Bryan Garner on Words
The question of linguistic correctness has long been mired in difficulty. There are two antipodal positions. On one side, lexicographer Henry Bradley (1845-1923), the second chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary, posited: “Nobody learns his mother tongue so perfectly as never to make any grammatical mistake.” That includes famous writers. Linguist Bergen Evans (1904-1978) expressed the other stance: “Scholars … do not believe that anyone who is a native speaker of a standard language will get into any linguistic trouble unless he is misled by snobbishness or timidity or vanity.” On this view, famous writers don’t make mistakes.
Both positions are still with us. My support of Bradley’s view has been often and amply stated.
Understandably, though, some have said that we can all have our individual opinions about “good English.” You have yours, it is said, and I have mine. Who cares if somebody has spent a career studying the subject? It’s just a matter of opinion.
What has changed in recent years is our ability to use big data. Although it’s famously possible to lie with statistics, it’s much easier to lie without them. And being without them is the old state of affairs. Now we have reliable information about linguistic choices that writers and editors have made over the past several centuries.
In recent years, I’ve used a great deal of quantitative research in assaying what is and isn’t standard English. So it’s not merely my opinion, even if I have devoted thousands of hours to studying the subject. No. It’s the collective judgment of hundreds of thousands of writers over time. The idea is to stay within the linguistic mainstream if you’re trying to use the standard language.
Let’s try a 20-question quiz. The object is to select the choice that writers, editors and book publishers have overwhelmingly used over the past several decades. We’re assessing your knack for standard written English. We’re testing your feel for plurals, possessives and subject-verb agreement. These are grammatical issues, not word-choice issues. See how you fare. For this test, we’re considering the correct answers to be those that are predominantly used in print sources. Keep in mind that the ratios stated at the end of each question are simply indicating the degree to which the correct answer (whichever it is) preponderates over the other; it’s not saying that (a) preponderates over (b). That’s what is being tested, after all.
English usage can be tricky, can’t it? Maybe your head is spinning.
Yet we lawyers must make such calls all the time. Every law office is a publishing house. We typically publish to a limited audience—sometimes to a single judge—but we’re expected to use standard written English. It does no good to dismiss these choices as “beneath” someone with an advanced degree.
In the past, issues of this kind could be resolved only by resort to a usage dictionary. I’ve written two big ones, and they give the answers instantly once you figure out how they’re organized. But today you can use Google’s ngrams to do your own big data research on a given question. If you want to know the most common preposition that follows cousinhood (is it with or of), as I needed to just this morning, the answer is seconds away at your keyboard. If you don’t yet know what it’s all about, search Google “ngram” and discover how useful this type of research can be. Try it out.
This story was originally published in the October-November 2020 issue of the ABA Journal under the headline: “Do You Use ‘Good English’? Test your grammatical skills with this 20-question quiz.”
Bryan A. Garner is president of LawProse Inc., chief editor of Black’s Law Dictionary (now in its 11th edition), and author of both Garner’s Modern English Usage and Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage. Twitter: @bryanagarner