This week on The Moment, Brian Koppelman’s guest is Bryan Garner, author, lexicographer, and subject of David Foster Wallace’s essay "Authority and American Usage." Garner talks about his book, Modern American Usage, and how his life changed after Wallace’s essay ran in both Harper’s and the book Consider the Lobster.
Koppelman and Garner also cover their mutual love of language and why descriptivists and prescriptivists just can’t get along. Other highlights include Garner’s personal warmth for Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, Garner’s take on why Steven Pinker’s new book on language “isn’t very good,” and the debate on whether or not prescriptivists may have literally lost the fight on the definition of literally.
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- Modern American Usage by Bryan Garner
- LawProse.org provider of CLE training in legal writing, editing, and drafting
- “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage” by David Foster Wallace
- “Authority and American Usage” in Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
- Miller's Crossing, a film by the Coen brothers
- Gideon’s Trumpet by Anthony Lewis
- The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker
- The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White
- Quack This Way by Bryan Garner and David Foster Wallace
- The Sense of Style by Steven Pinker
- “Sorry. Dr. Gove ain’t in,” a New Yorker Cartoon by Alan Dunn
- Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself by David Lipsky
- The Originalist, a play by John Strand
- The Palace Thief by Ethan Canin
- WBUR interview with Bryan Garner and David Foster Wallace
- The Financier by Theodore Dreiser
- Nature by Ralph Waldo Emerson
- Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, and Seymour: An Introduction by J.D. Salinger
- Fearing’s Restaurant in Dallas, with Chef Dean Fearing
- David Brinkley: A Memoir by David Brinkley
What would David Foster Wallace have made of “Quack This Way,” the recent publication of a 2006 interview he gave on grammar and usage? D.F.W. was first and foremost a writer, and one who mistrusted substituting talk for the more careful arrangements of the page. Interviews with him are full of his misgivings that questions are coming too fast and asking for answers that are too short.
Yet “Quack This Way” is the fourth posthumous publication of the impromptu oral D.F.W. First was David Lipsky’s transcription of his 1996 road trip with the writer; next was a volume in the “Conversations With” series from the University Press of Mississippi, then “The Last Interview” (much overlap with the foregoing), and, finally, this discussion with Bryan Garner, a usage expert, conducted in a Los Angeles hotel room in 2006. An additional irony is that what D.F.W. and Garner, a professor of law at Southern Methodist University whose day job is to teach good writing to lawyers, sit down to talk about is the centrality, the permanence, the almost moral imperative to write well. And here D.F.W. is, yammering on.
For readers, I think it’s almost entirely a good thing. Our worries are not D.F.W.’s. He was a brilliant conversationalist, whose best stuff often didn’t make it to the page—our Coleridge, if you like. Ask anyone who knew him, and what they remember is his glorious, discursive, impassioned talk.
And it’s true that even in this new, slender volume, there is always something absorbing, something distinctive, some agitated motion of the inner being that is distinctly Wallace. Here he is on bad professional prose, be it by lawyers or academics:
My guess is that disciplines that are populated by smart, well-educated people who are good readers but are nevertheless characterized by crummy, turgid, verbose, abstruse, abstract, solecism-ridden prose, are usually part of a discipline where the vector of meaning—as a way to get information or opinion from me to you—versus writing, as a form of dress or speech or style … that signals that “I am a member of this group,” gets thrown off.
The interview was a byproduct of an article Wallace started in the late nineties on the grammar wars. Most writers think of grammar as uninteresting, the machine code of literature, but Wallace loved it for many reasons—because his mother did; because it was full of rules, and limits gave him pleasure; and because his mastery of the subject reminded everyone how smart he was. He was, as he would write in the piece, a SNOOT (explained in a footnote as Syntax Nudniks of Our Time). But, to his surprise (and mine, when I began researching “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story”), this was an article that cost him, and into which he sank more deeply than he meant to. “Issues of usage, looked at closely even for a moment,” he wrote to Don DeLillo (whom he was always trying to impress) as he was working on it, “become issues of Everything—from neurology to politics to Aristotelian pisteis to Jaussian Kritik to stuff like etiquette and clothing fashions.” The piece bounced around to several magazines because of its length, and ultimately came out, shortened, in Harper’s in April, 2001, as “Tense Present.” (D.F.W. would reverse the cuts in “Consider the Lobster,” under the title “Authority and American Usage.”)
Wallace’s inquiry centered on Garner’s “A Dictionary of Modern American Usage,” a new entry in the ongoing national battle to communicate without seeming like a fool, a yokel, or a toff. The guide included perennial bugaboos like—or do I mean “such as”?—whether it was O.K. to end a sentence with a preposition (yes, fine) and the admissibility of split infinitives (depends on how many words separate the actual verb and its bereft partner). But for Wallace, the essay also became a way to insert himself into the language wars—and thus into the question of American democracy. Were grammarians supposed to proscribe and prescribe, or just describe? Was usage king or subject? D.F.W. found Garner the ideal mix of instructor and explainer, a teacher with the true credentials of the modest and informed, an authority “not in an autocratic but a technocratic sense.” With a certain self- and subject-mockery, he piled on the encomia. “ADMAU,” he wrote, was “as good as Follett’s…and the handful of other great American usage guides of the century.” Garner he declared “a genius.”
A year later, in 2002, the two met for lunch at Biaggi’s, a Wallace haunt on Veterans Parkway in Bloomington. (Wallace brought his parents.) They exchanged book recommendations; Garner suggested the nineteenth-century critic and grammar authority Richard Grant White, while Wallace proffered his high-lit triad of DeLillo, Gass, and Gaddis. I reached the itinerant professor by phone the other day in a D.C. hotel room—he is on the road two hundred days a year with his Sisyphean mission—and he told me that he and Wallace hadn’t met again until the interview four years afterward, but that they had exchanged letters in the interim. They also each took pleasure in noting the other’s grammatical errors. “That’s the thing about usage,” Garner told me, in his careful way. “When you write copiously, we are all fallible.” He acknowledged that he had started the Gass novel that D.F.W. had recommended—he was not sure of the title—but had not finished it. Nor had he read “Infinite Jest.” “My impression is that it is a book that a lot of people start and don’t finish,” he said levelly. He added that Wallace knew, and didn’t mind. The friendship between the grammar-minded writer and the writing-minded grammarian was the sort that Wallace liked: close, but not too close.
Which may be why, in 2006, Wallace agreed to a videotaped hotel-room interview. Five years had passed since “Tense Present,” during which time D.F.W. had gone from a so-so school, Illinois State University, to a fancy one, Pomona College, and still he spent his days correcting students who mixed up “nauseous” and “nauseated” and struggled to write clearly. He was also on his third president in a row who mangled his grammar, a situation that bothered him acutely. Garner mentioned to me that the Wallace who presented himself at the Hilton Checkers hotel lacked some of the élan of the Wallace of his earlier acquaintance. It’s possible that, in this interim, he began to lose his appetite for a fight that began with his mother’s battles against supermarkets and their “Express Lane Ten Items or Less” signs. Late in the interview, he bursts out to Garner:
And people like you and me, we just don’t have our finger on the pulse anymore. What people are looking for is not the kind of stuff we’re talking about. You’ll want to cut this out [of the interview]. I don’t say that to my students because my line with them is still, “Look, you’re at this elite school, you’re going to end up in the professions…Right? You need to quack this way…. But the truth is that between sophisticated advertising and national-level politics, I am at a loss as to what people’s use of language is now meant to convey and connote to the receiver.”
D.T. Max is the author of “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace,” newly out in paperback.
Illustration by Philip Burke.