The Magazine

Writing Right

A pair of recent books get it wrong.

Feb 12, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 21 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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Word Court

by Barbara Wallraff

Harcourt Brace, 384 pp., $ 24


Lapsing into a Comma

A Curmudgeon's Guide to the Many Things That Can Go Wrong

by Bill Walsh Contemporary, 256 pp., $ 14.95

We Americans are inveterate self-improvers. But we're also a choosy lot. We prefer to hand-select our virtues, punching through some of the choices clearly and dimpling the rest. Take the words that tumble forth from our mouths, pens, and computer keyboards. Historian Jacques Barzun has reminded us that while hordes of the gym-toned, Starbucks-sipping set may "give up smoking to avoid cancer, diet to grow more shapely, work on their bad posture or memory, [and] take courses to better their minds or increase their charm," they're not apt "to overhaul their vocabulary and grammar, let alone improve the quality of the sounds they utter." Yet the words we use are part of the gingerly wrapped resume package we present to the world. They stamp us as certainly as does a cologne -- or bravado belching.

Teachers and other guardians of self-esteem have taught us to believe in our self-sufficiency. But somewhere deep within our spiked self-regard smolders an inkling that, despite all the college fees we've paid and books we've skimmed, we cannot speak or write much better now than we could in the eighth grade. We just know bigger, more expensive words.

Our suspicion isn't confined to home. Only with a magnifying glass can we set apart the educated from the uneducated stranger, as few people are conspicuously educated at all nowadays. We use, overuse, and misuse words like parameter and closure, probably the two sexiest words aloft today. Spicing our talk with them makes us feel a little smarter. (Never true? Consult your motives the next time they pass your lips.) But they really make us dimmer. Our scant, lumpish vocabularies echo the cheap pomp of technospeak, the slangy banter of TV sitcoms, and the throbbing dreck of pop music. But amidst the din, we find, some of us are trying to mark ourselves off from the dirty commoners. Democracy may be a corking good ideal, but somehow it isn't fetching in the mirror. So we shouldn't be surprised to find a small but insatiable market for books purporting to keep us on the high road of verbal decency.

Let's remember first, though, the groundbreakers in the field. The foremost guide is, of course, H. W. Fowler's Modern English Usage, without which civilization might have ended long ago. And Strunk and White's Elements of Style deserves its press. It offers brief, practical hints for achieving simplicity on a sheet of paper. If there's one book of this kind to post at your elbow as you write, this is the one. Its value as a pocket flank against the sacking of the modern mind is almost scriptural. Any writer who doesn't have this one isn't one. Marriage to these two books will keep us on trimmed, well-trodden paths.

But we must not ignore new handbooks for the verbally engaged or challenged. Barbara Wallraff, a senior editor at the Atlantic Monthly, has been doing the work of angels for years through "Word Court," her regular column where alleged sins of the word, mortal and venial alike, are brought to the bench for adjudication. Word Court assembles her more judicious opinions, and it stands neatly alongside Elements as an entertaining browse through garden-variety blunders we all make every day -- vague and improper pronouns, missing antecedents, hopefully, between you and I, et cetera: all those sticking points of grammar most of us would be hard pressed to explain. Within this book, we're told, "verbal virtue is rewarded, crimes against the language are punished, and poetic justice" gets meted out. Most of us would settle for a little prosaic justice, and here we get it, though it's tempered with mercy. We get a tour through the minefields of disagreement amongst her faithful and far-flung readers -- some seeking advice, others delivering encyclicals on the way things ought to be, all believing profoundly that the way we say things matters. It's not so much the quality of Wallraff's pronouncements that stays with us -- high as that is -- but her welcome and refreshing solicitousness.