Commentary Magazine


Writing American

Of the many books published in this century as guides to a sound use of the English language, only one has become a classic: Fowler’s Modern English Usage. In adjacent fields there have been classics indeed, from Greenough and Kittredge’s Words and Their Ways in English Speech to Mencken’s American Language and The Dictionary of American English. But among handbooks, E. B. White, speaking up for The Elements of Style by his old college professor, William Strunk, Jr., merely brought back to life what earlier had had small claim to any; Bergen Evans quickened interest in language and usage, but with no text that has fully established itself; and the most flourishing of recent mentors, Theodore M. Bernstein, if useful at times at a journalistic level, lacks the judgment and sureness of touch for a higher one.

For some years before his death in 1963, Wilson Follett, a writer and editor who had felt a great concern, amounting almost to a sense of outrage, for what enfeebles and imperils the use of English, was known to be working on a guide to what gives it trenchancy—something more comprehensive than the usual handbook, more occupied with nuances and niceties, which he hoped, from its displaying similar qualifications to Fowler’s book, might achieve a similar standing. At his death he had put most of his Modern American Usage1 into not quite finished form. With the manuscript at a publish-or-perish crossroads, its publishers asked Jacques Barzun to complete it, which he agreed to do with the help of a team of advisers—Carlos Baker, F. W. Dupee, Dudley Fitts, James D. Hart, Phyllis McGinley, and Lionel Trilling. For such a job there could scarcely have been a better team, with every one on it caring a great deal about language, knowing a great deal, and using it with great ability.

The result can fairly be called the most highminded book of its kind since Fowler, and perhaps the only book with comparable credentials, sensibilities and standards. This is a noteworthy achievement, sufficient for Modern American Usage to take in stride the further comment that, though a great deal of it is exemplary, a fair amount of it is disputable. In many instances this comes to no more than a difference of opinion in a field where those who set themselves up as judges are notoriously opinionated; where, indeed—suggesting less a courtroom than a crusade—they often exhibit as fanatical views about sentence structure as do other zealots about sin. In other instances I think that sound refutation of Mr. Follett’s rulings is to be had in precedent and accumulated authority. But what the book perhaps does most of all is make us wonder whether new and much knottier problems of usage and language don’t raise difficulties that no handbook can long keep pace with, and others that no handbook alone can ever overcome.

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Modern American Usage comes within speaking distance of Modern English Usage in several ways, a chief one being its literary sense—a real response to good writing, a real pleasure in what makes it good, beyond any concern for its being correct. There are no vulgar overtones to the book, no signs of “Mend your speech lest it may mar your fortune,” no exhortations to better English as a step toward better incomes. Hence the actual text—and this forms a second link with Fowler—displays none of the breezy journalese which caters to the marketplace, or of the stock borrowings and parrotings from earlier manuals which, beyond being out-of-date, never commanded much esteem. Finally—and here I think is the book’s strongest link with Fowler and its strongest claim to approbation—Modern American Usage is most happily concerned, comes most passionately and pugnaciously to life over small points, fine points, forgotten points of usage which, perhaps more than any other one thing, are the proofs, and the preservatives, of distinguished style and writing as an art.

These are the special merits of the book. In the matter of fine points, Modern American Usage brings up a very large number, some of them not often enough touched upon—the distinction between apparent and evident, for example, or the slender need for even the proper use of transpire. The book is particularly sound and eloquent on a number of more general subjects, such as overworked words, or what it calls scientism, or that irrepressible villain of usage, jargon. Since I have space to name only a relatively few specific items of value, let me mention the pieces on connive, locate, rehabilitate, very, center around, had rather, cake (eating and having) , due to, one of the and whatever, whoever. There are many others as there are also, in passing, many rewarding comments.

I must confess that the book has also, and rather frequently and disconcertingly, some of the defects of its special virtues, and some of the excessiveness that goes with a crusade. At times one wishes one knew just who wrote what—there are no designations—all the more as Mr. Follett’s widow has complained that in putting the book in final order, Mr. Barzun caused it to lose something irreplaceably her husband’s. But—to judge for a starter from Mr. Follett’s prospectus to his publishers about his plans for the book—one has a sense that he could be messianic and sometimes misguided, highhanded and sometimes quite wrongheaded, and that Mr. Barzun and his team may rather have been too indulgent of Mr. Follett’s quirks than unmindful of his merits. So early as in the prospectus, his approach seems a little over-intense and obsessive: “I think,” he wrote to his publishers, “of appropriate additions . . . nearly every hour.” “Welsh rabbit,” he wrote again, “will be right, and rarebit a piece of linguistic offal”—rather strong language about a quite common type of popular corruption. In Modern American Usage there are a number of instances of excessive reproof that seem almost certainly his; and one feels that the blend of hobbyist intensity and professional thoroughness which might have qualified him admirably for his project rather often got out of hand, turned too curious in its decisions, too authoritarian in its decrees, so that we get a strong whiff in one place of the antiquary, in another of the précieux, in a third of the ostentatious etymologist, and finally of the pedant, as exultant as he is ill-informed. It may be that not all of this applies to Mr. Follett, though it virtually never would fit his continuators. In any case, it is there; and by being there most often with niceties and fine points, it weakens what is the book’s chief strength, it adds a crazy streak to its essential sanity. Here again I am restricted to a few examples, given in a sort of ascending order of oddity and mistakenness.

  1. Of the word usage itself, we are told that it is used “always of words.” This is not so; if no synonym of use, it remains a very live one of treatment—“rough usage,” “barbarous usage”; and again of established practice—“Oriental usage differs from ours.”
  2. The book speaks of epithets “that a studied writer will use only with caution.” Studied in the sense used here, of learned or well-versed, was queried as obsolete fifty years ago and is today labeled archaic. If meant to impress, it can only, in the face of its normal meaning, puzzle or mislead.
  3. As the past tense or past participle of bet, we are told that betted “is the only recognized form” for “publishable writings.” This is so fantastically untrue that the OED in the England of the 1880’s listed it second, as an alternative to bet; its use at all in America today—let alone as “the only recognized form” for “publishable writings”—is so rare as to have small place in a book on modern and American usage.
  4. An article in the book begins: “Like news, means is at will singular or plural.” Nothing could be more unlike: in practice, news is no longer ever a plural. “What are your news?” is a very occasional strained jocularity; I have never encountered any serious plural use in contemporary American speech or writing.
  5. The book calls “You’re welcome to use my typewriter” a “mangled” construction, and decrees as alone correct: “You’re welcome to using my typewriter.” In point of fact, “You’re welcome to using my typewriter” is a mangled construction, about as correct as for a host to say to his house guest: “Do feel free to coming and going as you please.” The OED gives eight examples (in the exact sense indicated) of welcome, extending from the Middle Ages through Defoe to Dickens and Palmerston, every one of which takes the infinitive. Furthermore, the book’s justification for its ruling is the “parallel” of “I look forward to going away.” But everyone knows that in these matters analogy is a most untrustworthy authority; although, if analogy is to be brought to bear, free to, entitled to, inclined to, obliged to, pleased to, and encouraged to—closer in meaning than look forward to—also require the infinitive.

Were it not for the toplofty, unquestioning tone of statements like these, one might smile at them as Rip Van Winkleisms; as it is, anyone heeding them out of a proper respect for the book as a whole would be fully authorized, not to say commanded, to write: “You’re welcome to using those news that we betted that studied reporter about.” These and many more such judgments are the penalty for carrying fastidious notions to the lengths of a private language claiming powers of legislation. As it happens, Mr. Follett’s own prose can be no better than his pronouncements, can be indeed as wordy and rhythmless as anything it condemns. Thus, where any well-trained freshman would say: “The book will argue that good writing tends to choose words . . .” Mr. Follett says in his prospectus: “The book will assume the position that good writing is marked by a general tendency to choose words . . .”: twenty-six flat-footed syllables where thirteen would do far better.

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At other times, disagreement with Modern American Usage is a good deal more personal. And in the very act of disagreeing, one grasps that the book feels obliged to combat the lax standards of the age; prefers indulging even a last-ditch traditionalism to encouraging any newfangled freedoms. All the same, much that springs from Mr. Follett’s feeling for established usage smacks of pedagogic or journalistic cautiousness—editors and teachers are often afraid they won’t seem to know better—or is just plain stodgy. And here we come up against a conflict of “authority.” Much as the final court of appeal for relatively formal prose is the best writers, so for something more relaxed, social, casual there exists a cultivated colloquial usage, sometimes at variance with handbook opinion, but always distinguishing what is highbred (which it adheres to) from what is merely stiff-collar (which it disregards). I recently stumbled on a perfect example of this while reading Virginia Woolf’s Diary. Within a few pages she wrote “retorted on . . .” and used quotes for quotation marks. The first is highbred usage; the second, cultivated colloquial; the decision in each case is that of an assured good writer. And my second and last serious complaint about Mr. Follett’s book is that it very often lacks this sixth sense, this social sense, and plumps for what is staid and even stuffy. Let me give two or three examples. The book rebukes the use of anxious for eager as in, say: “I’m very anxious to see you but I’m afraid I can’t.” Eager here is too prissy for cultivated-colloquial; besides, if in the sentence given we rule out anxious, must we not change afraid to regret? Anxious and afraid are equally a manner of speaking, but a time-honored one, against which “I’m very eager to see you but I regret that I can’t” sounds right out of a dated translation.

Much debated, and eminently debatable, is the matter of persons vs. people; those who, with Modern American Usage, would champion persons have technically a strong position. But cultivated-colloquial does much to undermine it. Modern American Usage contends that “when we say people we should mean a large group, an indefinite and anonymous mass.” Certainly the word is perfect for such a group or mass, but its safety doesn’t lie in numbers alone, and its group-sanctity rather stops with the newsroom and the classroom. Cultivated-colloquial will far oftener than not say “No two people think alike” and will certainly say “The people next door.” It wouldn’t dream of saying: “How many persons does your car hold?” and if a hostess said to me, “I’m having a few persons to dinner next Monday and I hope you’re free,” I would certainly not be.

At times, the book goes beyond snubbing cultivated-colloquial into sheer pedantry. Thus it shakes its head over: “The Conference . . . is just weeks away,” insisting on “a few weeks” since “the time would still be weeks even if the conference were five years away.” But everyone says “weeks away” and no defense is needed of it, any more than of “He was just minutes short of catching his train.” It is the objection that hasn’t a leg to stand on—first, because people don’t speak in terms of weeks when thinking in terms of years, and again because just is plainly a limiting word; one would have to be insane to mean that a conference is “just” 260 weeks away. This sort of thing is really scraping the barrel, not to say looking under beds, for blunders; and this sort of thing, in however good a cause, can only do it a grave disservice.

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II

Though the excesses of the book are serious ones, even they go spiritedly against traffic. Mr. Follett’s opposing archaism to anarchy, attacking vandalism with pedantry, if hardly more judicious than what it combats, is much less dangerous and irresponsible. But in truth a conservatism quite without his eccentricities would also bring home to us how much greater a problem the whole matter of “usage” has become. The business of preserving the niceties of expression is altogether submerged today in that of policing and protecting the language as a whole. For this newer problem is too large, too diffused, too irreducible to short specific examples, for any handbook to cope with. The matter of getting people to write well, of not petrifying language to keep it pure, or debasing it to make it lively, is rapidly changing shape; is coming up against forces that earlier were relatively minor or until recently not nearly so widespread. The old familiar ailments—“as good or better than,” unique, confusion over who and whom, the misuse of disinterested or infer—are the merest sniffles and pinpricks set against what ails usage today. Indeed, the most serious, infectious, and seemingly incurable disease is an offshoot of knowledge, not ignorance; is passed along by those who set an example rather than those who need a guide. But there are other things as well.

Clearly one reason for the changing surfaces, and even structure, of language in America is the un-homogeneous nature of our population. This is hardly at all geographical: most regional language differences are of long standing and restricted to specific words and phrases. But where geography is very little involved, ethnology is very much. A powerful and persisting element of change is the effect of our great foreign minorities on the language, occasionally from home influences on their speech, consistently from book influences on their writing. Now and then we find the vernacular acquiring actual Italian, Irish, Yiddish, Polish constructions. But far more frequent than the un-English turns of speech which the children of the foreign-born may retain, are the English ones which they mishandle. Their addiction to false analogies, their distortion of established idioms, their substitution of wrong prepositions—such things are no longer simple offenses against a word or phrase, but a gnawing away at the whole texture of language. Thus, the stuffiest of correct constructions—“He was graduated from high school”—now goes arm-in-arm with perhaps the most uncouth of incorrect ones—“He graduated high school.” Infinitives and participles swap roles; so do nouns and verbs; and anything goes as a connective. I recently encountered: “This was the first resolution in four years, when it voted to. . . .” (=“This was the first resolution since the vote four years ago to . . . ”); and the same day I came upon “a decision to require action” (=“requiring”); “lavished with presents” and “the shortage of parking” (=“the lack of parking space.”).

Plainly, all this is something that no manual of usage can nail down or fence in. As one misconstruction marries or begets or aborts another, what we are contending with is not defective grammar but garbled prose. When, again and again, one finds phrases like cut-and-dry and in the bargain, at least such blunders are not structural. But when one long passage or paragraph after another is not so much incorrect as chaotic, how, if we are not to resign ourselves to such writing, shall we ever contrive to get rid of it?

Most anomalous in all this, and hence most discouraging, is how much of it comes from the educated levels of America and indeed from the educators themselves. If only because so many of these speak to large audiences and write for far larger ones, they do the language infinitely more harm than the ignorant or semi-literate; for they do more even than twist its structure or tousle its syntax, they rob it of ease and fluency. They dote on strings of long words forming lumpish sentences, they prefer cumbersome phrases to colloquial idioms, they care nothing for rhythm, they know nothing of style. Much of this is a very old story: the scientists with their hideous new words, the social scientists with a jargon that defeats parody, the psychiatrists who, from applying scientific methods to social maladjustments, feel entitled to two helpings of jargon. Being specialists with only a utilitarian interest in language, such people might claim special indulgence if so much of their vocabulary and syntax did not rub off on educated speech generally. For today’s college students, today’s serious readers and quasi-intellectuals, are understandably more concerned with ideas than with expression, and read books that analyze and theorize and diagnose oftener than literary works; and as they read, so do they come to write. But what, increasingly, is worse than the use of jargon is the misuse of it: words and phrases, as they work culturally downward, take on less and less exact and definable meanings, become sleazy clichés as dubious for sense as for sound. Perhaps the most notorious of these is concept, but it has dozens of rivals.

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Yet the ologies are not very much worse than the humanities. “Belleslettristic” prose and higher-browed journalistic writing are all too often deaf to rhythm, stone blind to effect, choked with stale vogue words, clogged with dreary needless ones. We have all had a fling at denouncing the chic ponderosities—extrapolate and charismatic, heuristic and epiphany, schema and exemplum—only to encounter them twice as often thereafter. But worse is the general sense of prose clanking about in heavy armor. Why must people, even in COMMENTARY, write things like “the book is meaningful in its entirety”? What has this that “the book has meaning as a whole” lacks, except four extra syllables, one overworked upstart adjective, and one of the slowest-moving nouns in the English language? Yet this is how all kinds of people not only write but speak. Again, the passion in our age for abstract or quasi-abstract nouns, which makes a desert of prose and a death march of its pace, is bad enough; but it has led to something worse. Such a sentiment as “the intellectualism of his position, regarded as an implement of progress or a restructuring of society” now appears more stylishly as “he has positioned his intellectualism whereby it can serve both to implement progress and to restructure society.” And when the abstract verb starts murdering our most living part of speech, surely prose itself must become our central concern, and much less in a delivery boy’s letter to his girl friend than in a Ph.D.’s letter to the editor of a quarterly. I pick up a quarterly and read an average rather than extreme sentence in an essay by a professor of English: “The centripetal approach is thus, essentially, the intrusion of a critical momentum which often (though not always) is not only indifferent to, but even antithetical to, the centrifugal momentum which springs from the formal tensions resident in the work”—and did I not know better I would certainly think this was by a professor of physics. I pick up a student publication and read: “We find that social organization is grounded in dynamic change, such that interpersonal statica are transformed by oscillatory disorder into growth-oriented interdependence”—and I wonder how much it matters whether a few such authors are called persons or people.

There is, of course, another insidious form of educated writing today: it is educated men whose advertising copy and promotion brochures are spraying the country with rank verbal perfume and stocking the American vocabulary with catchwords we suddenly catch ourselves succumbing to. Yet the hucksters are really debasing our culture more than our language, and they can at least display a certain sales-tagged ingenuity and knack of phrase. But such garish salesmanship at the one end, and a galloping “scientism” at the other equally emphasize a third threat to the language: the speed with which it keeps altering. This is an age of violence, and the language shares it; an age of fads, and the language reflects it; an age of inventiveness, and the language runs riot with it. Dictionaries are legitimately under fire for not holding the line, but in truth it is hard to know any longer where the line is, or will be a few years after a dictionary appears. This speed is much greater in America than in England, and on that score Modern American Usage is not a very accurate title: American usage, in the sense in which a Mencken investigated and recorded it, has here been gone into very little. I mention this, not primarily to criticize but—which is why I mention it last—to repeat what the greatest strength of Modern American Usage is and how it might become greater. A book dealing with fine points of usage, a book conceivably called Fine Points of Usage could, with some additions and deletions, be fashioned from this one, intended for those who really care about what gives writing distinction and who are drawn, not pedagogically but temperamentally, to a study of words and a knowledge of usage. They, indeed, would read such a book every bit as much for pleasure as for profit. Anything with really broader aims must grapple today with far doughtier forces. No handbook can hope to rout them; the job goes way beyond a collection of small specific don’ts. If the job is to be done at all, it must be done in the schools and colleges as a major undertaking by gifted teachers, and in defiance of much else that goes on there. It must outlaw, or at any rate quarantine, the vocabulary and syntax of half the subjects taught. The age, to be sure, has many newborn things to find names for, and many complex thoughts and feelings which don’t lend themselves to limpid prose. But where such things do not enter in, the schools and colleges must try to bring back to prose a social ease and human voice, and to take away from it the long words and longwindedness, the plodding efforts and pompous effects which education itself is fostering.

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Footnotes

1 Hill & Wang, 436 pp., $7.50.

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