Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: worse comes to worst; worst comes to worst.

worse comes to worst; worst comes to worst.

The traditional idiom, evidenced in the Oxford English Dictionary consistently from the 16th century, is “worst comes to (the) worst” (= [if] things turn out as badly as possible). But the more modern and more logical idiom, “worse comes to worst” — with its progression from comparative to superlative — now outnumbers the traditional phrase by a 3-to-2 ratio in print and is the better choice. E.g.:

o “Why not just move . . . all the way? Another place where, if worse comes to worst, you can just blow up the bridge.” Howie Carr, “Gang of Pirates Tries to Hack Through Cape,” Boston Herald, 12 Aug. 1994, at 4.

o “Her skills often rely on a quick wit and, when worse comes to worst, a willingness to lie.” J.C. Martin, “Bookcasings,” Ariz. Daily Star, 28 July 1996, at I7.

o “But if worse comes to worst, there’s nothing wrong with a little goof here or there in school pictures.” “Planning Can Make School Photographs Just Picture-Perfect,” San Antonio Express-News, 22 Sept. 1997, at D2.

For information about the Language-Change Index click here.
Quotation of the Day: “Good critical writing is measured by the perception and evaluation of the subject; bad critical writing by the necessity of maintaining the professional standing of the critic.” Raymond Chandler, Letter to Frederick Lewis Allen (7 May 1948), in Raymond Chandler Speaking 77, 78 (Dorothy Gardiner & Katherine Sorley Walker eds., 1962).

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LawProse Lesson #173: “On behalf of” and “in behalf of”

On behalf of and in behalf of.

On behalf of stalwart stylists everywhere, I write in behalf of maintaining the traditional distinction between these phrases.

Careful writers distinguish between them. To act or speak in behalf of someone is to independently promote that person’s interest, praise, or defense—or to act on one’s own for that person’s benefit {the employees picketed in behalf of the fired executive} {students spoke in behalf of the professor at the retirement party} {fight in behalf of justice for the wrongfully accused}.

By contrast, to act or speak on behalf of someone is to act as that person’s agent or representative {she accepted the award on behalf of the committee} {the lawyer acted on behalf of her client when she signed the document} {on behalf of our board of directors, I would like to thank the event’s sponsors}.

As mentioned in the lesson about on vs. upon (LawProse Lesson #171), upon behalf of is stylistically inferior to the simpler on behalf of {the motion was filed upon behalf of [read on behalf of] Mr. Albright}. And using a possessive instead of a bulkier of-phrase is likewise a stylistic improvement if the word denoting the person or thing being acted for isn’t impractically long. For instance, in the above example, “the lawyer acted on her client’s behalf” is superior to “on behalf of her client.” Yet “fight in behalf of justice for the wrongfully accused” is surely best left as it is.

To avoid the issue altogether, in many instances you can replace on behalf of with for {the president signed for the corporation} {the lawyer appeared in court for her client}.

What’s really bad is this common airline announcement: “On behalf of myself and the rest of the crew . . . .” It should be, “Along with the rest of the crew, I’d like to say . . .” or some such wording. There’s no behoof in speaking on your own behalf.

Further reading:
Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage 106 (3d ed. 2011).
Garner’s Modern American Usage 94 (3d ed. 2009).
Black’s Law Dictionary 184 (10th ed. 2014).
The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style § 12.3, at 296 (3d ed. 2013).

Thanks to Colleen L. Sahlas for suggesting this topic.

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: worse; worst; *worser.

worse; worst; *worser.

Writers seldom have trouble with the adjectives “bad/worse/worst.” But sometimes they yield to temptation with a little harmless wordplay — e.g.:

o “He beat his supposed betters, and worsers, clearly if not handily, taking the lead at the top of the homestretch and holding off by a length a rush by the 14-to-1 shot Victory Gallop at the end.” Frederick C. Klein, “Long Course Favors Long Shot,” Wall Street J., 4 May 1998, at A20.

o “The Giants got a little worse. The Dodgers got worse than that. The Rockies got even worser.” Ray Ratto, “Don’t Expect a Comeback, Not Even, ‘Oh Yeah?’” S.F. Examiner, 16 Sept. 1998, at D1.

o “I was so terrified at this prospect that I went straight home, washed down the better (or worser) part of a quart of gin, and cried myself to sleep.” Jonathan Yardley, “High Anxiety in the Space Age,” Wash. Post, 2 Nov. 1998, at E2.

*Invariably inferior form.

For information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “When the mind hesitates, grows cold, begins to labor, loses zest, you should suspect instantly a loss of direction. The climax at which you aimed, the proof that was preparing, the point of it all, is no longer so clear as it seemed at first. Go back. Wait until the mind warms again to the idea. Save time by waiting.” Henry Seidel Canby, Better Writing 83 (1926).

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Miscellaneous Entries.

Miscellaneous Entries.

worrisome; worrying, adj. In American English, something that provokes worry is “worrisome,” but in British English it’s “worrying” — e.g.: “Most worrying for the Conservatives, the MORI poll shows Labour making more rapid gains among middle class and southern voters — key groups who have been solid Conservative supporters since 1979 and whom the party needs to win back to retain power.” Stephen Bates & Martin Linton, “Tory Poll Rating Hits Record Low,” Guardian, 26 Aug. 1994, at 1. This BrE usage is an example of hypallage.

worship(p)ed; worship(p)ing; worship(p)er. The “-p-” spellings are the preferred forms in American English; the “-pp-” forms appear in British English.

worth. When this word is used with an amount, the preceding term denoting the amount should be possessive. E.g.: “He bought a few dollars’ worth of golf tees.”

worthwhile. One word.

-worthy. This combining form means (1) “fit or safe for” {a seaworthy vessel} {a crashworthy minivan}; or (2) “deserving of” {a praiseworthy effort} {a creditworthy loan applicant}. As in the preceding examples, the form is almost always closed up with its root, not hyphenated. Only a few newfangled “-worthy” terms {an article-worthy celebrity} have hyphens.

*wot (= to know) is an archaism that H.W. Fowler called a “Wardour Street” term, i.e., an “oddment” calculated to establish (in the eyes of some readers) the writer’s claim to be someone of taste and the source of beautiful English. Today, it’s an affectation unless ironic (and probably even then) — e.g.: “News is now at hand that for reasons I wot [read 'know'] not, the White House kitchens will serve free-range chickens only.” John Gould, “Pent-Up Pullets and White House Fowl,” Christian Science Monitor, 20 May 1994, at 17.

*Invariably inferior form.

For information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “Prose is not necessarily good because it obeys the rules of syntax, but it is fairly certain to be bad if it ignores them.” Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage: A Guide 22 (1966).

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: World Wide Web.

World Wide Web.

As a proper noun, “World Wide Web” is capitalized when written out in full and when shortened to “the Web.” When combined into compound form, though, it is usually lowercase {website}.

Because “the Web” is just one protocol (way of exchanging information) on the Internet — separate from mail and news protocols, for example — the terms “Web” and “Internet” are not interchangeable — e.g.:

o “At least two of every five messages sent over the Web [read 'Internet'] are spam, anti-spam software maker Brightmail says.” “Microsoft Puts Limit on Hotmail,” Investor’s Bus. Daily, 26 Mar. 2003, at A2.

o “‘It’s a cat-and-mouse game,’ said Ralph Sandridge, Lockheed Martin director of operational excellence, whose job is fighting spam and other Web [read 'Internet'] menaces.” Chris Cobbs, “Spammed!” Orlando Sentinel Trib., 10 Apr. 2003, at C1.

For information about the Language-Change Index click here.
Quotation of the Day: “If footnotes were a rational form of communication, Darwinian selection would have resulted in the eyes being set vertically rather than on an inefficient horizontal plane.” Abner J. Mikva, Goodbye to Footnotes, 56 U. Colo. L. Rev. 647, 648 (1985).

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Word-Swapping.

Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day


It’s something like a Murphy’s Law of language: two words that can be confused will be confused. Sometimes, the more popular word will encroach on the less popular (as when “demean” took over the sense “bemean” [= to make base or low; degrade]). At other times, the less well-known word encroaches on the better-known one. The following pairs are illustrative: “affect” gets used for “effect.” “bizarre” for “bazaar,” “comprise” for “compose,” “deprecate” for “depreciate,” “effete” for “elite,” “fortuitous” for “fortunate,” “luxurious” for “luxuriant,” “recant” for “recount,” “reticent” for “reluctant,” “vortex” for “vertex,” and so on.

How does this happen? Because people enjoy experimenting with words — not going so far as to engage in true sesquipedality, but merely using slightly offbeat words that everyone has heard before — they’ll replace an “expected” word with one that strikes them as more genteel. And they’ll do this without ever bothering to look the word up in a dictionary.

In the old days, this psychological impulse probably didn’t have a great effect on the language. But in an age of mass communications — when millions of people can be simultaneously exposed to a barbarous error in speech — the effect can be almost immediate. One speaker’s carelessness with the language spreads as never before.

And because writing follows speech — as it must — these confusions, over time, get embedded in the language. The dictionaries record that “infer” sometimes means “imply”; that “precipitous” sometimes means “precipitate” (adj.); and that “regretfully” sometimes means “regrettably.” It’s the lexicographer’s duty to record what’s happening in the language; if various words are in flux, then the dictionaries will reflect it.

That’s where a good dictionary of usage comes in: it helps people understand which words are worth continuing the struggle to preserve in their traditional senses; which words are all but lost in the short term (skunked terms); and which words, though once confused, have undergone semantic changes that can’t be objected to any longer. In any given age, various sets of words belong at different places on that continuum.

Rarely do the preservationists — the ones who want to keep traditional distinctions — prevail. Sometimes they do; more often they don’t. But that doesn’t mean the struggle is in vain. To the contrary: it means that these speakers and writers will be better equipped, among their contemporaries, to avoid stumbling and thrashing about in the language. Among astute listeners and readers, they’ll have a higher degree of credibility. There’s much to be said for that.

For information about the Language-Change Index click here.
Quotation of the Day: “Sometimes one is struck by the way in which a word one has known all one’s life suddenly takes on a new meaning.” B.L.K. Henderson, Chats About Our Mother Tongue 79 (1927).

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Word Patronage.

Word Patronage.

Word patronage is “the tendency to take out one’s words and look at them, to apologize for expressions that either need no apology or should be quietly refrained from” (Modern English Usage, 1st ed. at 733). A flourishing example today is “no pun intended.” But others are ready at hand as well — e.g.: “Hopefully — to use an ugly word — the dilemma will be solved by the proposed legislation.” In his preface to MEU’s second edition, Ernest Gowers indulged mildly in word patronage when he wrote: “This was indeed an epoch-making book in the strict sense of that overworked phrase” (p. iii). The tendency is not at all uncommon:

o “The Bloomsberries were also relentlessly elitist, in the true sense of that much-misused word.” “Time to Decry Woolf and All Her Bloomsbury Snobs,” Daily Telegraph, 14 Sept. 1995, at 14.

o “Ruth is meant to go through changes that give her some hint of — pardon this ghastly word — empowerment.” Liz Braun, “Ruth Walks Line Between Laughter and Tragedy,” Toronto Sun, 7 Feb. 1997, at 57.

o “In future, I’ll explore alternative officing (don’t you hate all the new words?) with an open mind.” Lynette Evans, “Alternative Officing or How to Live Without People,” S.F. Examiner, 3 Sept. 1997, Habitat §, at 1.

o “It is, to use a term now in vogue in feminist art discourse, a deeply gendered object, but it isn’t feminist at all.” Paul Richard, “Homer’s Debut on Display in D.C.,” Portland Press Herald, 7 Sept. 1997, at G1.

For information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “Fiction is nothing less than the subtlest instrument for self-examination and self-display that Mankind has invented yet.” John Updike, “The Importance of Fiction,” in Odd Jobs: Essays and Criticism 86 (1991).

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LawProse Lesson #172: What’s new in the third edition of “The Winning Brief”?

What’s new in the third edition of The Winning Brief?

Answer: Hot off the presses, the 775-page third edition contains nine new sections. This new material includes tips on understanding judges’ reading habits, answering opponents’ arguments, writing effective reply briefs, using authorities persuasively, and organizing arguments based on statutes and contracts.

The book also contains what Bryan Garner believes to be the best appellate brief ever written—coauthored by a third-year associate and a junior partner in a pro bono case. It’s the new Appendix C in the book, and everything in it is first rate: the table of contents, the issue statement, the introduction, the methodically researched body of the brief, and the conclusion. Every lawyer—no matter how experienced—can learn from it.

Speaking of tables of contents, Garner reproduces more than a dozen models from exemplary briefs to demonstrate how a good argument progresses from syllogistic presentation to demolition of opposing points. You’ll find insights here that are nowhere else as fully developed.

To see Garner’s live presentation of The Winning Brief, register here.

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: wont.


Although Samuel Johnson reported in 1755 that this word had slipped from use, it hangs on today as a slightly whimsical way of expressing customary behavior. It is used almost exclusively as a predicate adjective {as he is wont to} or as a noun {as is her wont}, although other forms do exist. The dominant pronunciations are /wahnt/ and /wawnt/, although /wohnt/ and /wuhnt/ are also accepted. Probably because it is usually a homophone for “want,” and because its meaning intertwines with that simpler term (one who is wont to do something generally wants to do it), it is occasionally misspelled “want” — e.g.:

o “Montgomerie had been the target of catcalls from American fans all week. As is his want [read 'wont'], he exacerbated the situation by letting the fans know how much they irritated him.” Paul Kenyon, “Death Deals Golf a Cruel Blow,” Providence J.-Bull., 26 Oct. 1999, at D1.

o “He was skinny all his life. But, as a body is want [read 'wont'] to do, it’s acquired an extra pound, or two or three, in its sunset years.” Lisa Gutierrez, “Shawnee ‘Santa’ Hands Out Toys, Hands Down Art,” Kansas City Star, 13 Dec. 2000, at F1.

The adjective “wonted” (= habitual), which invariably appears before the noun that it modifies {his wonted practice}, is archaic and literary. But it sometimes appears in popular writing — e.g.:

o “A few glancing high notes aside, she brought zest to ‘Endless Pleasure’ and lent ‘O sleep, why dost thou leave me?’ its wonted aura of lazy sensuality.” Allan Ulrich, “Scintillating ‘Semele,’” S.F. Chron., 2 Nov. 2000, at B1.

o “He has also claimed to have farmed out complaints to inattentive helpers — an act at variance with his wonted heavy hands-on approach to his pastoral duties.” Editorial, “Why Is Cardinal Law Still in Office?” Wash. Post, 23 June 2002, at B7.

Language-Change Index — “want” misused for “wont”: Stage 1.

For information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “Nothing reveals fuzzy thinking as effectively as making yourself write out the thesis for the paper in a single sentence.” Elizabeth McMahan, A Crash Course in Composition 6 (2d ed. 1977).

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Garner’s Usage Tip of the Day: Miscellaneous Entries.

Miscellaneous Entries.

workers’ compensation; workmen’s compensation. These words contain a plural possessive, hence “workers’” and “workmen’s” — not “worker’s” and “workman’s.” “Workers’ compensation” now predominates, doubtless because of a sensitivity to the sexism of the other. Another erroneous form is *”workers compensation.”

workforce; workload. Each is one word.

working. Radio announcers throughout the Southwest commonly say that an accident is “working” at (say) Walnut Hill and Preston Road. What they apparently mean is that a police officer or an emergency crew is at the scene and working to clear the way. The usage seems to have originated in police jargon.

working class denotes “the class of people who work for wages to earn a living.” The term usually refers to manual laborers and is often used pejoratively. But even doctors, lawyers, and the like work for a living. So where does the phrase come from? Originally, “working class” was used in contrast to “leisure class” — people who, because of their independent means, can while away their time. But the leisure class is now virtually nonexistent. And although “working class” doesn’t make much literal sense anymore, it’s probably here to stay as a close synonym for “proletariat.”

workout, n.; work out, v.i. & v.t. Although the noun is one word {a good workout}, the verb should be two — e.g.: “The Longhorns will workout [read 'work out'] once today, at 4:35 p.m.” “Extra Points,” Austin Am.-Statesman, 22 Aug. 1995, at C3.

workplace; worksite; workstation. Each is one word.

*Invariably inferior form.

For information about the Language-Change Index click here.

Quotation of the Day: “This is the usual destiny of euphemisms; in order to avoid the real name of what is thought indecent or improper people use some innocent word. But when that becomes habitual in this sense it becomes just as objectionable as the word it has ousted and now is rejected in its turn.” Otto Jespersen, Growth and Structure of the English Language 258 (9th ed. 1938).

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