Bryan Garner talks about The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation

garner-bryanBryan A. Garner is the author of the new book The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation as well as the author of the “Grammar and Usage” chapter of The Chicago Manual of Style. His other best-selling books include Garner’s Modern English Usage. He is president of LawProse, Inc., and Distinguished Research Professor of Law at Southern Methodist University.

CMOS: First, congratulations on the publication of The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. Would you be able to explain where the new book stands in the corpus of your works on grammar and style and how it relates to the grammar chapter you wrote for The Chicago Manual of Style?

BG: To take your second question first, it’s a big expansion of the grammar chapter for the Chicago Manual. That chapter in itself was a hundred-page compendium on English grammar and usage, and so it made a nice starting point for a five-hundred-page text on English grammar. The purpose was to write a grammar that would be accessible to the interested nonspecialist, but one that takes advantage of modern research into the English language. Believe it or not, nobody has really tried this since the 1930s or so. In the field of grammar, an intellectual apartheid keeps the specialists walled off from everyone else. Modern grammarians tend to use vocabulary that makes their subject inaccessible to most people. With The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, I wanted to remedy that.

CMOS: This is much needed. We constantly get queries from educated readers who can’t cite a recent grammar source. They quote their high school or college grammars, which are by now many decades out of date.

Something new and fascinating in the “Word Usage” section of The Chicago Guide is your inclusion of sixty-seven “ngrams” from Google’s Ngram Viewer, which allows one to search for a given word or phrase through millions of sources printed from 1500 to 2008. In your introduction, you say that “this previously unavailable big-data tool allows us to gauge questions of English in a way never before possible.” Could you give an example?

BG: Yes. Take “hanged by the neck.” In the eighteenth century, prisoners subject to the death penalty were said to be hanged (not hung) by the neck. That’s been the predominant literary usage forever. But the competitive gap between the terms in this context has narrowed. In 1817, the ratio of hanged versus hung by the neck was 13:1; in the most recent statistic available (2008), it’s 3:1. In other words, many more people now use hung in reference to the gallows.


Although literary usage still prefers hanged, the competing form hung is now getting closer. The Google ngram shows you that it’s mostly because hanged has declined in use; it’s not that there’s been an upsurge of hung. Perhaps this is a reflection of (1) the decline of the death penalty, and (2) the replacement of hanging with other means of execution in some places where the death penalty still exists.

These ngrams contain all sorts of information that one might speculate about, some of it linguistic and some of it anthropological. The diagram shows the modern writer or editor what literary choice has been traditional, and for how long. That’s useful.

CMOS: So any writer or editor who’s curious about a suspicious construction can go to the Ngram Viewer online and track its progress in published books over the decades. Do you have advice for someone using it for the first time? Are there ways ngrams can be misinterpreted or misused?

BG: I encourage serious editors to play with them a bit. Ngrams are useful whether you’re trying to figure out which preposition goes after the noun animadversion or which plural to use for syllabus (the answer is different for American English [syllabi] and for British English [syllabuses]). The Chicago Guide is the first linguistic book that reproduces ngrams, and I think they add both fascinating information and visual appeal. Garner’s Modern English Usage shows no ngrams but contains about 2,500 ratios calculated from ngrams. There you’ll learn that in AmE syllabi outranks syllabuses by a 6:1 ratio in print sources; but in BrE syllabuses is favored by a 1.4:1 ratio. That’s a little surprising, since on the whole BrE is usually more tenacious than AmE in holding on to classical plurals.

CMOS: Another intriguing feature of your book, in the “Syntax” section, is the inclusion of sentence diagrams. Older readers will remember either loving or hating these exercises in school. Are you hoping to revive a lost art, or are you responding to a revival that’s already happening?



BG: In my weekly training of lawyers, I hear many who decry the loss of sentence diagrams. So I devoted a fifteen-page chapter showing how to diagram sentences the traditional way. But I devoted another fifteen-page chapter to the more modern transformational tree diagrams. The idea was to cover these different approaches for the benefit of any teacher or student of grammar who wants a comprehensive treatment. I also begin the book with the justification for learning the subject—a kind of gentle exhortation.



CMOS: Could you use the example to explain some of the advantages of using the tree diagrams of transformational grammar over traditional diagrams?

BG: The tree diagrams have relatively little pedagogical value. In the example you’ve chosen, it’s easy to see the two possible readings of baking. In a sense, though, I suppose tree diagrams also reinforce one’s knowledge of syntax and phrasing, just as traditional sentence diagrams do.

CMOS: A reader flipping through the book can’t help but notice many little shaded boxes with quotations.

BG: The Chicago Guide was lots of fun to write, and I interspersed it with quotable observations by major linguists, grammarians, and rhetoricians over the years. And in the punctuation chapter, I illustrate every legitimate use of every punctuation mark with actual sentences from major writers such as Alain de Botton, Saul Bellow, Pauline Kael, Archibald MacLeish, Nancy Mitford, J. K. Rowling, James Thurber, E. B. White, and Virginia Woolf. There are literary nuggets in there. I hope readers will enjoy them.

Photo: Courtesy of Winn Fuqua. Diagrams: Bryan A. Garner, The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 187, 208, 278, courtesy of the publisher.

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