Book Briefs: The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation

by Brandon A. Bullard

In high school, I had a friend who ravaged computer manuals. During lunch, on break, between classes, often in class, we would find my friend deep in the folds of Fortran, Python, C, C++, Java, or a world of others. Wrapped and enrapt in those technical manuals, my friend bathed in the algorithms and drank down the syntax of every computer language then in use. My friend now owns an embarrassingly successful software company, while my calls to the IT department are downright embarrassing.

The moral is that if you want to use any tool well— especially a complex one—you will immerse yourself in its fundamentals. You will read its instruction manuals. And if your tool is the English language—as it is for all lawyers in English-speaking jurisdictions—your instruction manual is the subject of this review: The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation by Bryan A. Garner.

Legal readers and writers, certainly the readers of this newsletter, have more than a passing familiarity with Bryan Garner. Indeed, as the Editor in Chief of Black’s Law Dictionary; a regular contributor to the ABA Journal; an adviser to the Green Bag; the President of LawProse Inc.; the author of such books as The Winning Brief, The Elements of Legal Style, and Garner’s Dictionary of Legal Usage; and the coauthor with the late Justice Antonin Scalia of Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges and Reading Law: The Interpretation of Legal Texts, Garner figures in far more conversations about legal writing than not. His battle with the judicial establishment over the ideal placement of legal citations (in-text versus footnotes) is the stuff of Twitter legend. What is to be said, though, of his latest book?

Garner’s Chicago Guide is what it purports to be: a manual for the English language. Dry and boring, right? Astoundingly no. The Chicago Guide is a masterwork—stunningly clear, complete, and engaging. Its nearly 600 pages (counting glossary, bibliography, notes, index, and pronunciation guide) cover every concept in grammar, usage, and punctuation. The tome begins with a short introduction to grammar, its history, and its importance. From there, it charges forward from the traditional parts of speech; through syntax, sentence diagrams, transformational grammar, and usage; right up to punctuation. Reading it front to back was transformative. I revisited old concepts, terms I had not thought about since grade school, and appreciated them again for the first time. Even concepts that I thought I knew well revealed themselves in tokens plainer than they ever had before. And I gleaned just a fraction of what the Guide had to offer me.

The Chicago Guide belongs on the desk of every lawyer, every writer, every serious user of the language. I hear your objection. You are a skilled writer. You know how to use the language. You don’t need a 600-page exegesis of grammar fundamentals. Overruled. Even if The Chicago Guide were only about the fundamentals (it isn’t), you are never better than the basics. Michael Jordan practiced free throws every day for a reason.

None of this is to suggest that The Chicago Guide is perfect. It has weaknesses. The section on usage, for instance, is under-inclusive. While it resolves many common usage concerns—e.g. whether “alongside” takes a preposition (it doesn’t), the best usage of “decimate” (destroying a large part but not all of something), the difference between “include” and “comprise” (“include” is nonexclusive), and the correct meaning of “refute” (to disprove, not merely to deny or rebut)—the usage section is not a one-stop shop for all such issues. For that Garner would refer you to his Modern English Usage.

Another weakness is the section on transformational grammar, an approach for divining the rules of language by analyzing how it is actually used. This part of The Chicago Guide is too short. Garner concedes this point, of course.

Entire books are devoted to deriving rules from sentences of increasing complexity and attempting to explain sentences that deviate from previously derived rules. This section [on transformational grammar] will focus on the established transformational-grammar rules for simple sentences.

Though it has been maligned by some, transformational grammar is useful in many circumstances and interesting. I would have liked to have had some more of it. Those weaknesses aside, however, The Chicago Guide is excellent. If there is a better book of its type on the market, I cannot imagine what it could be. Buy it. Buy it now. Keep it close at hand whenever you put pen to paper or fingertips to keyboard. You will thank me.

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Brandon Bullard is the executive staff attorney for the Georgia Public Defender Council.

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