In His Own Words
“I realized early—at the age of 15—that my primary intellectual interest was the use of the English language. The interest might be partly genetic. My grandfather, Frank Garner of Amarillo, had more than a passing interest in language. This was magnified three or four times in my father, Gary T. Garner of Canyon, a true language aficionado. And then, as my father tells it, his interest seemed to be magnified a hundredfold in me. It became an all-consuming passion.
“This passion has taken various forms at different times in my life. At 15 it consisted primarily in building my vocabulary. Then I discovered general semantics—the works of S.I. Hayakawa, Wendell Johnson, Stuart Chase, and Alfred Korzybski. Because I grew up in a university town—small though it was—these and other books were readily accessible. I read everything I could find on the subject.
“Then, on a wintry evening while visiting New Mexico at the age of 16, I discovered Eric Partridge‘s Usage and Abusage. I was enthralled. Never had I held a more exciting book. I spent hours reading his advice on the effective use of words and his essays on everything from Johnsonese to précis writing. He kept mentioning another author, by the name of Fowler, so when I got back to Texas I sought out Fowler’s Modern English Usage. And that book turned out to be even better.
“Suffice it to say that by the time I was 18, I had committed to memory most of Fowler, Partridge, and their successors: the Evanses, Bernstein, Follett, and Copperud. I knew where they differed, and I came to form opinions about whose positions were soundest on all sorts of questions. I knew the work of those writers then better than I do today. “College presented a wealth of opportunities. While at the University of Texas, I studied the history of the English language and the Latin and Greek element in English, as well as Latin and French.
“Though I never mastered Old English, I acquired a passing knowledge of the Middle English of Chaucer and Gower. Two summers at Oxford University—where I studied Chaucer and T.S. Eliot—deepened my appreciation of how language and literature intersect. It was at Oxford that I first got to know Robert W. Burchfield, the editor of the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary (then underway), and Christopher Ricks, one of the great modern literary critics.”
“While at Texas and Oxford, I attended many lectures by noted linguists who were dogmatically descriptive in their approach. The most bothersome thing to me was that they didn‘t write well: their offerings were dreary gruel. So I gravitated away from the Linguistics Department and toward English and Classics. My mentors were John W. Velz, a Shakespearean of the first rank, and Thomas Cable, whose history of the English language (with Albert Baugh) is a classic. So while I was still in college emboldened by Professor Velz’s assurances that my work was worthy of publication, I knew that I would one day write a book in my favorite genre: a dictionary of usage.”