A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

"Dazzled by so many and such marvelous inventions, the people of Macondo ... became indignant over the living images that the prosperous merchant Bruno Crespi projected in the theater with the lion-head ticket windows, for a character who had died and was buried in one film and for whose misfortune tears had been shed would reappear alive and transformed into an Arab in the next one. The audience, who had paid two cents apiece to share the difficulties of the actors, would not tolerate that outlandish fraud and they broke up the seats. The mayor, at the urging of Bruno Crespi, explained in a proclamation that the cinema was a machine of illusions that did not merit the emotional outbursts of the audience. With that discouraging explanation many ... decided not to return to the movies, considering that they already had too many troubles of their own to weep over the acted-out misfortunes of imaginary beings."
--Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Thursday, October 22, 2009

What I'm Reading

Ambrose Bierce's Write It Right: The Celebrated Cynic's Language Peeves Deciphered, Appraised, and Annotated for 21st-Century Readers, by Jan Freeman

As I've said before, I make it a policy not to review books by friends of mine, or even people I know. But that doesn't stop me from recommending, very highly, this delightfully annotated reprint of a usage guide published a century ago by Ambrose Bierce, perhaps best known today as the author of The Devil's Dictionary.

I met Jan Freeman -- oh, god, has it been thirty years ago? -- when I went to work for Inc. magazine, which was then located in Boston. We bonded quickly over our shared dismay at the editorial product we were ostensibly hired to make better. (Neither of us ever got much support at that.) What I learned pretty quickly was that Jan was a terrific editor and an immensely knowledgeable student of the English language. She was, for example, the first person to disabuse me of the notion that none always takes a singular verb.

Jan was not appreciated at Inc., and she took the earliest opportunity -- the birth of her daughter -- to get out of there. (I got booted out a year or so later.) She went to the Boston Globe, where she was an editor on the Sunday magazine, and now writes a weekly column, "The Word," for the newspaper. Her column is a delightfully unstuffy survey of the way people say things; it is grounded in a realization that some ways of saying things are better than others, but it's never snobbily prescriptive. It deserves all the attention and adulation that William Safire's language column for the New York Times Magazine used to get -- though actually it deserves them more.

Now Jan has published a book that is partly a reprint of Bierce's diatribes against what he saw as substandard diction and grammar, but is mostly a level-headed and revealing commentary on language cranks, past and present. As Jan points out in her introduction, the hunger for guidance on language had been whetted in the 18th century and was ravenous by the end of the 19th. The anxiety for correctness was particularly intense among the upwardly mobile of an America moving out of its frontier years. Slang, neologisms, and Americanisms were frowned upon, and "by the later 19th century many educated Americans worried that their native locutions were less refined than whatever the Brits were saying." So language snobs became gurus.

We're still anxious, of course. And we still have no lack of people willing to make pronouncements on the rightness and wrongness of what we write and say. But as Jan says, when she started writing her own usage column she "began to learn how many of the rules we take as gospel are actually quite recent, or are based on misunderstandings, or are simply the fossilized remains of a casual opinion delivered centuries ago." Bierce was a self-appointed language authority, who saw no harm in ratifying his prejudices into law. But "the most striking fact about Write It Right is how many of its 441 cautions are obsolete. ... And nobody is campaigning to bring back the good old days when fix was a slovenly word, reliable was ill-formed, and pants was vulgar. ... Could it be that by the year 2109, most Americans will feel just as distant from our current quarrels over decimate, epicenter, and enormity? Of course it could."

Still, Jan has a lot of fun exposing how obsolete Bierce's cautions are. Take that slovenly fix, for example. (Bierce's proscriptions are boldface, Jan's comments on them lightface.)
Fix. This is, in America, a word-of-all-work, most frequently meaning repair, or prepare. Do not so use it.

... This is just loony. As MWDEU [Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1994)] points out, fix has fewer different senses than take, set, do, or run, and nobody calls these words slatternly. Fix for "repair" or "prepare" (a meal, a drink) dates to the 1760s; the OED's first example is "A number of hands came to fix our whale-boats." The verb may never be elegant, but it is standard American, and it's spreading. These days even British newspapers occasionally refer to "fixing" a BMW or the world economy.

Sometimes Bierce is the only person who has ever been known to object to a usage.
Even for Exact. "An even dozen."

The idiom "even dozen" is the relic of a use of even -- to denote round, rather than fractional, numbers -- that dates to the 17th century; Bierce is apparently the only critic who considers it a misuse. "Even dozen" may have survived because it contrasts with the still earlier "baker's dozen," or maybe just because we like the sound of it. As for the mild redundancy, peevologists need to learn that in language, that's a feature, not a bug.

Sometimes one supposed abuse has taken the place of another.
Graduated for Was Graduated.

The verb to graduate was in transition a century ago; the older passive, "Joe was graduated from college," was being supplanted by "Joe graduated from college." ("To graduate college," without the preposition, was not yet on the horizon.) ... [But] the Biercian orthodoxy was stoutly defended into the 1980s. And then, of course, along came "Joe graduated college" to scandalize traditionalists. The goalposts have moved, but the contest goes on.

Bierce usually tries to find a reason for his prejudices, and frequently fails.
It for So. "Going into the lion's cage is dangerous; you should not do it." Do so is the better expression, as a rule, for the word it is a pronoun, meaning a thing, or object, and therefore incapable of being done. Colloquially we may say do it, or do this, or do that, but in serious written discourse greater precision is desirable, and is better obtained, in most cases, by the use of the adverb.

"Do so" is not really more precise than "do it," but it is more formal; it probably sounds even more elevated to contemporary Americans than it did to Bierce. There's a reason Nike didn't adopt the slogan "Just do so!"

A supermarket I go to in Palo Alto has a sign over its express lane: "Twelve items or fewer." This is the kind of thing Palo Altans will insist on. So did Bierce:
Less for Fewer. "The regiment had less than five hundred men." Less relates to quantity, fewer, to number.

Bierce, like many usage writers of his time and later, signs on to a "rule" that had not been enunciated (or observed) until the 18th century..... In fact, as MWDEU notes, less had been used of countables since King Alfred the Great did it in 888, writing (in Old English) "with less words or with more." But ... in the 20th century it became a serious shibboleth.
In practice, less is more often used than fewer when the number is thought of as a limit: A frying pan is "nine inches or less in diameter," for instance, because you aren't measuring in one-inch increments, just stating a maximum size. The same is true for Bierce's regiment: "Less than five hundred men," like "160 characters or less" for a text message, states an upper limit on a collection of countables; the countability isn't the point. It's a testament to our fondness for recreational nitpicking that so many of us think the less-vs.-fewer distinction is both rigid and important.

I could go on quoting, but you get the point. This is a book for anybody who is fascinated by language and what we do with it.

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