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Words, Nov. 5

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Not only a lawyer but a lawyer who consorts with Antonin Scalia, Bryan A. Garner sounds like a person I'd stay well clear of, if I didn't write a column on language. Since I do, I lean heavily on Mr. Garner. Though we've never met, I've quoted him so often that I can't quibble with the Oxford University Press, his publisher, when it makes the rather grand claim, “Since first appearing in 1998, Garner's Modern American Usage has established itself as the preeminent guide to effective use of the English language.”

My copy of that first edition is practically in tatters. Just in time, Garner has produced a revised third edition, bigger and to all appearances even better. If a person is seriously interested in the state of the language, and reasonably well off, GMAU is worth the $45 asking price. (Easy for me to say. I got my copy free, in that sly way newspaper people have. Newspaper people are notoriously not well off.)

A word of warning, or encouragement, depending on your point of view: Garner is not a descriptivist, as many authorities are today. He's a prescriptivist, as many authorities used to be. He doesn't describe the various ways people write and talk, and allow you to pick your own path. He tells you what's right, and orders you aboard. It's my impression this is what most people want, although I myself have grown less prescriptive over the years, a result of discovering that many revered old rules I'd learned in schoolroom and newsroom were capricious bunk.

An example of the Garner perspective: While reading proof recently, I came across gauntlet used to mean “an ordeal.” The old rule was that gantlet was the word for this usage (run the gantlet) and gauntlet was a glove (throw down the gauntlet). The trend now is to use gauntlet in all cases, and Random House goes along with the trend. Garner does not. “Keep gantlet for the ordeal,” he says.

The Scalia connection? He and Garner co-wrote a book on the art of persuading judges. Scalia's had great success with Clarence Thomas, I hear.

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