This issue features a “micro-interview” with Bryan Garner conducted by Josh Fischel. Garner is the editor of a bounty of English- and legal-usage texts, including Black’s Law Dictionary and Garner’s Modern American Usage. Pooh-poohed earlier in his career for embracing the study of a “mere” skill—legal writing—he now gives seminars and lectures all over the world to judges and lawyers on how to write and argue more persuasively. He spoke entirely in complete sentences during the interview.
THE BELIEVER: You often argue for clarity and plain language, but for your entry on sesquipedality—the use of big words—in The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style, you quote Sheridan Baker saying, “For distinction, we need words not heard every minute, unusual words, large words, foreign words, metaphors.” Is that at odds with your broader aim?
BRYAN GARNER: Perhaps a little bit. I really appreciate someone with a good vocabulary, and, in fact, I spent many years building a huge vocabulary. I was fascinated by a lot of the really arcane, esoteric words in the language, words like cunctation, which means “a delay.” I once wrote a college paper referring to a three-month cunctation, as opposed to delay, and actually got a better mark for that because I knew my audience. It was a professor who was always depending on me to help him build his vocabulary, and he appreciated my sending him to the dictionary. Most readers don’t. Although it’s surprising: Time and Newsweek will sometimes include words that are well beyond the normal reader’s ken. I think some mixture is good, as Sheridan Baker says, between mostly words that are within a reader’s comfort zone, but still interesting words—words that would not just be the first to pop into anybody else’s mind. So you’ll find among good writers, typically, some unusual expressions of ideas, but mostly some good combinations of ordinary words. But sometimes there’ll be a lexiphanic writer, like John Updike or William F. Buckley, who will use really recherché, recondite, words.
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