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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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.