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No one cares more

David Foster WallacePump Room

When I got my reviewer's copy of Bill Walsh's new book, Yes I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk (St. Martin's Griffin, 256 pages, $14.99), the book fell open to this passage: "You're free to talk back to your usage guides. (Funny--people don't seem to have any reservations about telling me I'm nuts about hyphenated modifiers, or. ..."

I immediately recollected a spirited exchange over hyphenated modifiers (you know how copy editors get) at the ACES conference in Philadelphia in which I asked my learned colleague whether he would hyphenate high-school student. He said, "Yes," and I blurted, "You're insane!"

Now, his book in hand, I discover from the early chapters that he and I have been having a good-tempered argument of which I was not aware. At its center is the expression could care less, which informs the title of his book. Mr. Walsh deplores the expression, which he finds sloppy and illogical. I have argued, with Jan Freeman and others, that whether its origin is careless pronunciation or sarcasm, it has attained the status of well-established and widely understood idiom, and idioms are by the very nature not logical. 

I hasten to add, though, that we are generally on the same side on most issues.

Now, determining whose side one is on, in this darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night, is not an easy task. Mr. Walsh, for rhetorical purposes, overstates the "anything-goes" stance of the linguists who write at Language Log. He calls himself a stickler, which I think is a regrettable choice,* and Jan Freeman and I come off as fellow travelers.

What Bill Walsh and I have been engaged in for several years is an attempt to arrive at a reasonable presctiptivism, free from peeves and shibboleths, open to learning from the empirical discoveries of linguists, able to to assist writers and editors in making reliable judgments about language and usage. This was clear from his first "Rules That Aren't Rules" workshop at an American Copy Editors Society conference years ago, and it is plain, once the rubber meets the road, in his latest book.**

A key sentence: "Judgments about form are matters of taste, and tastes vary widely, but they coalesce to create what can be called objective criteria of quality."

He goes on to draw out the comparison between fashion in dress and fashion in prose. I note that he calls the prohibition against wearing brown shoes with a blue suit a piece of fashion mythology. But I would sooner wear my hat at table during tea at the Pump Room in Bath than wear brown shoes with a blue suit. Matters of taste vary, even among the informed and sophisticated. That is why no Academy of English has ever gotten off the ground: The sticklers cannot agree among themselves; the best the American Heritage Dictionary can do is to record the split vote from its panel of usage experts. The criteria in fashion, in dress and prose, are always going to be subjective. 

He knows that. He remarks how contact as a verb, though scorned in the 1940s and 1950s, is unobjectionable today. He points out that host as a verb is fine, and less arch and awkward than play host to. (When John Carroll was editor of The Baltimore Sun, he abominated host as a verb, and his copy desk dutifully enforced the prohibition. But no longer.)

Recognizing that "in the picky-about-language biz, disputed or evolving changes ... separate the eager from the hesitant." So the two personality types factor into the fashion judgments. And he presents an extremely useful set of categories that figure in the disputes:

"These disputes run the gamut from outright errors (your for you're) to errors on which some are giving up (infer for imply) to errors gaining traction (hone in for home in, straight-laced for strait-laced) to useful evolution in progress (bemused for 'wryly amused') to useful evolution that is well established (host as a verb, gender for sex) to displacement of antiquated words (careen for career) to the rejection of unfounded superstitions (hopefully as a sentence adverb)."

And in the continuing that/which brouhaha, he confesses, "My heart is with the sticklers, my head is with the spoilsports [linguists]." That is precisely where all of us stand as we attempt to craft a reasonable and informed prescriptivism.We have to make judgments as the language shifts under our feet.

The final section of the book, "The Curmudgeon's Stylebook," presents an ample supply of entries that you can consult informing your own judgments.

anal-retentive As a matter of fact, it does have a hyphen. Thank you for your interest.

armed gunmen The worst kind.

cannon One cannon, two cannons. If you're using American English and you're less than 150 years old, you form the plural in the regular old add-an-s way. ...

gridlock The word isn't an all-purpose term for heavy vehicular traffic. It means a situation in which cars are stuck in intersections after their light has turned red, meaning that cars with the green light are also unable to move forward. The grid is locked.

mike [not mic] "While there are no doubt many broadcast journalists who are gifted writers and spellers, that's not their forte. Many of them are in a non-print medium for a reason."

moist Yes, I know how much you hate that word. So stop talking about it already.

You should be so lucky as to have Bill Walsh as your editor. Pay attention. Be clear. Be precise. Don't be a jerk.

 

*The problem with stickler is that its use by purists and peevers leaves a taint that won't wash off. It's like David Foster Wallace's SNOOT in "Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage." I admit to having been seduced by the richness of Mr. Wallace's prose before I discerned the poverty of his argument.

**I assume that you are aware of his earlier books, Lapsing Into a Comma and The Elephants of Style. If not, you've got some reading to do.


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