On “Taming the Tongue” by Bryan A. Garner
WITH GRAMMAR APPROACHING the status of anachronism, Bryan A. Garner’s Taming the language is not a screed for the return of grammar, but rather a cheerful review of 100 items from Garner’s personal collection of nearly 2,000 grammars published during what he considers the pinnacle of English grammar . It is not intuitively obvious that a book about 18th and 19th century grammarians and their work can be considered a frolic, but it is a frolic!
Garner is a renowned jurist, as well as a leading authority on grammar and usage, having written several volumes, including Garner’s use of modern English and Reading the law: interpreting legal texts (co-written with the late Antonin Scalia). As Garner notes, “grammar has been dramatically diminished in basic education.” When my oldest (born 1981) was at school, his introduction to terminology and grammar rules came when he learned Spanish; he had no training in English grammar. The proliferation of emails, texts and social media platforms has further devalued the importance of grammar.
Most of the articles Garner includes are published grammar guides, and it presents basic information about their publication history and authors. At the end of each entry, Garner summarizes the number of parts of speech identified by that grammarian. Just with that subset of 100, there are 25 different configurations that range from two to 33, including Joseph Priestley’s âcanonical 8â. I counted the score while reading. For those who don’t want to count, Garner summarizes the different configurations of parts of speech in post-matter.
One danger Garner skillfully avoids is slipping into stereotypical repetition. Three reasons explain its success.
The first is his smart and incisive writing, coupled with his sense of humor and ability to find the perfect adjective or adverb right now. Its tangents are moments of controlled pleasure. He knows a lot more than he writes, while avoiding giving the reader the impression of drinking from a fire hose. His joy, enthusiasm and pride inform every entry, every page.
Second, Garner includes beautiful color photographs illustrating bindings, title pages, sample pages, illustrations, and inscriptions. I haven’t been so amazed and amused by the graphics since The whole Earth catalog. Sometimes we find the great light in the strangest places, and here it is.
And third, Garner happily quotes grammarians, whose fluency in the English language is astounding, especially when criticizing a rival. Elizabeth Elstob is repelled by the idea of ââletting “the pedagogues breathe and boast to the height of all their arrogance”. Benjamin Rhodes suggests âSterling Englishâ because âhearing a person harangue in public, or expressing their feelings in a conversation in bad English, tends to create disgust, as well as to reduce the weight of their argumentsâ. And William Cardell maintains that “the false principles by which writers on language have misled the rest of the world are no different from those of Ptolemian astronomy.”
Garner’s superior knowledge and infectious exhilaration turned a book on an archaic and outdated subject into a page turner. I don’t know how a young reader without the nine years of Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition that I lived would react to Taming the language, but Melville taught us that a very long book with very long descriptions of whaling can be as captivating and absorbing as Moby-dick.
The daily of the Passover seder comes to mind when we come to Taming the languageit is after the case. The body of the book would have been sufficient, but there is more, including teasing of other works in Garner’s personal collection and commentary from a team of experts such as John Simpson, the former editor. in chief of the Oxford English Dictionary.
My only source of dissatisfaction with Taming the language is Garner’s decision to use the historical present, also known as the dramatic present or narrative present. He writes that the historical present “makes their life and work more immediate and alive.” I found it hampered the otherwise effortless and frictionless narrative. The historical present is more suitable for fiction than a history of grammar guides, but it’s a small point.
Taming the language is a frolic that gives joy. It left me feeling like the world is a better place because Bryan A. Garner is in it, because he spent a lifetime immersed in grammar, because he wrote this book and because he got a publication with such great production values. Well done, sir.
A resident of Berkeley, Calif., Tom Dalzell has written extensively on the language, most notably as editor of The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English (Routledge, 2005).