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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Some of us still use he as an impersonal pronoun, at least when we can get away with doing so; it's quick, elegant, and swerves around that pothole of he or she. But choices are usually abundant, and there's no need to cause undue offense. "The 'he or she' solution is fine," Walsh writes, "if you're dealing with one or maybe two pronoun conflicts, but if it sends you down an endless road of 'his or her' references, you might as well add a footnote apologizing to hermaphrodites." Just so. And as he does with other such obstructions, he provides clean rewrites: "A trader can place his or her orders" becomes "Traders can place their orders." It's good advice, as the pronoun police stand watch at every corner. This book is full of such simple and balanced rules of thumb. Walsh walks into another thicket when he blesses the old light and airy word "gay" as the mainstream word for homosexuals. Why? "It's here. It's queer. Get used to it." In other words, pick your battles.

Allow me to pick a skirmish with Walsh. Hopefully, he won't mind. Wait: Who's hoping? I am. Yet I'm nowhere to be found in that sentence; I'm just the mighty Oz pulling all the ropes and levers behind the curtain. The use of hopefully as a sentence modifier -- meaning "it is to be hoped that" -- marks a signature blooper for many of us who care about the state of the language. Walsh, adroit arbiter that he is, points out that this usage isn't so different from that of frankly in "Frankly, what you say isn't true." He's right, though that's clumsy as well. As the American Heritage Dictionary instructs us, while this hopefully can indeed be justified by analogy to other adverbs, "this usage is by now such a bugbear to traditionalists that it is best avoided on grounds of civility, if not logic." For her part, Wallraff says she stays away from this kind of disembodied hoping in her own writing. And Walsh does too, he admits, "if only to avoid the scorn of the misinformed legions." We're not misinformed, Mr. Walsh, just civilized.

That's a cheap shot, because Walsh is too. He belongs to a newer fraternity of authors on style and usage who, while being eminently helpful, also try to make their guidance palatable to the fearful by coaching with a sassy, quirky edge. His chapter titles are worth the price of the book. "You Could Look It Up!" is one, in which he demonstrates to adults the fine art of using a dictionary. (Don't laugh. Such an act could become as mysterious as a Masonic Rite before long.) Another chapter, called "Holding the (Virtual) Fort," delves depressingly into the chaos let loose by the Internet and the empty-headed word bandits it'll make of us all if no one is placed on patrol. Pay special attention to "Giving 110 Percent: Why You Needed All Those Math Classes After All." And his "Dash It All, Period: The Finer Points of Punctuation" doesn't lay out the finer points at all, just the basic ones, which need expounding a good deal more just now. This is a handbook on usage for those who don't like usage handbooks.

Both authors could have brought jargon, that miscreant extraordinaire, into the dock for more hectoring than they did. (Wallraff says a bit more about it.) For along with low schooling, jargon has made itself a bottomless fount of turgid verbiage, especially over the last fifty years or so when science has been enjoying high rewards. We don't so much learn it as take it in through our pores. Properly used, it's a shorthand to ease the work of specialists; improperly used, it escapes the confines of the office or laboratory and infects the language the rest of us use. Indeed, jargon can almost be scrutinized as a virus.

Sitting on an airplane recently, I heard a man ask a co-worker over the phone, "Can we access your input at the meeting next Thursday?" Slick, mechanistic metaphors may be inevitable in the age of the microchip, but that doesn't palliate or excuse their elemental crappiness. They drip with self-importance. The urge to use them ought to be stanched, unless we're joking. We think jargon makes us sound in the know, but to those with ears to hear, it reveals within us a dearth of confidence or a want of words. Or take this specimen from a memo -- a general memo not directed to a specialized crowd -- someone passed on to me: "At this point in time the paradigm shift extends beyond recognized parameters on a daily basis."

I'm not quite certain this bilge is even English, let alone prose. In fact, it's anti-prose: It militates against meaning. One sure way to recognize jargon -- other than by buzzwords -- is by the way it's built. That last sentence isn't so much an ordering of single, sovereign words as it is a grouping of word clusters -- "at this point in time," "paradigm shift," "recognized parameters," "on a daily basis." That's the way jargon works. It's a pretentious patchwork sewn together from a box of drab, predictable patterns, designed to convey some misty idea or picture, but mostly to grab our lapels with the writer's insight and profundity. It's a lazy habit, and one to which the clever are signally prone, especially if they've been to college. Vigilance is the only antidote.

Tracy Lee Simmons is director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin will be published this fall.