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.

Why a rap forum on word usage anyway? The answer is that we're at a loss for words. This should give us pause. A glance into a few classrooms will reveal that many English teachers aren't teaching English anymore, but something far more lax, an amalgam we might call "cultural-consciousness-through-words." The rigors of grammar, along with activities like counting iambic feet and memorizing august passages from literature written before 1965, have been left behind. While some teachers still impose high penalties on students who talk and write like dolts, such teachers are a besieged platoon fighting a rearguard action. And unlike most teachers of decades past, the new recruits don't handle their weapons very well.

Then again we shouldn't dump too much on lame schools. A fairer explanation of our verbal ineptitude in an age of striking practical feats must be the cheapness of our reading. We've reached a stage in our cultural devolution where newspapers count as literature. Try as we might to allay or overturn the effects of a lifetime of formulaic, pap reading, we can't easily pry open an atrophied ear. We can't write -- or recognize -- lilting cadences or well-placed words because we don't often read or hear them. One suspects that many of the sensible queries made by Wallraff's readers wouldn't have been brought eighty years ago, not because readers were more intelligent, but because those who read books read better books than we do. Back then, readers knew in their bones that, for example, mixing pronoun numbers -- Each plaintiff filed their briefs -- calls the writer's care into question. We of course need to look up such things.

Wallraff handles delicately a few contemporary hornets' nests Fowler knew nothing about. What, for instance, about current fashions in usage, especially those touching upon gender? Here we need fine judgment, and Wallraff provides it with no posturing, and she's usually to be found on the side of good sense. Still, we can quibble. Chairperson she considers "harmless enough," and perhaps it is, but it's also clunky, and chairman no longer calls up an exclusively male picture. Most "-- person" constructions aren't necessary at all, and they're almost always ugly. (Congressperson is even worse; we can hear the stilts creaking under the weight.) But no matter. Wallraff makes us ponder much that we deemed either instinctive or beyond our mental grasp. Whether or not there's a "language instinct," as some claim, there's certainly no instinct for good language -- that is, language that can be, in the right hands, clear, complex, exuberant, and subtle. Good language, like the cello, is learned.

Whenever we peruse books about English usage, we get the sense that the world of word lovers is divided between Apollonians and Dionysians, Guelfs and Ghibellines, Republicans and Democrats, gentlemen and cads. Few dispute that judgment calls must be made, but some are apt to apply stricter rules than others. Aficionados of the English language are rarely bipartisan.

But some are. Or at least they try to get along. We won't find Bill Walsh, a senior copy editor at the Washington Post, laying down Draconian laws, nor yawning over quotidian details. He simply takes us by the scruff of the neck and guides us through the fundamentals -- again, teaching us the tricks that used to come free of charge in public schools. He's not out so much to make us stylists as to prevent us from looking like idiots. Adopting chic contemporary parlance, we could call his thoroughly delightful Lapsing into a Comma a user-friendly book (neither author, by the way, puts paid to that little monstrosity of an adjective). He designed his usage manual, he writes, "for all writers and copy editors," which isn't so tiny a group, for "in a way all literate people are copy editors, whether they be writers rewriting their own work or simply avid readers noticing a typo on a cereal box."

Walsh tells us that he is on the side of neither those who follow time-honored rules nor those who let rip whatever occurs to them. Yet this isn't a dodge. Many of the old rules weren't old as rules go; they were conventions, the verbal fashions of the moment. Recognizing this fact, though, ought to make us more intelligently skeptical of today's fashions and the foul words they give rise to -- say, chairperson.

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.

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