This is a guy, believe it or not, who as a child would sit in his room reading the dictionary while his buddies expanded their literary horizons with the comic book derring-do of Superman and Batman. More than one teacher back in his Canyon, Texas, school days lost an argument over the proper usage of a word to the young and precocious Bryan. Once, on a Boy Scout skiing trip, he discovered a book titled Usage and Abusage: A Guide to Good English and became so engrossed in it that he never made it to the slopes.
As a child, his booster seat at the dinner table was an edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary Second Edition that his grandfather, a Texas Supreme Court justice for 20 years, provided.
Even before he passed the bar exam after law school at the University of Texas, Garner was publishing his work in the same academic journals that featured papers written by his professors. He completed his first book, a dictionary of legal terms that was published by Oxford University Press, by the time he was a 26-year-old law clerk.
Thirty years later, the number of books he’s written has grown to 20, including two that he has co-authored with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (their Making Your Case: The Art of Persuading Judges received the 2009 Burton Award as the Book of the Year in Law), and his résumé reads like that of a linguistic Renaissance man. Besides writing, he serves as editor-in-chief of Black’s Law Dictionary, the bible of the legal profession. He annually conducts numerous seminars in the U.S., England, Australia and China for lawyers wanting to remove the legal gobbledygook from their briefs and writs. And he is recognized as the nation’s premier lexicographer, or “writer of dictionaries.” You can look it up.
He serves as a distinguished research professor of law at the Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law and is an avid book collector. Among the 35,000 volumes in his library are more than 4,000 dictionaries in languages that range from Chinese to Swahili. The oldest he has was written in Latin and published in 1491.
A visitor to Garner’s home can browse shelf after shelf of works by Shakespeare, Winston Churchill and lexicography pioneer Samuel Johnson; countless sets of law books and 1,000 other volumes on English grammar dating back to 1700. “Books,” Garner says, “are so intellectually substantial. There are certain kinds of scholarship that you can’t find on the Internet. You have to have books.”
His philosophy has evolved from a lifelong fascination with words, which from his early days trumped any aspiration to stand in front of a jury and litigate cases. Instead, he opened his Dallas-based LawProse Inc. in 1990 and began offering fellow lawyers a better way to communicate. He estimates he’s lectured to 155,000 attorneys and judges at his seminars. And his books on legal writing have become must-have tools of the trade. Writing in her foreword to Garner on Language and Writing, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg notes that the author’s books are always on her writing desk and are assigned reading for her law clerks.
“Word for word,” Garner says, “lawyers are the highest-paid writers in the world. But the literary tradition in the profession is probably the worst. As with any other form of prose, legal writing should be accessible to the masses.”
To make that happen has been his life’s goal.
His lofty credentials, of course, occasionally cause social problems. “Sometimes,” he admits, “people are a bit guarded, as if I’m going to be judgmental of how they use the language.
One of the most common things I hear from someone who has learned what I do is, ‘I’m really going to have to watch what I say.’ ”
Such caution, he says, is unnecessary. “I make mistakes myself.”
With all due respect, that’s a bit hard to believe.