If you’re a writer or editor you likely already regard Garner’s Modern English Usage as an indispensable guide. First published in 1998, the work (famously celebrated by David Foster Wallace) covers everything from proper usage and pronunciation to helping writers be more precise and economical with their words. Late last year, Oxford University Press published author Bryan A. Garner's fifth edition, which includes more than 1,000 new entries in addition to addressing vital new trends, such as an up-to-date discussion of gender-neutral language. PW recently caught up with Garner to talk about the new edition and his lifelong fascination with the English language.

How does one become such an authority in English usage? Are you motivated by a love of the language, or, are you just super annoyed with people who misuse it? Talk a little about what started you on this road and what keeps you traveling down it?

I find the English language endlessly fascinating, particularly how to use it most effectively in business, law, literature, and so on. I care a great deal about the enduring aspects of language—not the newest slang. In a way, that differentiates me from most lexicographers, who seem eager to record and write about the newest lingo or the most voguish slang. I don’t mean to discount what they do, but that isn’t my gig.

What started it all for me? When I was 15 a girl I much admired told me with a twinkle in her eye that I had a big vocabulary. That motivated me to an extreme degree. I resolved then and there to improve my grasp of useful words, mostly literary and “intellectual” words that I found interesting—which I did by recording 30 per day in a notebook. At first I was finding intermediate words like abscond, and denouement. But soon I had graduated to more difficult words like chthonic, which means infernal, and psilanthropism, which is the belief that Jesus was a mortal man rather than a deity.

Then, one year, while on a ski trip to New Mexico, I discovered Eric Partridge’s Usage and Abusage, which kept referring to a certain work by H.W. Fowler—A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Instead of skiing, I stayed in the lodge and read all of Partridge. By the age of 17, I had committed to memory most of his book, as well as Fowler’s. I liked them far better than novels and short stories. Soon I discovered their American counterparts, Theodore Bernstein's The Careful Writer, and Wilson Follett's Modern American Usage.

Mind you, this was all a rather closeted endeavor. I grew up in the Texas Panhandle and the last thing I wanted to do was parade my newfound knowledge. So, when David Foster Wallace speculated in his essay about my book that somebody like me must have been “savagely and repeatedly wedgied” as a teenager, he was entirely wrong. It was a good line, I confess, and I’ve gotten lots of mileage out of it. But I was sensible enough not to talk with my friends about whether the preferred spelling is apothegm or apophthegm.

Give us a sense of some of the larger trends in modern English you cover in the new edition?

There’s so much new material: the singular uses of they, race-related terminology, prejudiced and prejudicial terms, controversies relating to “wokism,” and so on. In those ways, the language has changed a great deal since the fourth edition was published in 2016, and these subjects required extensive essays.

But more than that, I also read two full collegiate dictionaries to pinpoint additional terms I wanted to research and write about, well over 1,000. And the standard of inclusion for me is one that not everyone intuitively understands. For me, a term must have some problem associated with it—variant spellings, competing pronunciations, a new sense that might cause uncertainty, for example. I believe a usage book should record only words that cause competent users of the language to pause about whether a given phrasing comports with the literary standard. So I follow the lead of my favorite predecessors—Fowler, Partridge, and Bernstein—and I don’t discuss words unless they have some attendant problem. And I actually have an advantage over them: big data. I’m able to evaluate vast amounts of linguistic data to which they didn’t have access. That’s quite fun, and often surprising.

Words have always mattered, of course, but things have certainly intensified in recent years. How important has the most recent social and racial justice awakening been in terms of language and usage?

Exceedingly important. Progressive campaigns seek to influence linguistic behavior and they’ve been succeeding to a remarkable degree in recent years. And they’re very prescriptive in their approach. I’ve added entirely new essays on "Prejudiced and Prejudicial Terms” and "Race-Related Terms." And it’s interesting how what was considered enlightened in one generation can be bigoted in the next, and vice versa. For example, person of color was once used in very unfavorable ways; now it’s a respectful phrase.

What’s challenging is to write about these subjects as a kind of omniscient narrator—in such a way as not to seem partisan. David Foster Wallace once generously commented that my entries are 'knowledgeable, reasonable, dispassionate, fair.' And that’s exactly what I’m aiming for, to be the voice of reason. It isn’t easy, and I’m sure I don’t always measure up. But I don’t see anyone else really trying to fill that role for the full gamut of Standard English.

David Foster Wallace once generously commented that my entries are 'knowledgeable, reasonable, dispassionate, fair.' And that’s exactly what I’m aiming for, to be the voice of reason.

Can you give us a few examples of some of the more surprising evolutions captured in this volume?

Sure. One that won’t surprise anyone is that email is now overwhelmingly solidified.

It might surprise some usage aficionados that overly and run the gauntlet, both of which were formerly disapproved of, have now become fully acceptable to such a degree that anyone who opposes them is eccentrically pedantic.

Hopefully hasn’t fully lost the bad odor it acquired in the 1960s and 1970s, but it has only a very faint odor today.

Dove and snuck are now standard as past-tense forms.

The pronoun they is unobjectionable as a singular in certain circumstances. But this use of they is complicated, and it takes nearly three pages to explain the history and the nuances.

Technology has always had a major impact on the language, but this impact must be accelerating with social media and emojis and abbreviated words and texting and so on. How do you distinguish between things that are just passing usages vs. usages that might stick?

I’ve produced new editions every five or six years because I forswear fleeting slang. I simply don’t worry about predicting what might stick. I won’t write about a wording unless it arguably gets upgraded to Standard English.

As a hack writer, help me, please. Can you give me and my fellow deadline reporters a tip or two for better distinguishing when we are truly writing with style and using the language inventively vs. just, you know, being a hack?

You’re no hack, come on. But if I take your question seriously, there’s no easy answer. I’d recommend two things. First, attentively read and absorb serious, professionally edited prose every day so that you get a feel for the language. Second, become an aficionado of first-rate usage guides. I did that when I was young, just as I was starting to read serious, professionally edited prose every day, and as I was writing.

Doing either of those two things, you’ll quickly recognize that every day as two words is adverbial—I go there every day—and everyday is adjectival—life’s everyday difficulties. You’ll discover that log in is a verb, a phrasal verb, to be exact, and login is either a noun or an adjective. You’ll be pleased when you see these and thousands of other nuances observed, and you’ll be at least mildly bothered when they aren’t. And you’ll be more careful to observe them yourself.

I’m sure you’re already well into the next edition. Can you share what’s on your radar for the Sixth Edition?

So many things. I’m curious to learn more about the widespread problems relating to pronouns. I’ll be watching to see whether the nominative pronoun “I” continues its march toward acceptability as an object when paired with a preceding noun: There are plans for Joan and I to perform onstage. And I’m curious to see whether me becomes acceptable as a subject when paired with another noun: Me and my buddies are going to the theater.

I’m also curious to see whether there is or there’s becomes acceptable with a plural complement: There’s many reasons.

I’m curious about whether the singular-sense they is limited to popular discourse, as opposed to statutes in which confusion might result about whether one or more people are being referred to.

And I’m curious to find out whether nonplussed, which traditionally has meant “confused” continues on its juggernaut path toward meaning “unfazed.”

These just are a few of the thousands of things I’m alert to. And none of this stuff nonplusses me, I have to say. In a weird way, I rejoice when I discover misusages I’ve never heard before. In that sense, Garner's is a kind of coping mechanism. I don’t have pet peeves, which are for linguistic amateurs. I’m glad other people do, but I progressed beyond that many decades ago. I like to observe. I’m certainly not gratified by many linguistic changes but I don’t get distressed about them either. They give me more opportunities for research and writing.