An Interview with Bryan A. Garner

David Vancil

Bryan A. Garner earned his undergraduate and law degrees from The University of Texas at Austin, the latter in 1984. Bryan’s undergraduate senior thesis was on aspects of Shakespeare’s usage, revealing an interest in English usage that later manifested itself in his many published books.

Widely known for his lexicographic accomplishments, Bryan is president of LawProse Inc., which assists with legal writing and provides seminars to improve the writing skills of practicing lawyers. He is also the author of more than two dozen books on writing and legal advocacy. He’s even written a book on the rules of golf “in plain English.”

Anyone who has followed Bryan’s career or examined his work will know that he’s an advocate of clear and straightforward written expression. The fourth edition of Garner’s Modern English Usage introduced ratios, based on big data, showing the relative frequency of standard and variant forms of a given usage—a real innovation in lexicography. He’s received many accolades for this and his other works.

We are privileged to talk with Bryan about his vast collection of books, which, according to a 2015 Dallas Morning News article, comprises some 44,000 volumes. Many of those are dictionaries and grammars that have contributed to our knowledge of the English language’s history—some harking back to the 15th century.

Vancil: Bryan, like you, I am an alumnus of The University of Texas. As a grad student, I met several eminent bibliographers who influenced me to become a rare-book librarian and a student of early books. Did you have any similar experiences?

Garner: I certainly had professors who influenced me toward bibliomania—especially the late John W. Velz of the English Department. He supervised my 150-page senior thesis on “Shakespeare’s Latinate Diction,” and he got me started in my researches at the Harry Ransom Center. Soon I learned more about Harry Ransom himself, and I knew that I wanted to follow in his footsteps—as a book-collector, at least, and perhaps as a scholar as well.

Vancil: How many of your books would you say pertain to lexicography or allied fields, including usage?

Garner: Probably 8,000, if we construe “allied fields” broadly to include linguistics. But if the phrase is construed most broadly, all of them “pertain to lexicography” in the sense that I might draw on any of them for illustrative quotations. Black’s Law Dictionary contains lengthy quotations from more than 980 sources, and some of the quotations extend to more than 150 words. I don’t simply illustrate a word’s use in a sentence but instead actually quote expert legal commentators on some aspect of legal usage. As far as I know, my use of quotations in Black’s is something of an innovation in lexicography. Two major publishers gave me carte blanche to quote as extensively as I wished from all their law-related books—thereby relieving me of any copyright difficulties. So all my 25,000 or so law-related books come frequently into play with my lexicography.

Vancil: Speaking of innovations in lexicography, can you tell us a little about your use of ngrams in the fourth edition of Garner’s Modern English Usage? What inspired you to use big data that way, and how did it affect the way you prepared the new edition?

Garner: With big data, we can now make more-surefooted pronouncements about predominant vs. secondary usages—and to what extent the competing forms actually appear in print. I show these as ratios in some 2,500 entries. Hence it’s not just an “armchair grammarian’s preference” to say that between you and me predominates over between you and I in print sources by a ratio of 16:1, or that interpretive predominates over interpretative by a ratio of 2:1. To a usage lexicographer (which is what I am in GMEU), this information is truly revolutionary.

Vancil: Were there any usages for which the ngram data really surprised you?

Garner: Dozens. How about data itself? These data are still predominates over this data is by a 2:1 ratio, but the gap has been steadily closing since about 1990.

Vancil: Are there any areas you have steered clear of in dictionary-collecting? Conversely, what areas do you focus on in building your collection?

Garner: I avoid polyglot dictionaries—in fact, I recently sold 550 of them (16th–19th century books) at an auction in London. I concentrate on English-language dictionaries and grammars.

Vancil: Is there a particular book that has eluded you?

Garner: Yes. But I stay quiet about the ones I’m stealthily on the lookout for!

Vancil: Is the 1491 Vocabularium Iuris still your prized possession? Or is there some other recent acquisition you’d like to tout?

Garner: Although I have two first editions of Johnson’s Dictionary (1755), and all of the folio editions, I especially prize the first edition that was owned by the G&C Merriam Co. in the 1930s. It has a buckram binding matching that of Webster’s Second New International Dictionary. In other words, G&C Merriam Co. had its own binders rebind the huge two-volume work sometime in the 1930s. Volume 1 has the company’s bookplate inside. I consider the set priceless.

Vancil: Do you allow researchers to make use of your collection?

Garner: Only my own staff of nine—or the occasional lexicographer friend who is passing through Dallas.

Vancil: Thank you, Bryan, for sharing your love of books with us.

Garner: Thank you for listening to my bibliomaniacal babblings!