Commentary Magazine

Why Madame Bovary Couldn't Make Love in the Concrete

Poor Madame Bovary, one understands and sympathizes with her condition. It is very awkward—if not so awkward as that of the freshman student at my university who, in a term paper, spotted the difficulty when he wrote: “Madame Bovary’s problem is that she cannot make love in the concrete.” How could he know that the word concrete is itself an abstraction, a by now quite stale metaphor, and one used in his unpracticed hand to hilarious effect? How could he know that for professors one of the few pleasures in grading student papers is that of writing zippy comments in the margins, and that he had set up his professor exquisitely? In his unconscious trope rendering Emma Bovary frigid in the concrete, the possibilities he provided for marginal comment—and comedy—were not practically but altogether boundless. Only the greatest restraint prevents me from trying out twenty or thirty such comments here myself.

This error could have been no more than a slight slip, but I believe something else is entailed. Certainly no uneducated person would ever have made it. It had to be learned, acquired; it would not have been available outside the classroom. It is an error of the kind of which only the poorly educated are susceptible. As Orwell once said that some opinions are so stupid that only intellectuals could hold them, so some contemporary language is so misguided that only the college-educated could use it. Madame Bovary may not be able to make love in the concrete, but many Americans, supposedly educated ones, go her a giant step better and are unable to think in the concrete.

Not that this, or the condition of contemporary language generally, is not often being pointed out, explained, castigated. Of critics of language today there is no paucity. In a modest way, language has become a hot subject. Books about language appear in great number and in varying degrees of seriousness and from various points of view, from Jacques Barzun’s Simple and Direct to John B. Bremner’s Words on Words to Willard Espy’s Say It My Way to Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s Handbook of Nonsexist Writing to Gyles Brandreth’s The Joy of Lex. Along with College English and other academic journals, two publications for laymen, Verbatim: The Language Quarterly and The Underground Grammarian, are devoted to the study of contemporary vagaries in the use of language. The criticism of language has become a journalistic occupation, and two steady middlebrow publications, the Saturday Review and the New York Times Magazine, employ such critics and so does Esquire, a more with-it magazine. Like books or movies or theater or dance, language in these publications has become a regular department. Whether this new public concern will soon fade it is difficult to know, but for the moment at least language as a business—if not language itself—seems to be flourishing.

Why? Why have Esquire, the Times Magazine, the Saturday Review all seen fit to install language criticism in their pages at this time? Do their editors feel a missionary earnestness about the disheveled state of English and a concomitant zeal to get Americans writing and speaking carefully again? Do they, as savvy magazine editors are supposed to do, sniff something in the wind? Is the English language truly in a condition of crisis? Or is this freshened interest merely an additional piece of consumer culture overlaid with snobbery—an interest on the order of that in gourmet cookery? Or is it at bottom political, for there are some who argue that custodians of the language go into action when class and caste lines are threatened?

My answer is, probably all of the above, and other reasons beside. True, language is under attack by feminists, by proponents of Black English and bilingualism, by homosexuals, and by a general resurgence of the populist strain in our culture. The rise in interest in language may well reflect this attack and reflect into the bargain a hunger for standards: with all else slipping and changing, let us at least try to keep up the language. It may also reflect a dissatisfaction on the part of a great many people with the quality of their education; they have been educated but they don’t feel educated, and a concern for language can be seen as a way of renewing one’s interest in education. Nor can snobbery be ruled out. Today, when the ownership of a Mercedes, or even of a Chagall, is no longer a guarantee of distinction, perhaps using “hopefully” correctly can separate one from the general middle-class rabble.

But a more interesting question is, Can it be said with any certainty that the quality of language has in recent years fallen off drastically, or even at all? How would one go about answering, let alone proving an answer to, this question? One could, I suppose, cite the rise or fall of scores on SAT examinations in English, but this would probably persuade no one, for there are those who argue that these examinations do no more than test bare competence in punctuation, spelling, vocabulary, and powers of organization; and others who feel these examinations are, as they say, “culturally biased” and who believe therefore that it is the examiners who need to be examined. But if statistical evidence is wanting, literary evidence is not. Nor is literary evidence insignificant on a question that is itself literary.

It does seem unarguable that in public discourse the quality of language is lower than it once was. For decades now, for example, we have not had a President of the United States who has written his own speeches, or has even shown evidence that he could write them if time permitted. Not only the Presidents but their speechwriters have shown themselves incapable of moving the populace by eloquence. This is a long way from the case of Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson, both of whom not only could command eloquence but wrote books and even reviewed them. Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson’s origins were patrician, to be sure, but this is merely a reminder that careful language is no longer a serious concern of the American upper classes. Edith Wharton, in her memoir, A Backward Glance, recalled that it once was. Her own family was very far from being literary—it rather looked down upon living writers—but it nonetheless held the English language in reverence and used it with precision. Careful language, like politeness, Mrs. Wharton writes, was one “of the accepted formulas,” one of “the principles of the well-bred.” If this was once true of the upper classes, it apparently is no longer, for today formerly upper-class institutions such as Harvard employ teachers with populist views about language: views that hold that whatever language the people use is, ipso facto, the best language, though these teachers would deplore the use of the word “best,” which even in this context smacks to them of elitism.

In The American Scene, his book about his pilgrimage to America in 1904, Henry James, visiting the Jewish quarter of New York, noted its extraordinary liveliness but also noted “where one’s ‘lettered’ anguish came in—in the turn of one’s eye from face to face for some betrayal of a prehensile hook for the linguistic tradition as one had known it.” James ended this section of his account on a very Jamesian sentence: “The accent of the very ultimate future, in the States, may be destined to become the most beautiful on the globe and the very music of humanity (here the ‘ethnic’ synthesis shrouds itself thicker than ever); but whatever we shall know it for, certainly, we shall not know it for English—in any sense for which there is an existing literary measure.”



Henry James’s standard was of course stratospherically high, and it is worth remembering that the language crisis in the United States has always been with us. In 1892 the Report of the Committee on Composition and Rhetoric of the Harvard College Board of Overseers, for example, complained that: “It would not seem unreasonable to insist that young men of nineteen years of age who present themselves, for a college education, should be able not only to speak, but to write their mother tongue with ease and correctness.” It is worth remembering, too, that Henry James had to be fired from his job as Paris correspondent for the old New York Tribune because his regular letter from Paris was considered simply too good for that newspaper’s readers. (James replied that he understood, but would have the editor know that his compositions for the paper were quite “the poorest I could do, especially for the money!”)

Still, without aspiring to Jamesian heights of literacy, it does seem clear that standards of literacy have slipped below the permissible. I am not referring here to gross illiteracies (such as that of the Chicago politician of a few years back who claimed he “didn’t want to cast asparagus at my opponent”), which have always existed and are good fun, but to the language of the supposedly educated: that of teachers, broadcasters, journalists—people who make their living through the use of language. One can hardly pick up a newly published book today without finding it filled with typographical errors, ungrammatical patches, leaden language. Jargon has never seemed so to abound. Apart only from Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, no contemporary politician appears to take joy in language in the way that the late Senator Everett Dirksen or Adlai Stevenson did. Nor are days any palmier along the academic front. The word has recently gone out that college students do not write well, and young teachers, looking for work in a depressed job market, send in letters to English department chairmen putting themselves forward as keen to teach composition; only they usually call it “language skills and strategies” or “communication arts.”

The point is that Henry James was wrong. Literacy today is not imperiled by the unwashed masses but by the well-scrubbed college-educated. Most of the interesting additions to English have over the years come from the lower classes, whose language usually derived from real experience, was expressed without abstractions, and, whatever its correctness, had the virtue of being vivid. Nor have these classes wished to foist their language on the general culture. Negro mothers and fathers with any ambitions for their children do not, so far as one can tell, want those children to learn Black English; they see it, quite properly, as a sure-fire way of keeping black children in their place. No uneducated person would use, in the flyblown way that people who have been to college do, phrases like “identity crisis,” “Protestant ethic,” or “establishment.” No uneducated person would use the word “ambivalent” (a word, Ralph Ellison notes in Invisible Man, “that doesn’t explain it”), or “supportive,” or “viable” (in the way that a Canadian psychologist said that “suicide can be a viable option”). Only the educated could be so ignorant.

As if this slip in standards were not enough, language itself has been under political attack in the United States for at least a decade now. Here feminists lead the way. Precision, elegance, good sense, all must fall before the feminist juggernaut, from the doing away with any words suffixed with “man” to the creation of new pronouns. But it is not feminists alone who must be catered to linguistically. The sine qua non of contemporary speech and writing is that it give no possible offense. Books—and especially textbooks—are combed carefully for possible linguistic burrs. Among the minority groups whose sensibilities must be guarded is the group known as the college-attending ignorant. Thus a friend of mine, in preparing a textbook in art history, was told to eliminate the term “anti-bourgeois”—on the ground that it was too difficult for his intended undergraduate audience. One might as well be asked to write a cookbook without mentioning the word salt.



In different ways these matters are discussed in two recent books on contemporary language: John Simon’s Paradigms Lost, Reflections on Literacy and Its Decline1 and William Safire’s On Language.2 No one will have any difficulty discovering where John Simon stands on the issues, questions, and problems of language in our day. He believes that there are at present two cultures, divided not by the scientific or literary spirit as set out by Lord Snow, but by “whether a person has language or not.” Simon writes:

Language, I think, belongs to two groups only: gifted individuals everywhere, who use it imaginatively; and the fellowship of men and women, wherever they are, who, without being particularly inventive, nevertheless endeavor to speak and write correctly. Language, however, does not belong to the illiterate or to bodies of people forming tendentious and propagandistic interest groups, determined to use it for what they (usually mistakenly) believe to be their advantage.

Uncompromising, implacable, absolutely fearless, Simon’s position might be termed elitist, except that so identifying him might give offense to others who consider themselves elitist on these matters. Perhaps it would be better to say that he is a little to the right of the Czar.

Simon is for good grammar, careful usage, the depoliticization of language. He is, in my view, on the side of the angels, yet, oddly for one so placed, he carries a pitchfork. He is hell on anyone who offends correctness in language. He is sedulous—not to say acidulous—in ferreting out error and crushing it. He is a man who could find a grammatical mistake in a Stop sign. Yet for a man so accustomed to discovering error wherever his eye alights, he seems never to cease being shocked, staggered, disbelieving, or alarmed when coming upon it afresh. This combination of looking for linguistic slovenliness and then being astonished when he finds it does not quite come off; it is rather like learning that the chief of New York’s vice squad fainted when told there was prostitution in the city.

Too often Simon takes an almost unseemly pleasure in coming upon still more evidence of linguistic delinquency “in this benighted, permissive, and demotically oriented democracy of ours.” The word “ignoramus” comes so readily to him. In his prose he is always ready to cross the street to knock down someone smaller than he: in the pages of this book, for example, Barbara Walters, Erica Jong, and Clive Barnes. Of one Professor Campbell Tatham, a radical professor of English at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee whose doctrine Simon detests, he writes: “Campbell Tatham may become the boor that [sic] made Milwaukee infamous.” Simon has a weakness for puns, as witness his title, Paradigms Lost (why not Brother Can you Paradigm?), but as great a weakness for a free-floating nastiness. He resembles nothing so much as an exterminator hired to eliminate pests who blows up the entire building.

Yet Simon is often quite impressive in his search-and-destroy missions. Like a truffle dog, his critical nose need only be inserted into a text to find a great richness of error. Many of those he finds are obvious, for bad grammar and poor usage, unlike truffles, are plentiful. But many are subtle, such as his distinction between the words “annoy” and “aggravate.” Sometimes he simply goes too far, laying the knout to a writer for placing a period outside quotation marks, or advising his hearers not to read any letter “that follows up the addressee’s invocation with a semicolon: nothing intelligent can be contained therein.”

If it isn’t clear, an old saying has it, it isn’t French. After reading Paradigms Lost, I am tempted to add: if it doesn’t contain errors, it isn’t English. One of the reasons John Simon is able to find as many lapses as he does is that English, even though it has no complicated system of declension, is a rule-ridden language, with plenty of leeway for disagreement about usage and questions of taste. Not even Simon’s pages are free of error. He himself owns up to a mistake; it seems he once used “among” where “amid” would have been more proper. Here are a few other egg stains on his linguistic vest that he might ponder. He uses the vulgar inversion of Time magazine style (“Claims Duneton”) and the solecism “guideline,” a bureaucratic neologism deriving from the nautical term “guyline.” He calls Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov “polymaths,” which, strictly speaking (the way Simon encourages the rest of us to speak), they are not; polyglots, yes; polymaths, no. Clichés crop up, such as “fall between the stools,” and “stick out like a sore thumb.” Puff and baggy-pants words make their way onto the page, among them the odiously inflated “dialogue” and the vapid “humanistic value.” If Simon can criticize another writer for a period outside a quotation mark, perhaps it would not be out of place to suggest that the word “antimale” without a hyphen in his book looks rather like the dish served in a Mexican home before the tamales.

I raise these points not because I think they are crucial but partly for the sheer joy of catching Simon out in error, the vigilante unvigilant; and partly because, while small errors will no doubt one day lead to large, for the moment there are enough large errors about to let pass a period outside quotation marks. Mr. Simon believes one of the chief objects of the careful deployment of language is the achievement of elegance. I think that is indeed one of its objects, but today there is a greater one: the avoidance of deception in its various forms, deliberate, unconscious, and self. With such words as meaningful, relevant, fulfilling, dialogue, humanistic, structure, and viable at our disposal, not to speak of the wondrous cant from politics and psychology and education, we have all the means at hand to be lied to or to lie convincingly to ourselves. Here in my opinion are the targets toward which guns such as John Simon’s ought to be aimed.

Where Simon is aiming is indeed sometimes a bit of a puzzle. Much of the content of Paradigms Lost originally appeared in Esquire, a journal better known for its interest in sartorial than in linguistical elegance. The question of audience may well have puzzled Simon himself, for throughout these essays he seems to be under the double obligation of discovering error while explaining what is correct. Thus when he thwacks Vincent Canby over the knuckles for consistently using disinterested to mean lack of interest, he also finds himself under the obligation to inform his readers that “‘disinterested’ means unbiased, impartial.” If he quotes a line or phrase in French, a translation in parentheses must follow. Simon’s problem is that he cannot with certainty pay his readers the courtesy of postulating some intelligence in them about these matters. The result is that he assumes a shared superiority with his readers even as he condescends to them.

John Simon, I fear, gives standards a bad name. Standards are of course essential, but it is better for a writer to observe them in his own work than to have him ceaselessly preach their necessity—to let example become precept. Simon not only preaches but preens. He preens himself, for example, on his sesquipedality, yet when he uses an unfamiliar word it is not generally interestingly deployed, and so one usually finds oneself incurious about its meaning. The temptation is to want to put some space between Simon and oneself; he is the sort of writer who, when one finds oneself agreeing with him, makes one instantly want to reconsider one’s own position. Yet he is quite right in his demand for standards, and in his opinion that without them we are lost.



William Safire operates under a very different set of assumptions from John Simon’s. Rather than a guardian or vigilante, he is a word watcher. He is chiefly interested in the progress—or, depending upon one’s point of view, regress—of the language. As a political journalist, he is in a splendid position to receive freshly minted jargon and vogue words; and thus reading him one can learn a good deal about linguistic change. Safire writes without Simon’s magisterial tone. In his column a spirit of bonhomie prevails, and he conducts the various points of debate and controversy about words with, as one of his readers says, “a sense of sport.”

Safire’s tendency in linguistic controversy is to be a peacemaker, though in such controversy the peacemakers shall be cursed. He tells us that many of the letters he receives about his column—a large number of which are printed in On Language—begin, “Shame on you.” In battles over usage, Safire often offers to hold the coats of both parties. Sometimes he will, figuratively, invite everyone out for a drink. Thus on the question of whether the word memorandum in its plural form ought to be memorandums or memoranda, he suggests sidestepping the issue and using memos. On the question of whether the word presently ought to be used synonymously with the word currently or to retain its traditional meaning of soon or directly, he advises that presently “is a word best forgotten, at least for the time being.” On simple error, he does take a stand, usually a genial one: “I don’t want to get prescriptive or anything, but people who use bi for ‘twice’ should cut it out.” Yet he is a man who accepts the less than grammatical “hopefully,” “not because I accept loose new standards, but because I embrace time-tested and readily understood usage.”

Mr. Safire calls himself “a libertarian language activist,” which he describes as follows:

A libertarian language activist is not one of those relax-and-enjoy-it purely descriptive types. He wants to cheer on “parameter,” borrowed from mathematics and now used to mean scope, or limits; at the same time, he wants to hoot at such nonce expressions as “What am I looking at?” now used to mean “What are the consequences?” or “How deeply am I likely to become involved?” Similarly, he will welcome “full-court press” from basketball lingo to replace the tiring “all-out effort,” but will ridicule the vogue verb “defense against” from football, preferring the more direct “defend.” It’s a matter of taste.

“It’s a matter of taste” is a sentiment John Simon would never brook. He would likely respond, “Yes, it is—good taste or bad.” Apart from his manner, I happen to side with Simon, who quotes Dr. Johnson to the useful effect that in these matters “we retard what we cannot repel, that we palliate what we cannot cure.” Simon is very good in attacking the cliché about language being a living, perpetually changing thing. Of course language changes; the question is what direction change takes. “When change does not obfuscate,” Safire says, “don’t fight it.” The difficulty is that nowadays change does so often tend in the direction of obfuscation. As Safire remarks toward the close of his book: “A sound lexicographic case can be made for the theory that our traditional sources of vogue lingo—the argot of musicians, the cant of the underworld, and the inventive richness of black English—are being replaced by the political and communications worlds, acting not merely as disseminators but originators as well.”

“Jockey,” announces the well-known underwear manufacturer, during a commercial break on the evening news. “More than a name. A commitment.” Then President Carter appears on the television screen to announce: “We remain steadfast in our commitment to human rights.” So much for commitment.



What is to be done? The problem, in my view, is one of authority. In questions about language, who is to say who is right and who is wrong? To decide, Simon calls for “the eventual creation of an Academy of the Anglo-American Language,” even though to do so, he concedes, “would be nearly impossible. But necessary.” In a culture so intensely politicized as ours now is, creating such an Academy figures to be much more impossible than necessary. To cite but a single example, could such an Academy be formed without Noam Chomsky, the great name in linguistics in our day? Probably not. Yet I for one should not be pleased to see so politically engaged a man as Chomsky adjudicating questions of language; imagine him, for example, on the word “imperialism.” It may well be that one of the reasons the traditional meaning of disinterestedness is fast fading is that the quality of disinterest, the thing itself, has all but disappeared from contemporary life.

Simon also proposes what during the Eisenhower administration was called a “person-to-person” approach. He suggests that when we come across error we correct it—stomp it out, crunch, on the spot:

Whenever, wherever we hear someone say “between you and I” or one of the related horrors, and whoever the offender may be, we go into action. To strangers in the street, we may have to be polite; to superiors (in position, evidently, not in knowledge), we may even have to be somewhat humble. But correct them we must. To all others we may be as sharp, forceful, tonitruous as the circumstances permit or demand: let family, friends, and neighbors hear us correct them loudly and clearly—let between you and me resound across the land. Otherwise there will soon be no more communication between you and me.

There are people—I am among them—who would find this temperamentally impossible. Meanwhile, as a matter of personal safety, I think it probably not a good idea to invite John Simon to accompany you to a meeting of your Teamsters Local.

Simon proposes other, even Lacedaemonian measures, one of which is to turn the children of the unlettered over to day-care centers where they will daily hear Standard English spoken. Where to find the people to work in these centers is but the first of the technical difficulties such a scheme would entail. In its very outlandishness, though, the proposal illustrates how dim are the prospects for language reform.

Perhaps the place to begin reform is by making certain useful distinctions. Some language questions can only be decided on the basis of taste. For example, I prefer to use the word presently in its traditional meaning of soon or directly. I prefer it chiefly because it is traditional, and the argument from tradition is appealing to me: I like to use words with the same sense that cultivated writers and speakers have used them before me. Is this snobbery? Possibly it is, though defensible snobbery, of the kind used in defense of not eating peas with a knife. By the same token, the word hopefully, used as an adverb without a connecting verb, seems to me worth condemning. William Safire defends it by analogy (in On Language); we use the adverbs finally and basically without connecting verbs, so why not hopefully? My argument is that in a secular age, hopefully has come to stand in for the old phrase “God willing,” as in “God willing, we shall not have another war in our lifetime,” and faulty grammar seems to me a poor substitute for religious feeling. But the proper uses of presently and hopefully are finally matters of nice discrimination. In neither instance is clarity at stake. What is at stake is the possibility of offending that touchy minority group, the truly well-educated.

There are, however, all too many instances where clarity, even reality, is at stake. When a freshman university student writes, as one of my students recently did, “The novel Billy Budd is a relatively short story,” this seems to me merely ignorance, easily enough corrected by explaining the difference between a novel and a short story. But when the same student writes, “The basic difference between Billy Budd and Claggart is one of lifestyle,” it is a cause of vague language obscuring perception itself, and this seems to me sad, even a bit crazy.

Not that the appetite for abstraction, the preference for the vague over the particular, is an altogether new phenomenon in the United States. In his chapter “How American Democracy Has Modified the English Language,” Tocqueville noted:

. . . I wonder if vagueness may not have a secret charm for talkers and writers too in these lands. . . . Democratic citizens, then, will often have vacillating thoughts, and so language must be loose enough to leave them play. As they never know whether what they say today will fit the facts of tomorrow, they have a natural taste for abstract terms. An abstract word is like a box with a false bottom; you may put in it what ideas you please and take them out again unobserved.

Yet this taste for the abstract has intensified in the United States in recent years, and the removal, often for political reasons, of any authority for using language correctly and with discrimination has only exacerbated the general condition. The condition of language today is such that communication threatens to be clogged, perception clouded, the possibility for serious discourse lessened. No writer of quiet yet unassailable authority—an H.W. Fowler, a Sir Ernest Gowers—is likely to arise in current circumstances to tear down the Tower of Babel now abuilding. Neither the scolding voice of John Simon nor the breezy one of William Safire is about to turn the trick. The duty of everyone who considers himself educated is to keep language alive by using it with respect and precision. But resistance among people who care about language—and, to judge from the ample correspondence Simon and Safire say they receive, there is reason to believe many people do care—will have to be individual. Although the prospects are not very bright, united, those who do care may one day lift poor Emma Bovary out of the concrete.


1 Clarkson N. Potter, 222 pp., $12.95.

2 New York Times Books, 331 pp., $12.95.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.

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