote enthusiastically about Ward Farnsworth’s Farnsworth’s Classical English Rhetoric (here and here), and I have continued to consult it with pleasure (and recommend it) ever since. Now Farnsworth has been kind enough to send me a copy of his new book, Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor, and it’s at least as good, from the marvelous cover (which uses this Grandville image) to the selection of quotations, in which one can lose oneself for hours (Farnsworth correctly says “the book is better approached arbitrarily than by going straight through”). It is intended to be “a study of where figurative comparisons come from and what effects they have” and “to provide a better and different collection of comparisons than has yet been available”; there is little commentary on individual quotes (“Explanations of metaphors, I have come to feel, are perilously similar to explanations of jokes”), but each section, from “The Use of Animals to Describe Humans” to “Personification,” has a brief introduction putting them in context. I heartily recommend it to anyone to whom this brief encomium sounds enticing.

2) The good people at Oxford UP sent me a review copy of the brand-new Fourth Edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage (oddly, although today is supposedly the publication date, there is as yet no Amazon page). Garner is far and away the most traditionalist of the commonly used style guides, and it will not be a surprise to anyone that I do not approve of his general approach, nor do I think much of his new essay “Making Peace in the Language Wars,” which (like all such attempts to end wars by fiat from one of the warring sides) is ludicrously disingenuous and deserves to have its own cannonball “astounding instances of muddled thought” turned back upon the sender. (It reminds me of nothing so much as DFW’s famous Harper’s essay on usage — which was presented, in fact, as a review of an earlier edition of Garner — which I demolished here, and which Garner quotes with pleasure.) To give an idea of Garner’s level of hubris, he dares to “correct” P. G. Wodehouse on word usage (s.v. “effete”: “All the same, these effete [read decadent] aristocrats of the old country”). All that said, it is a very popular style guide for perfectly good reasons — if magisterial guidance, with an occasional twinkle in the eye and lots of citations, is what you want, Garner is your man, and for your fifty bucks you get almost five pounds (two and a quarter kilos) of well-produced book.


  1. To give an idea of Garner’s level of hubris, he dares to “correct” P. G. Wodehouse on word usage

    Venting his beliefs, eh?

    for your fifty bucks you get almost five pounds (two and a quarter kilos) of well-produced book.

    A little over $10/lb, then. Of Amazon’s 20 current best-selling books, 11 are hardcovers, and the median price per pound is $12.50. The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom is the best deal at $6.92/lb, whereas Disrupt Aging: A Bold New Path to Living Your Best Life at Every Age costs a whopping $35.60/lb.

    You remind me of the last line of a review I read some decades ago, more or less as follows: “The author obviously intended a magnum opus, but has only succeeded in writing a big book.”

  2. Dear Languagehat,

    You certainly have a point about Wodehouse! My goodness. And it’s even in dialogue. Don’t know how that slipped through. For the kind words you had, thank you. I like a lot of what you write.

    Bryan Garner

  3. Goodness, I’d have laid out the best linen! Sorry to have been so harsh, but we have opposing ideas about these things, and there’s no getting around it. I actually enjoy your writing about legal matters quite a lot!

  4. Some years ago my wife was chatting with a highly respectable and incidentally moneyed southern gentleman of some advanced age and the subject of air-conditioning came up, specifically the lack of it in his youth. He thought the absence not such a hardship as did the generations – such as my wife’s – that came after his.

    The young folk, he said happily – “Y’all effete!”

  5. jamessal says

    I will give this to Bryan Garner: his may well be the book that elicits the most outrage of any that I consult regularly. It seems like yesterday I was frothing at the mouth over one of his introductions in one of these threads. Having just moved, I don’t have the book on hand, but I remember finding especially specious his analogizing linguists to geologists. In the long run we are all dead, he essentially quoted, but . . . but what? What is the linguistic equivalent of an earthquake? Even the Great Vowel Shift took centuries to unfold. And given the lack of an illuminating or even credible analog, is it not reasonable to question our honored guest’s motives for invoking such a disaster? Obviously, I would love to hear him share his thoughts on his analogy, but I’m not greedy. I’m grateful for his kind words about my favorite blog — and for his infuriating book too (even if, IMHO, it does more harm than good).

  6. jamessal says

    To be clear, in my first sentence, I was referring to my own outrage; I wasn’t making an extraordinary claim about the inflammatory nature of the book. Of course, I should have written, “his may well be the book that outrages me the most of any that I consult regularly.” But, alas, my fifteen minutes have passed. So swift! So sweet!

  7. Bryan A. Garner says

    Dear Languagehat and Jamessal:

    While recently rereading the front matter of GMEU from a linguist’s point of view, I felt a bit miffed at some things BAG had said. Ah, well, I’ve been outraged as well by things linguists have said. I really do think there could be a truce, though. Look, I’ve used empiricism to avoid most of the problems that armchair grammarians of the past have caused. If you want to see an about-face, see my new entry on “gauntlet.”
    What few will realize is how much damned work (Jamessal would say “damn work”—and that’s okay) went into GMEU. More for ill than good? I hope not. But time will tell!


  8. jamessal says

    Well, now I’m going to have to buy the new edition, Bryan. Certainly there could be a truce. I think part of the reason I’ve found your book so infuriating in the past is that while it has so much going for it — agreeable tone, clever form, pleasant prose throughout, and necessarily impressive heft (never having written anything similar myself, I probably can’t appreciate how much damn 😉 work went into it, but I do admire that work) — it nonetheless moves us no closer to a truce, because it evinces far too much respect, from analogies in prefatory essays to judgments in the entries themselves, for essentially your literary forebears.

    Before discovering this blog and its author, and through him linguistics, I read those older usage guides and felt exhilarated — I believe The Careful Writer was my first — exhilarated to be privy to, and to be capable of understanding, such subtle distinctions and to no longer be among the “illiterate” who hadn’t taken the time I just did to learn such valuable rules and common mistakes. But . . . well, I think you can intuit what I ultimately came to think of the prescriptivist canon. I just remember reading about your having a similar experience with it, but without the other foot dropping — or at least not so heavily. My guess is that that foot is at the heart of our different readings of your book: everywhere you either turned to that collective knowledge or merely let it influence you, perhaps regarding it as a flawed but still useful and often insightful perspective, I see nothing but the unfortunately effective promotion of pernicious hokum, all derived from the same fatuous view of language. Reasonable people have found themselves far further apart.

    But like I said, I will buy the book — and sally forth with examples of your sympathy for mavens past ruining your linguistic judgments. Or perhaps I won’t find any, or fewer than I expect, and I’ll be thrilled to offer a reassessment. As I often say, it’s so much more rewarding to be on the losing side of an argument. I’d be thrilled and flattered if you were at all curious about what I find, but regardless I’d like to thank you: this debate is an old favorite of mine, and your gentlemanly presence has sparked a renewed interest.

    — James Salant

  9. jamessal says


    If you can spare another moment, do you know if your publisher plans to release a Kindle version any time soon?

    — Jim

  10. Jim–

    There will be an app available in May, and a really good one (I understand). Of course I’d be eager to know your views of instances in which I might be too deferential to Fowler, Bernstein, et al. Actually, I think they merit great respect because they were superlative editors with finely nuanced perceptions. Follett could be over the top, and you’ll be happy to see what I’ve done with “gauntlet.” On that point, Follett was simply way off. The interesting thing is that the empirical evidence typically ratifies what my forebears said–typically, but not always. I’m really glad to be able to work with a firmer empirical footing than I’ve ever had before. All lexicography, and perhaps especially usage lexicography, used to be much more of a guessing game than it is today.


  11. jamessal says

    Though I hate having to wait till May, on the whole that’s great news and as soon as I can get it I shall. I’m now terribly eager to share my views — almost, even, as eager as I am to develop them!

    Actually, I think they merit great respect because they were superlative editors with finely nuanced perceptions.

    I’m sure that would be true — they were all smart, sensitive readers — if they’d drawn on empiricism, as you put it, or on linguistic science (would be another way), or most simply on the way language actually works. But instead they espoused an inchoate notion of language that, among other unhelpful things, takes some usages to be always better than others, mistakes linguistic change for linguistic decay, and overvalues distinctions, leading these writers to, for example, draw distinctions where they do nothing but engender opportunities for abuse, like lines in roads without the traffic to warrant them. It’s funny, I think our disagreement is a matter of degree: just how much did these mistaken beliefs, or your forebears’ disregard for empiricism (whether or not it would have been harder employ when they were writing their books), interfere with what would have been their good judgment? I’m guessing I think they did more than you do.

    I say that’s funny because most people seem to think that prescriptivism and descriptivism are matters of degree, that one’s beliefs fall somewhere on a spectrum between the two, when that actually isn’t the case at all. As the form of your book demonstrates, descriptivism (i.e., linguistics) should be seen not as an impediment but rather as an indispensable resource to a good usage guide. Prescriptivism is prescribing without proper heed to context — i.e., saying this is RIGHT or WRONG, period, rather than this would be better or worse in such and such context — and that’s not an extreme ideological position with linguistics on the opposing side; it’s just bad thinking. As you describe it, your book isn’t infected with such thinking: saying comprised of is three steps out of five toward becoming standard (I don’t remember where on the scale you actually place that usage) is quite different from saying comprised of is WRONG and only used by illiterates. But I fear the infection has spread anyway, for the reason described in the preceding paragraph. I hope that, come May, I’ll be proved wrong.

    My guess is that that foot is at the heart of our different readings of your book

    I would write that a metaphorical foot lay at the metaphorical heart of the metaphorical matter separating you, the English world’s most formidable prescriptivist usage writer (if you’ll allow me to lump you into that camp just for this one rhetorical occasion), and me. I’m almost annoyed that you didn’t snigger. 😉

    May can’t come soon enough: I never thought that sentiment would take on new life, living as I do in Maine!

    — Jim

  12. jamessal says


    I don’t know if you’ve read Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era — if you haven’t you should stop everything and do so right now — but these are a couple of my favorite paragraphs on the subject (apologies for any typos and formatting errors: having typed it out years ago, I just found it in an email; but my wife won’t abide any more time than it will take me to cut and paste!):

    If we no longer think, with Swift and Johnson, that languages ought to be stabilized, we still feel that their proper condition is stability. The admission of ain’t to a large American dictionary provoked newspaper hysteria in 1961-62. That in Canto 53 the same emperor appears indifferently as Tcheou Kong and Chao Kong causes many readers uneasiness outweighing the instruction the Canto affords, and a scholarly convention in citing the word ideogramic is to tag it [sic], meaning “not so in my dictionary.” Words, since the 18th century, have seemed fixed upon a rigid and authorized grid, each little violation of which incites the Great Anarch.

    Behind such feelings lies the notion of a stable shared world in which all men’s senses participate and the features of which have been labeled by agreement, though different agreements obtain in Italy and in Sweden. Gatto, say the Italians for some reason, and katt the Swedes; it would be simpler if they said the same thing, but anyhow cats are cats. The linguistic contracts, being arbitrary, are fragile, and the only code book, Webster’s or Larousse’s, wards off unspeakable disorder. An alternative notion, that names should be left in place because they are somehow right, is traceable in theory to Plato’s Cratylus but in practice to costive notions of correctness. Both positions were still seriously defended in the early 19th century. Both linger in the average literate psyche. Both were rendered obsolescent by the slow discovery of language, a complex coherent organism that is no more the sum of its constituent words than a rhinoceros is the sum of its constituent cells, an organism that can maintain its identity as it grows and evolves in time; that can remember, that can anticipate, that can mutate. Latin is not a dead language; everyone in Paris speaks it, everyone in Rome, everyone in Madrid. The poetic of our time grows with this discovery.

    Enjoy the rest of your weekend!

  13. Those are great quotes, I’ll have to reread Kenner!

    Bryan (if I may): I would feel less irritation at you if you hadn’t taken over the grammar section of the Chicago Manual (which I use professionally as a copyeditor) and turned what had been slowly and painfully moving towards acceptance of linguistic reality into a bastion of retrograde prescriptivism. If you are indeed accepting more changes, and if you can manifest that acceptance in the next edition of Chicago, I will sing hosannas to your name (though I’m sure we will still have many disagreements).


  14. I do hope we are not all just talking to A.J.P. Pseudonym the whole time.

  15. Well, he’s been writing all my comments for years now, but I can’t speak for others.

  16. Much as I love Wodehouse I have never forgiven him for “Book of Revelations” – as far as I can remember he was consistent in that.

  17. I never realized that was part of his oeuvre.

  18. Eh? That has nothing to do with the Bible, it’s the book in which the butlers and gentlemen’s gentlemen who make up the membership of the Junior Ganymede club record the peccadilloes of their employers. What exactly do you have against that?

  19. (For those not steeped in such things, the final book of the Bible is the Book of Revelation — not “Revelations.” But that has nothing to do with Wodehouse except to provide a background for his excellent pun.)

  20. I think you guys are on the wrong track. I believe Wodehouse consistently referred to the biblical book (that Hat just mentioned) as the “Book of Revelations” – a common error.

  21. Well, now I’m imagining a Bertie-narrated Apocalypse, so the misunderstanding was worth it.

  22. I believe Wodehouse consistently referred to the biblical book (that Hat just mentioned) as the “Book of Revelations” – a common error.

    I was going to ask for a citation (of non-Junior Ganymede use), but I found one myself, in “The Mating Season”: “He must be feeling as if he were living in the book of Revelations.” But I note that this occurs in dialogue, as I suspect all such occurrences in Wodehouse do, and of course since it is a common error, it would make sense for Wodehouse to record it as such. He loves nothing so much as pointing out people’s misadventures with language.

  23. Well, now I’m imagining a Bertie-narrated Apocalypse, so the misunderstanding was worth it.


  24. “But do you know the rummiest thing about this angel blighter?” I said, wrapping myself around another fragrant forkful of eggs and b. “He had a sort of trumpet with him, and when he blew it, a third of the inhabitants of the earth went belly up. Dead as some doornails, as Anatole would say.”

    “Most disturbing, sir.”

    “You say that, Jeeves, but you have not yet heard the worst. It was the next item on the agenda that really struck terror into my inmost heart. And shall I tell you why it struck t. into my inmost h.? You see, at this point in the proceedings a kind of rift or rent opened up in the very fabric of the cosmos, and who should pop out of it but my aunt Agatha — looking dashedly miffed, too. She was wearing a number on her hat — apparently she was contestant 666 in the egg-and-spoon race…”

  25. Wow. I hear it all in Fry and Laurie’s voices too.

  26. Trond Engen says

    That’s so brilliant that everybody just left the thread silently, being lost for words.

  27. I just read it. I’m now imagining the entire Bible larded at appropriate instances with “most disturbing, Sir.” The thought does not make me happy.

  28. David Marjanović says

    That’s so brilliant that everybody just left the thread silently, being lost for words.

    Seconded, and I have no idea of Bertie & Jeeves beyond their very names.

  29. You should really read some Wodehouse. It will cure what ails you.

  30. I’m note sure whether it’s better to read Wodehouse first or watch Fry and Laurie’s interpretations of the stories, but it’s worth doing both.

  31. Fond as I am of Fry and Laurie, I actually find their own comic styles and personalities a bit strong for Wodehouse, a bit distracting. Half a century ago I was introduced to Wodehouse by the BBC show The World of Wooster, with Dennis Price and Ian Carmichael, which I remember very fondly; I have no idea how it would hold up were I to see it today. In any event, the essential thing is to read Wodehouse; televisual interpretations are, if not an excrescence, certainly supererogatory.

  32. (Too kind, all.) I think Laurie was born to play Bertie, but Fry is quite wrong for Jeeves — too smug and supercilious, and allows himself facial expressions of which Jeeves would never dream.

  33. Yes, exactly!

  34. Ian Carmichael also played Peter Wimsey, and of course Wimsey’s cover story is pretty much Wooster.

  35. @TR: My reaction was actually the reverse. I thought Laurie’s performance didn’t quite fit; I guess it was just different from how I had imagined the character. Fry, I thought, was perfect. He portrays Jeeves as a more realistic human. His veiled smugness and snark make perfect sense; in the books though, Bertie is just too daft to notice them.

  36. Good point. In the books, we get Jeeves filtered through Wooster’s mind: on film, Jeeves speaks for himself.

  37. Bryan A. Garner says

    I haven’t checked back in a while, and the conversation has veered pleasantly to other domains. But back to your CMOS point, I am indeed accepting more changes. But wait! There never was a grammar & usage chapter until I wrote one for the 15th edition. Now my chapter is being expanded into The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. It’s pretty heavily empirical. I can’t imagine you’ll find anything to argue with in its 500 pages. (Kidding.) Seriously, I think you’ll find things to praise in my approach to grammar. Tough subject to make generally accessible. I’ll see my first copy next week.

  38. What excellent news! I look forward to seeing it (maybe Chicago will send me a review copy…), and if it’s genuinely empirical I will have no problem with a prescriptivist slant, since style manuals are by definition prescriptivist. And I may well be misremembering the pre-Garner CMOS, since that was well over a decade ago and thus in the hazy yon of what I still refer to, for tradition’s sake, as my memory. Thanks for that update!


  39. since style manuals are by definition prescriptivist.

    Et tu, Hat? Style manuals, like Chicago, by definition PRESCRIBE. As I’ve been saying, that doesn’t make them prescriptivist. They would be prescriptivist only if they implied, or outright said, that to use language CORRECTLY you must abide their pre- and proscriptions regardless of the context. Yet given that Chicago, e.g., is a book for professionals, the implication is quite clear that the context is a professional one — i.e., specialized, i.e., not universal; hence, NOT prescriptivist.

    No prescriptivism has to exist: no book, or sort of book, need have it; and no book with a sincere dose of it wouldn’t be improved if the parts infected with it were rewritten, expunging it altogether. The world would be ever so slightly better, and wouldn’t miss a beat, if it simply vanished altogether.

    Bryan, I just bought the Kindle edition and will start perusing (have you termed that word “skunked”? — well, I’ll find out!) in 5, 4, 3 . . .

  40. They would be prescriptivist only if they implied, or outright said, that to use language CORRECTLY you must abide their pre- and proscriptions regardless of the context. Yet given that Chicago, e.g., is a book for professionals, the implication is quite clear that the context is a professional one — i.e., specialized, i.e., not universal; hence, NOT prescriptivist.

    Excellent point!

  41. Bryan,

    I can’t tell you how disappointed I am by your new preface. I find it shocking that the person with whom I just shared a brief correspondence in this forum — who claims to desire peace in the so-called language war — could write something so specious, inflammatory, and tendentious. Having highlighted the sections I found most outrageous in my Kindle, I’m going to start from the top, explaining my outrage in seriatim. Each day I’ll get as far as time allows, continuing until I reach the entries themselves, when I’ll find a new approach. Please feel free to jump in at any time.

    1) You begin describing how what you call solecisms can now spread more easily than ever — “The viral nature of linguistic change has assumed new dimensions with the advent of mass communication” — making it sound as if we live in dangerous linguistic times. You completely ignore how mass communication has made, and continues to make, language more stable than it’s ever been. Never mind that a millennia or so earlier people living in villages mere hundreds of miles from each would have real difficulty interacting, never mind that mass communication itself has done more to proliferate a standard than all the usage guides in the world; it’s now possible for people following a popular news story to start misspelling one of the words in it: the end is nigh, seek out your maven!

    2) You say that English teachers — your go-to sneaky rhetorical puppet — would be doing more to reverse this dire linguistic state if not for “nefarious ideas” promoted in academe:

    That is, some teachers now validate the demotic idea that no native speaker of any language can ever make a “mistake” — that there are no mistakes (just different ways of approaching speech acts). Even if they do believe mistakes are possible in a native speaker’s use of language, they may think that it would be discriminatory and politically unacceptable even to mention the errors.”

    Without explaining what linguists mean by “mistake,” how can you really see yourself as some sort of peacemaker rather than a soldier in the prescriptivist army, especially since the only mistakes you’ve referred to so far in the preface are in spelling and such? Could you be any more misleading, and in a way that makes linguists seem absurd? Obviously, when linguists say speakers generally don’t make grammatical mistakes in their native tongues, they’re referring to the subtle rules of syntax we start learning from our cribs — the kind that say, to take one not so subtle, most English sentences take the form S – V – O. Because there exist countless types of English sentences, English speakers must learn countless rules of grammar. And they do. That’s what makes learning another language so difficult: picking up on all those rules native speakers never had to learn explicitly.

    I have no idea what classroom you’re thinking of in which a teacher, in fear of being discriminatory, wouldn’t correct a student’s spelling or point out that, say, specious is in fact not a term of praise if a student had been using it that way — but never mind. What I want to know is if you really didn’t know how misleading you were being by referring to one type of mistake from the start of your essay and then continued using the word with no hint whatsoever that linguists use it differently, more specifically, whenever they make claims similar to the ones you say influence poor wishy-washy English teacher?

    I wish I had more time this morning, but I don’t imagine you’re compulsively checking for new comments! Hopefully, I’ll have more written by the time you find time to respond — not that I’m not eager for responses to the two points I’ve made thus far.

    I also do apologize if my tone has been less than gentlemanly. Frankly, I was genuinely disappointed. I don’t understand how someone as seemingly reasonable, intelligent, and genial as yourself could not only write what you have but also present it here as if it’s in any way evenhanded. Still, I’ll try to temper my outrage for the next dozen or so entries.

    — Jim

  42. I’m seriously disappointed, since Bryan really did sound sensible and conciliatory in this thread. The idea that English teachers are spreading linguist/descriptivist anarchy to helpless schoolkids is so dishonest and counterfactual it sounds like something from a politician’s playbook.

  43. Wow. You guys aren’t looking at my new preface at all. Are you sure you have the 4th edition? It’s true that I republished “Making Peace” and “The Ongoing Tumult” (new title) in substantially the same form–and I do stand by them. (You’re quoting from the latter essay, now 7 years old.) Yes, there are teachers who refer to “Him and I are going to school” not as a mistake but as a “new way of saying things.” And there WERE linguists who claimed that native speakers can’t make mistakes. Allen Walker Read was one, and Winfred Lehmann was another. Fortunately, linguists have recently moderated these absurd approaches, perhaps partly in tacit response to my criticisms. I don’t know. But they’ve moved significantly without acknowledging the move. Pinker has done it, and others as well.
    I avoid “rhetorical puppets.” That’s why I cite chapter and verse in those two essays. But if those essays are read unsympathetically–just as if any argument is read unsympathetically–no meeting of the minds can ever take place.
    I feel pretty certain that Garner’s Modern English Usage (4/e) isn’t available yet on Kindle, though perhaps I’m wrong.
    Jim: As for your definition of “prescriptivism,” I think that is exceedingly tendentious. I define it merely as “an approach to language study that embraces the role of value judgments in deciding what is linguistically effective or ineffective, better or worse, and therefore guides people toward mastering a standard language.” (GMEU p. 1024.) I define “descriptivism” as “an approach to language study that analyzes how people use language without making value judgments in deciding what is correct or incorrect, effective or ineffective.” (GMEU p. 999.) Are these fair definitions, in your view?
    When people define “prescriptivism” as “the hidebound, absolutist, doctrinaire view that there is only one correct and unchanging use of language,” I know I can’t have a serious discussion about the subject. You didn’t say that, Jim, but I see things like that from time to time on various blogs.

  44. Well, I see it is on Kindle. I hope the search function works more easily than it did for past editions on Kindle. In any event, thank you for telling me.
    Now believe me when I say that I really would like to see the camps make peace. I can acknowledge the excesses of know-nothing prescriptivists (mostly obscure writers), but you guys ought to acknowledge the excesses of 20th-century linguists (some of those excesses still linger into the 21st century).
    To say, “This form of a word occurs more than 100 times as frequently as that form” is pure description. To add “and is therefore preferable in edited English” is pure prescription. In GMEU, I’ve moved much more toward description with the understanding that sensible readers can deduce the prescription.

  45. I define it [prescriptivism] merely as “an approach to language study that embraces the role of value judgments in deciding what is linguistically effective or ineffective, better or worse, and therefore guides people toward mastering a standard language.”

    But based on what? Frequencies of actual usage? Or is there anything else and where it comes from?

  46. Bathrobe says

    you guys ought to acknowledge the excesses of 20th-century linguists

    Their sin was in calling out the excesses of pedants and snobs. Linguists were democrats, as opposed to the cultural bigots who set themselves above the hoi polloi as arbiters of correct usage. Linguists saw through the veil and recognised the value of a deeper, more broadly-based world of language, one which the pedants were trying to extirpate in order to create their perfect universe. Linguists’ sin was to keep a more catholic house than the pedants. That’s why the pedants poured vitriol on them.

  47. jamessal says

    Bryan, I apologize deeply. I was reading the wrong preface. Lack of sleep, new Kindle, new big book: even bigger mistake. I also apologize for my absence — life got rougher than usual for a bit — though that may have been fortunate for our purposes. I will begin again, reading the correct preface, with as open a mind as I can muster.

    As for my definition of prescriptivist, it’s not tendentious — it’s downright hostile. I think prescriptivism, as I describe it — and I describe it this way for a reason — is a bad thing. I having nothing against usage guides per se; here’s a wonderfully useful one, available in full online: The Elements of Style Revised by John Woldemar Cowan (an LH regular, as it happens). Nor do I have anything against prescribing guidelines for, or simply teaching, the composition of good prose: Richard Lanham and Virginia Tufte are two excellent authors who come to mind. Rhetoric and elocution are wonderful things as well. All of these useful arts take context into account, however. And none of their scholars and practitioners regard themselves as safeguarding language itself, perhaps because they realize that language doesn’t need safeguarding.

    It’s only when someone interested in language stops taking context into account — thinks double negatives are always wrong or inferior rather than better suited to some occasions than others, for example — and starts thinking other people who don’t share their interests need their language corrected that a prescriptivist is born (I may not like the way other people dress, but even looking down on them for it, let alone telling them what’s wrong with their outfit, just makes me a jerk). I wish prescriptivists would stop being born altogether. From absurd to pointless range prescriptivist beliefs, which in addition to the keystones described above include various other false, often inchoate notions, e.g., that language should be logical (it never has been, at least not in the shallow manner evinced during arguments) and that a change engendered by a misunderstanding means the new form or usage is somehow flawed (most changes are engendered by misunderstanding, mishearing, mispronunciations, etc.). Again, by my definition, prescriptivism is bad, bad, bad.

    So why do I describe it that way? Because, as you may have noticed, all those other linguistic arts I mentioned benefit from the others. They benefit from linguistics as well, a.k.a., descriptivism. How could the teaching of language not benefit from the study of language? Yet prescriptivism is at odds with it, and because people are so eager to think the truth lies somewhere in the middle of subjects they don’t understand, the noxious ideas and attitudes I just described have taken on a cachet they absolutely don’t deserve. My goal is to remove the -ism, by highlighting the outmoded and simply snobbish beliefs of your forbears, so that usage can join those other useful arts and guides can be assumed to be in harmony with linguistic science. Why hold onto terms that imply mutual antipathy? I’m happy to do away with the term descriptivism as well.

    you guys ought to acknowledge the excesses of 20th-century linguists

    First, I agree completely with Bathrobe. Do you really think whatever excesses you’ve dug up are in any way equal to a centuries-old canon that still bolsters classism? I may have been addressing the wrong preface, but if those excesses had indeed even existed why the sleight of hand regarding the word mistake I criticized? What really is more likely, what Bathrobe described or the fairly new recondite discipline suddenly made its way into English classrooms across the country wreaking havoc?

    But never mind all that. This isn’t personal. We don’t need apologies from each other, showing that we understand and value each other. We need to move on, teach the best English classes, write the best books, and teach language in all its manifold beauty as well as possible. Wouldn’t getting rid of the -isms help? I go after prescriptivism — not prescribing — because I’m in agreement with Bathrobe, and though it might be comforting to those who’ve sneered at others’ usage for years to think descriptivism could be similarly described, I can’t pretend that descriptivism is in any way similarly flawed and that, if we agreed to stop using the terms, we wouldn’t be doing anything more than doing away with the term itself. It doesn’t embody anything that needs to go, like prescriptivism does. But that’s just my position. And to make peace in the language wars, we should take our positions about the recent past lightly. Let’s agree to disagree and work together.

    You’ve claimed that your latest edition does the latter at least. Now I’ll actually get started on seeing whether or not I agree. Apologies again for quoting from the wrong preface. I appreciate your continued presence.

  48. jamessal says

    I define it [prescriptivism] merely as “an approach to language study that embraces the role of value judgments in deciding what is linguistically effective or ineffective, better or worse, and therefore guides people toward mastering a standard language.”

    That could be written: studying language by judging what is effective and what isn’t, better and worse. Except, that’s not saying anything that isn’t obvious. That’s just teaching. And good teaching would teach standard language, as well as the utility of non-standard language. It would, in other words, teach the importance of recognizing your audience — the importance of context. Do you disagree? What in your definition would you keep that I erased? What makes prescriptivism, as you describe it, a valuable school of thought rather than a puffed up definition for teaching of any kind?

  49. jamessal says

    Note that I said good teaching would TEACH the standard and only THE UTILITY of non-standard language. The latter is merely an idea — a correct idea — that wouldn’t take up nearly as much time in the classroom. Schools have to prepare students for the world they have, not the world they should have. Still, you can squeeze in a few linguistic facts likely to make them better respect people with different backgrounds.

  50. I still like the world of red and green marks on student papers. But then I’ve always been very nostalgic for the future.

  51. jamessal says

    Well! Bryan’s new preface certainly is different. I may have a few nits to pick — I’m on very little sleep just now — but I’m certainly having nothing like the violent reaction I did to the earlier preface I started attacking. I (and pretty much everyone here, I think) have been using Google Books to determine, among other things, what is and isn’t standard for years. Bryan essentially uses his essay to describe and extol the resource, elucidating its usefulness to a usage writer — and there ain’t nothing wrong with that! He had more thorough access to Google’s archives than any other lexicographer ever has, I think (my lids are really dropping), potentially making his book all the more valuable — potentially, because I still fear the entries might not only have been insufficiently influenced by what we now know from this resource (and others), but also influenced too much by Bryan’s prejudices when the information isn’t available at all. I’d love for this fear to prove unfounded, though. And for now I’d like to apologize again for starting in on the wrong preface — as well as to congratulate Bryan on his new one! Indeed a step in the right direction!

  52. I’m very glad the confusion was cleared up, and (of course) I heartily endorse everything jamessal has said. I hope Bryan will return and respond!

  53. jamessal says

    To say, “This form of a word occurs more than 100 times as frequently as that form” is pure description. To add “and is therefore preferable in edited English” is pure prescription. In GMEU, I’ve moved much more toward description with the understanding that sensible readers can deduce the prescription.

    Just to underscore one last time, your follow-up quote is indeed pure prescription. It’s not prescriptivism, however, because it explicitly recognizes the importance of context: “in edited English.” Depending on the word under discussion, a usually before “preferable” might improve the exemplifying sentence: novels are often edited, and neither Mark Twain’s nor Kevin Barry’s writing would have been better if they had stuck to the more common forms; but never mind, that’s not the point, and most people will intuit that there are various exceptions even in edited prose. The point is that your sentence would have been prescriptivism only if the second quote had read, “and is therefore always preferable,” or the like.

    In GMEU, I’ve moved much more toward description with the understanding that sensible readers can deduce the prescription.

    Your preface indeed gives that impression, and I congratulate you for it again. Even if — to my mind — the entries don’t end up bearing out the sentence just quoted, I believe your intent is sincere. That alone is impressive. And if the entries do bear it out, I’ll recommend it to everyone I know as the best usage guide ever written, full stop. I’ll bet that Hat might even write another post, a laudatory one, and that he’d be willing to write a blurb for the next edition or even the next printing. I’ve got a lot of reading and note-taking to do before I urge him to do any such things, however.

  54. Nah, I doubt I’ll be going that far. MWDEU forever!

  55. jamessal says

    I doubt you or I will be going that far either, but can you imagine if Garner’s book really were as he claims, each entry purged of prescriptivism, just informative with a bit of reasonable advice — this book written by the preeminent prescriptivist of the last twenty years? It would essentially be MWDEU written with greater resources, MWDEU 2.0! And it’s not as if MWDEU isn’t flawed. I think I even wrote you once about a usage that had prescriptivists frothing, a usage I’d seen often and about which I turned to MWDEU for the truth — god, I wish I could remember what it was! — only to be told that, though there was an entry, no such usage existed in their files. As Bryan gracefully points out in his new preface, MWDEU didn’t have the same resources he does.

    As I said, however, I do doubt you’ll have to cheer for any book but the hometown blue. That doubt comes from preliminary skimming, but I don’t want to actually criticize the new edition of Bryan’s book without further reading. I will say, though, that his entry on flaccid reveals much remaining misguided thinking about language — thinking I’ll describe at length when I have the time — even as he admits that it (the plosive-less pronunciation) is “Stage 4,” i.e., that it will soon be standard and there’s nothing to be done about it. And I can’t help noting that his remarks on the pronunciation of sherbet consist of nothing but hopeful prescriptivism.

    He says that the word is “commonly mispronounced with an intrusive –r-” — a phrase itself that belies the sentence I quoted so hopefully above — and labels that pronunciation Stage 3. Bryan, my wife and I owned an ice cream shop at a hoity-toity farmers’ market of sorts for five years — right on the border between Bucks County, PA, and Hunterdon County, NJ — and neither she nor I ever once heard what you still apparently consider the correct pronunciation, at least not simply stated. A few times we were asked which was correct, to which we answered the strawberry balsamic; the rest were all, according to your entry, wrong. This is what I meant when I said I feared Bryan’s prejudices would influence his entries when little or no data existed to restrain him; GoogleBooks doesn’t provide pronunciations, after all. But two entries does not a book make. And I will withhold judgment until I’ve done much more reading.

  56. I will say, though, that his entry on flaccid reveals much remaining misguided thinking about language — thinking I’ll describe at length when I have the time — even as he admits that it (the plosive-less pronunciation) is “Stage 4,” i.e., that it will soon be standard and there’s nothing to be done about it. And I can’t help noting that his remarks on the pronunciation of sherbet consist of nothing but hopeful prescriptivism.

    Well, that’s the thing — I have a very hard time believing that he could do a complete turnaround and simply accept that language is changing. He can talk the talk all he likes, but when it comes to brass tacks, he’s always going to be deploring what he doesn’t like.

  57. I am not sure what is the analog of “edited standard written English” is for pronunciation. As I understand Mr. Garner’s stated goal in his book is to give an advice on the former. Suppose that in the realm of pronunciation he is aiming for formal, maybe even rehearsed speech. Then he should acknowledge at least regional varieties and, of course, “stages of grief” should be different.

  58. Jim and Steve:
    Perhaps I was unduly sanguine about the idea that there could be a meeting of the minds. On pronunciation, what I say shouldn’t be dismissed merely as my personal biases. There’s a whole tradition of pronunciation authorities whom I quote. My positions are more conservative than yours, but I know many people who stick to the traditional /FLAK-sid/. I acknowledge that most don’t, just as most people don’t say “home in.” But it’s not a mere numbers game. It also depends on who these people are. I would never be early to adopt what has traditionally been viewed as a solecism. Maybe my entry on “Class Distinctions” gets to the nub of the matter.
    In any event, it appears that we’re reading each other (and you’re reading DFW) through exceedingly hostile eyes. In that atmosphere, there’s no playing nice. I give up.
    Signing off,

  59. jamessal says

    Bryan, I find your signing off now most disappointing. I praise your preface to the stars; I apologize multiple times for starting in on the wrong one first; I offer several arguments not about your book itself (arguments I can’t imagine anyone would consider hostile, including many words about the definition of prescriptivism); I call you graceful, sincere, and impressive; and yet when I criticize one entry and say that I will be criticizing another, while making clear that I’ll still be withholding judgment on your book as a whole, you say — without even having the decency to answer most of my arguments — that I’m reading you through overly hostile eyes and you’re signing off. That’s not just thin-skinned; it’s wrong and it’s rude. There can be a meeting of the minds, you know, without total agreement. I’m genuinely interested in whether or not your linguistic conservatism is founded on anything better than mine used to be. Sadly, you’ve given me no reason to think so. I’d assumed arguments were still coming, the ball most decidedly having been in your court, but now you’re leaving in the middle of the game. All there is left to say is that I hope you change your mind and return — I’d love to debate “pronunciation authorities” — and that if you do I won’t hold this against you.

  60. Bryan A. Garner says

    We can’t even agree on the definition of “prescriptivism.” I’ve tried to define both it and “descriptivism” dispassionately. Given your views about “classism” etc., the chances of our agreeing about how to say (or spell) “sherbet,” “mischievous,” “preventive,” or hundreds of other words are nil. I sign off with resignation, not enmity.

  61. jamessal says

    We can’t even agree on the definition of “prescriptivism.” I’ve tried to define both it and “descriptivism” dispassionately.

    You defined prescriptivism, but you didn’t answer my critique of your description. Nor did you answer my 800-word comment explaining why I define it the way I do and then suggesting that we do away with the terms altogether. It’s not that we can’t agree; it’s that we don’t. Given the paucity of effort you’ve put into agreeing on a definition, we just don’t know if we could do it or not.

    I’ve taken the time to explain the reason behind my positions at length, and I’ve asked you direct question challenging your positions — which you may state dispassionately but don’t explain or defend — questions you’ve ignored. Choosing to sign off at this point — whether with resignation or enmity — is, again, rude. Before your sign-off, you hadn’t even written 750 words altogether, and very few of those addressed the arguments I put to you. Failing to engage me much at all, you just wasted a decent amount of my time and energy.

    Ignoring direct question seeking to clarify your thinking indicates less that you ever sought a meeting of the minds but rather wanted a pat on the back for your “empiricism.” Also telling is that right after you got that pat on the back — after I praised your new preface — you announced your exit. You made no comments in between that praise and your resignation; and as proof that progress was impossible you used a mere a sliver of doubt and tentative criticism, accompanied by caveats that I wasn’t yet passing judgment on the rest of the book — and now a comment I made about class, my views about which I’m willing and able to set aside completely for now, as you would have known if you’d bothered to ask or, to put it differently, withheld judgment until you knew more, as I’ve been doing.

    Given your status and failure to represent prescriptivism beyond attempting a dispassionate definition, this exchange more than anything in years has confirmed for me that yours is indeed a truly vacuous ideology. Either that or fame is even more poisonous that I’d thought, making you feel entitled enough to ignore the disparity in the effort we each made. I’d love to hear another explanation for resigning after writing not even a thousand words, far fewer than half of them either arguments for your positions or questions about mine.

    There’s nothing more boring that easily winning an argument. I was once on your side, remember. I met Steve sending him an email telling him that his thinking on this subject was muddled. He recommended books, which along with his arguments changed my mind. It was a fantastic intellectual experience.

  62. Eli Nelson says

    Jamessal, I actually think you are the one showing an attitude of entitlement right now. Nobody is obligated to debate with you. You were posting comments before Garner even showed up, so I don’t think it’s fair to accuse him of “wasting [your] time and energy.”

  63. jamessal says

    You were posting comments before Garner even showed up

    No, I wasn’t.

    Nobody is obligated to debate with you.

    True, but we weren’t casual passersby in the Hattery. We planned discussing his book in an attempt to do what he’s been trying to do for years: make peace in the language wars. I bought his new edition — a significant purchase for me — for the occasion. Under those circumstances, he did indeed have an obligation. If life became tough for him and he didn’t have the time he thought he would, I’d totally understand. But to claim we couldn’t reach an accord on such and such, as if he’d put in any real effort, and then declaring the argument hopeless and resigning from it is, again, rude — because he wasted my time. You plan a 1-on-1 basketball game against someone, you have an obligation to finish, or at least give it some real effort, even if you’re not doing so well. The same is true of debates that have been all but formally scheduled, especially those that require monetary output. In short, someone who all but tells me that he plans to debate, with full knowledge that I’m spending time and money for the occasion, are the exception to your sentence quoted above. Read the beginning of the thread if you suspect I’m misrepresenting what led to my expectations about our further intercourse. That he felt the need to formally resign from the “debate,” however risible his reasons, also supports my point.

  64. jamessal says

    Eli, I’d really like top know if, upon reading the thread thoroughly, you felt the same way. I have a hard time believing you would if you approach it with an open mind, but if I’m wrong I’d like to know.

  65. Eli Nelson says

    No; you’re quite right that I had not read through the thread very carefully at all (as the factual error in my last sentence shows). I now regret posting that comment. I see that Garner did ask for examples where he was too deferential to earlier mavens. Your tone does come across as hostile to me, but certainly not malicious, and you do present various specific arguments that you’ve clearly put thought into. It would be nice to see more of a debate.

  66. jamessal says

    Thank you, Eli. Now, I’m just curious, did you find my tone hostile throughout or only when I was mistakenly criticizing the wrong preface and, obviously, when I was expressing my disappointment in Bryan’s resignation? I wouldn’t be wholly surprised if it were the former– I’ve always been something of a bare-knuckle debater, even as I make sure to take my opponents views seriously and avoid all ad hominem — though I hoped the praise I offered along with the exhortations that we work together (in my advocation for my definition for prescriptivism) would have made clear that my arguments themselves were merely to the point, whatever aggression born of enthusiasm, not hostility.

  67. Merrill Perlman has a favorable review of Garner here; Erin Brenner clobbers him pretty good here.

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