John McIntyre

Pick up the winnowing fork | COMMENTARY

In my notes I still have a remark that James Cox, professor of American literature at Dartmouth, made during a lecture while I was an undergraduate at Michigan State University: “Hawthorne’s sketches are bad. They may have been liked once, but we don’t like them now, and we have to be right about some things. We winnow and sometimes we winnow well.”

My youth was spent learning the mechanics of formal written English, and it took a great deal of effort, because formal written English is not a dialect that people naturally speak. And in more recent decades my effort has been toward unlearning a good deal of what I was taught.


I can trace the latter effort to a day in the 1970s when, as a graduate student in English at Syracuse, I bought a used copy of Theodore Bernstein’s Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins at the Economy Book Store. Bernstein gleefully took a sledgehammer to scores of superstitions and shibboleths about grammar and usage, many of which I subsequently discovered were deeply beloved of journalists—the spurious over/more than and like/such as distinctions, for example. And so I commenced to winnow.

The process was familiar, because I was interested in history as well as literature, and reading about actual history involves winnowing the insipid mythologizing of American history textbooks. Frances Fitzgerald’s America Revised (1979) describes how textbook publishers relentlessly purge anything to which an educational official or school board in what Mencken referred to as the cow states could take exception. Learning requires unlearning.


And we know that that is how the sciences, when they are functioning properly, proceed. Established theories are subject to review as evidence indicates that they should be modified or even abandoned, a continual winnowing.

But in language I see people getting cranky online about supposed errors in grammar and usage, their understanding of the language on a par with the belief that fire is the phlogiston emerging from the wood during combustion. They have neglected their winnowing.

There’s no going back to Mrs. Craig’s eighth grade English class (which did very well, as far as it went), but there are opportunities to broaden understanding. You might find David Shariatmadari’s Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language and Gretchen McCulloch’s Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language particularly bracing.

I’ll remind you once more that Will Rogers said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you. It’s what you know that ain’t so.”