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Dallas’ Bryan Garner is the Leading Lexicographer of our Time

Now, as the founder of LawProse, he offers language seminars for lawyers to try and take the legalese out of legal writing.
By Paul Kix |
photography by Matt Hawthorne

Years before he was the world’s highest-paid writing instructor and arguably the greatest living lexicographer, Bryan Garner was a golfer. He grew up in the Panhandle, just outside Amarillo and traveled the state picking up junior titles, beating on occasion future pros like Blaine McAllister. His instructor was the great Harvey Penick, who took a shine to the boy as he did his other top students, Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite. Garner was just as special. When he was 12 years old, he won 10 of the 13 junior tournaments he entered—and finished second in the others. A year later, he won 16 of 22 tournaments; he again finished second in the rest.

But in high school a girl he liked told Garner he had an impressive vocabulary, and, wanting to impress her further, he took to reading the dictionary. Then a strange thing happened. Two days later, he no longer cared about the girl. Soon he no longer cared as much about golf. With each page of the dictionary, a little more of a secret world was revealed—a word’s definition, its pronunciation, its root, its synonyms and antonyms, its proper usage in a sentence. That’s when Garner brought out the note cards. He wanted to know—really know—these words, so he copied them down and began a filing system. One day his brother Brad, two years older and just as accomplished a golfer, knocked on Garner’s bedroom door and found his brother peering at a copy of Webster’s Second Edition.

“Bryan, let’s go play golf.”

“Nah, I’m reading the dictionary.”

Brad was floored. “C’mon. What’s ever going to come of that?”

Studying dictionaries would lead Garner to study the broader language, to study usage experts like William Strunk and E.B. White and the granddaddy of them all, Henry Fowler. With time, Garner would supplant Fowler as the usage authority in the English-speaking world. He would write his own dictionaries and edit the world’s leading legal dictionary. A lawyer by trade, Garner would teach other lawyers how to write better, inventing a professional field and making millions in the process. He would write 18 books and be called a “rhetorical genius” by no less a certified genius than David Foster Wallace.

He would, in short, help shape the very language that first fascinated him.

Garner comes from a line of intellectually curious people. His grandfather Meade F. Griffin served as a justice on the Texas Supreme Court for 20 years. Garner’s father, Gary, was a music professor at West Texas State (now West Texas A&M) in Canyon, Texas, where he grew up. His mother, Mariellen, was a teacher until the three boys came along. His parents were sticklers for good grammar, Gary in particular, but that corrective nature never hindered learning. If anything, the Garner household thrived on competition. When he was 9, Bryan developed a fascination for dinosaurs. One night, driving home from campus, his father told him, “I bet you can’t name 25 dinosaurs before we get home.” And so it began: T-rex and stegosaurus, brachiosaurus and pterodactyl. On and on, until Garner got to 24—and then silence. And now their driveway was approaching. And now they were pulling in.

“Ramphorhyncus!” Garner shouted.

No way is that a dinosaur, his father thought. But there it was, in a book on dinosaurs that Garner loved. Ramphorhyncus: similar to a pterodactyl but with a pointed tale.

“Our parents are really at the core of all the success we’ve seen,” says younger brother Blair, a country music disc jockey in Los Angeles with a show, After Midnight, that’s syndicated in 252 markets. (Brad plays flute in the Cincinnati Conservatory and teaches in Manhattan at the Juilliard School.) The boys were good students but Garner was never a great one. Only in subjects that interested him did he come alive. During Garner’s golf phase, even more impressive than the trophies he won were the golf tips he organized. He had received a gift of about 100 golf magazines from a colleague of his father’s and a subscription to Golf Digest, and soon his room filled with folders that contained articles on chip shots, sand shots, approach shots, trouble shots, driving, putting, everything. “I guess it was an early manifestation of what I do today: wanting to take information and organize it in a very retrievable way,” Garner says.

He attended the University of Texas and was a Plan II student with an emphasis in English. By the time he graduated, he had published a piece on Shakespeare’s neologisms in a journal normally reserved for veteran scholars. It took roughly 3,000 hours of research over two years. As his essay went to press, though, Garner found an article that had just come out on the same subject. His only consolation was that it had taken an entire team of German scholars to preempt him.

He decided to go to law school because law, at its root, is a profession of words. When they are expressed persuasively, they win cases. “By that time, I had pretty much committed to memory everything in Fowler’s Modern English Usage, everything in Follett’s Modern American Usage. Fowler, Bernstein, Partridge, and Follett—these four—by the time I was in law school, I pretty much knew every position that each of those writers took on every word,” Garner says. “And I found that lawyers were seemingly unaware of the important distinctions in English usage.”

So Garner grabbed 3-by-5 note cards and began, in secret, amassing a new dictionary, one for legal terms and their usages. When he finally told his law professors about it, they thought it was a terrible idea. When he finished the manuscript upon graduation, 23 publishers rejected it, saying that if the book were so great, it would already exist. In 1984, while clerking for Fifth Circuit Court Judge Thomas Reavley, who served with Garner’s grandfather on the Texas Supreme Court, Garner heard from the publishing house Little, Brown. It offered him a $5,000 advance to publish his dictionary, $2,500 more than any such dictionary had ever received.

“I told Bryan, ‘This is fantastic,’ ” Reavley says. A law clerk about to publish a legal dictionary? Reavley had never seen such ambition. “And Bryan told me, ‘Well, I don’t know if it’d be good to go with this publisher. I think I’ll hold out for Oxford.’ ” Reavley thought he was nuts.

But that day, Garner heard from Oxford University Press. It, too, was interested, and a bidding war ensued. Oxford ultimately gave the 24-year-old law clerk in Texas a $15,000 advance. A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage was published in 1987.

By this point, Garner was an associate at the Dallas law firm Carrington, Coleman, Sloman & Blumenthal. Given his interests, the work wasn’t fulfilling. U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn, then an associate at Carrington, Coleman, remembers how much Garner cared about word choices and how careful he was when writing briefs. “He and I were working together, and he was so hung up on whether something I was doing should be a semicolon or a comma,” Lynn says. “I just finally said, ‘Look. Whatever you say, Bryan, I’ll go along with.’ ” Garner puts it this way: “My own genuine preference for writing and teaching made the daily practice of law less attractive.”

In 1988, on the strength of his dictionary’s publication, he accepted a job as an adjunct professor with the University of Texas School of Law. He was to write a historical law dictionary, but the National Endowment for the Humanities withdrew its support and the project died, four months before Garner’s two-year appointment at the law school concluded. This left him with a difficult decision. Should he return to law, a practice he didn’t much enjoy? Should he stick it out in academia and deal with campus politics? “I decided I didn’t want my fate to be in the hands of one law school dean or one senior partner,” Garner says. “I decided it would be better to spread the risk and put it into the hands of the entire American Bar.”

What garner really wanted was to teach lawyers to write better. These people, per word, were the highest-paid professional writers, and yet their briefs and opinions read like “gobbledygook” as Garner liked to say, brimming with antiquated and pretentious language, tortured if not incomprehensible sentence structures, poor punctuation, and a tendency to obfuscate the point when clarity was needed. Garner would change that, one seminar at a time.

In 1990 he founded LawProse in Dallas. Its proposition was simple: it would teach lawyers, through all-day seminars and edited briefs, a better, clearer, simpler way to communicate. Every lawyer could benefit from this, Garner was sure. Still, he was creating a professional field that didn’t exist, one whose potential clients were highly educated, and knew it, and may not enjoy the pedantic grammar lessons from some failed two-year associate in Dallas. Garner had friends who told him if LawProse didn’t work out, in the wake of his flop with the NEH project, he’d be viewed as damaged goods by many in the legal community. And Garner now had a wife and daughter to support. “It was a scary time,” Garner says. Nevertheless, with the help of a couple English professors at UT, Garner did 15 seminars in 1990. Fifty in 1991. And 100 by 1992. It was revolutionary stuff: don’t state why you should win your case at the end of a motion or brief. State it at the beginning, much as a journalist writes the most important information first, and then use the rest of the argument to support your claim. Short sentences. Make every word tell. Simple language creates the most powerful message.

By the mid-’90s LawProse was wildly profitable. (This year he’ll do 147 seminars, with roughly 50 lawyers at each, paying $345 a head.) The money allowed Garner to concentrate on his writing. His prolificacy astounds. Eighteen books to date, all published in the last 20 years: books on legal writing, oral arguments, books that he edits, including Black’s Law Dictionary, the international authority on legal terms. And beautiful, often evocative writing, too. This from the Elements of Legal Style, arguing that footnotes are often superfluous:

“Numerosity is one thing. Purpose is another. If you use footnotes to say ‘On the other hand’ at every turn, you create flabby prose. If you develop every byway of the argument in substantive footnotes—that is, footnotes that contain further discussion of an issue—you diffuse the analysis. If a point merits lengthy development, then develop it in the text, not in the netherworld of footnotes.”

And then there is his opus, A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. Published in 1998 at 879 pages, it is Garner’s take on language, meant to supplant Henry Fowler, perhaps the greatest lexicographer of all time. It received wide praise. The novelist David Foster Wallace, in a 19,000-word essay in Harper’s, called Garner a genius. Wallace argued that in a time of evolving language and uncertain rules, Garner provides clear answers, never tainted by the politics of one’s time, nor burdened by the snide pretensions of a less confident man. Garner is here to help you, Wallace says. The book today, in its second edition, is called simply Garner’s Modern American Usage. “They’re making him the Fowler of our time,” Wallace says.

When not traveling these days, Garner sometimes hosts Shakespeare parties, where he’ll gather acquaintances, some of whom don’t know each other, and have them all read a part in, say, Julius Caesar. “Only Bryan could pull that off,” says Herb Hammond, an intellectual property lawyer at Thompson & Knight and a former participant in Shakespeare night. Garner constantly buys old books, and his library, before he and his wife divorced in October, stood two stories tall. Then there are the interviews he conducts on language. Garner videotapes interviews with literary figures—David Foster Wallace and theater critic John Simon (who was a best man at Garner’s wedding)—and he has talked with eight of the nine Supreme Court Justices. He incorporates snippets of the interviews into his seminars.

A few years ago, he had a tough time convincing Justice Antonin Scalia to sit for an interview. Scalia would only agree to breakfast. So Garner flew to Washington, D.C., and, while eating at the Four Seasons, listened patiently as Scalia raved about an essay he’d read in Harper’s on usage. Scalia couldn’t place the essayist’s name.

“Was it David Foster Wallace?” Garner asked.

“Yes,” Scalia said.

“Sir, that essay is a review of my book.”

Scalia was speechless. He consented to an interview, and Garner is now co-authoring a book with Scalia to be published sometime next summer.

All well and good, but there’s a trade-off: Garner now only shoots in the mid-80s.

Paul Kix, a former associate editor for D Magazine, is a senior editor for Boston Magazine. Write to [email protected].

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