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Reading, Writing, and History: The Dreadful Noise

July 2024
5min read

Modern American Usage: A Guide, by Wilson Follett, edited and completed by Jacques Barzun, in collaboration with Carlos Baker, Frederick W. Dupee, Dudley Fitts, James D. Hart, Phyllis McGinley, and Lionel Trilling. Hill & Wang, Inc. 436 pp. $7.50.

A man who tried to play the violin in public without studying the rules of music and the techniques of musicianship would of course need to have his head examined. (He would also need to be silenced, but that would come automatically.) Not even in this permissive age would anyone argue that the simple desire to produce pleasing sounds could make up for a total lack of craftsmanship, because it is so obvious that without craftsmanship the sounds would not be pleasing.

In other words, there are rules that have to be observed by anyone who wants to make music. These rules are rigid, the student has to work within their limits, and he cannot do it unless he knows what the rules are and what they require of him. He may be able to whistle a tune acceptably without this knowledge, but if he wants to go further he must prepare himself. The violin is a marvelously flexible and expressive instrument, but when it is badly handled it makes a dreadful noise.

What is true of the violin is also true of the English language. You can do almost anything you want to do with it if you know how to handle it, but there are rules to be observed. Some of them seem arbitrary, and learning to work with them can be a great deal of trouble, but to go ahead without even knowing what they are and why they exist is dangerous. In trying to produce persuasive prose, the writer is likely to commit an atrocity.

This to be sure would not be worth saying, except that so many educators nowadays are arguing that the rules no longer exist. If you can speak the language, we are told, you can write it: go ahead boldly with never a backward glance, and if you make a hash out of grammar and syntax nobody will notice. The fact that by doing this you lose first clarity and then meaning itself is probably beside the point.

That is why Modern American Usage: A Guide, by the late Wilson Follett, is such a welcome and important book. I wish that anyone who ever tries to write anything more consequential than a letter to his family might be required to read it, to reread it, and to meditate upon it. Here is a wise, effective, and pleasingly witty attack on sloppy writing and on the things that cause sloppy writing.

Mr. Follett, unfortunately, died before the manuscript was finished. It was edited and completed by Jacques Barzun, with the assistance of some able collaborators, and it is altogether excellent.

Mr. Follett begins with the idea that the noise the violin makes ought not to be dreadful. As he puts it: ”… there is a right way to use words and construct sentences, and many wrong ways. The right way is believed to be clearer, simpler, more logical, and hence more likely to prevent error and confusion. Good writing is easier to read; it offers a pleasant combination of sound and sense.”

This seems indisputable; but hear Mr. Follett:

Against this majority view is the doctrine of an embattled minority, who make up for their small number by their great learning and their place of authority in the school system and the world of scholarship. They are the professional linguists, who deny that there is such a thing as correctness. The language, they say, is what anybody and everybody speaks. Hence there must be no interference with what they regard as a product of nature; they denounce all attempts at guiding choice; their governing principle is epitomized in the title of a speech by a distinguished member of the profession: “Can Native Speakers of a Language Make Mistakes?”

Well, they can, and do; and Mr. Follett demands “the increasingly obvious and imperative reform—a resumption in our schools of the teaching of grammar and the reading of books.” What the writer needs most, he believes, is “the blessing of an orderly mind,” because “for all who speak or write, the road to effective language is thinking straight.” What you write reflects what you think, and if your writing is fuzzy your thinking is probably fuzzy. But old-style grammar is out of date. We used to believe that any good sentence can be parsed; that is, “it can be broken down into subjects and objects and antecedents, cases and parts of speech, modes and tenses.” To do this is a lot of trouble, of course, and I can remember weary hours spent as a grade-school inmate—come to think of it, we used to say “grammar school”—parsing sentences, building intricate sentence-structure diagrams to show subject, predicate, modifying clause, and what not. It was a great bore, and I would have preferred to go fishing, but it was part of the process of learning the rules: “English does have a structure, a logic at its center, a set of principles, a consistency matching that of the orderly mind. Of this structure grammar is the working diagram and teachable plan—reason enough why, to the worker in prose, grammar remains indispensable.”

All of this is very good, but it seems to me that the real riches of this book are found in its lexicon, which constitutes about seven-eighths of the text. A few samples may suffice: Few periods in history have been so reluctant to call things by their right names as our own. Our neighbors do not go crazy, they become disturbed; employers no longer fire or discharge employees, they effect a separation or termination. Even important warnings come wrapped in cotton wool, not to say couched in falsehoods—witness this printed card put in the bedrooms of a first-class hotel: For your added comfort and convenience please lock your door and adjust chain before retiring.

Why, asks Mr. Follett, does it not simply say, “For your safety,” and tell you to “fasten” the chain?

The lexicon points out that there are pitfalls from which only a solid knowledge of language and grammar will protect us. There is, for instance, the misuse of like —as in the well-known example of the cigarette advertisement. The trouble here is that “the grammatically scared” refuse to use like when they ought to use it. As the book points out, “When we ought to write The Greenland birds, like the mallards, remain in the country in winter, we must not be done out of like by terror lest someone suspect us of meaning remain … in winter like the mallards do.” Even worse, perhaps, is the misuse—or the timid failure to use—the objective form of the pronoun who: “Between those who are afraid of sounding ignorant and those who are afraid of sounding superior, whom falls into comparative disuse and causes increasing discomfort in its users.” Thus we get such locutions as I know perfectly well whom you are, where the writer thinks whom is the object of know when it is really the subject of are; and a sentence reading Ahead of them on the Nonesuch road they descried Lord Grey de Hilton, whom Essex declared was his enemy. Mr. Follett’s comment here is satisfactory: “One of the paradoxes of the time is that some liberal grammarians who are implacable toward whom in its orthodox uses will tie themselves into knots in the effort to condone whom in this particular construction. Apparently they have a feeling that it ought to command the blessing of the learned because it tramples on prescriptive grammar.”

Then there is the terribly abused word disinterested. Maybe the battle here has been lost, but the writers of this book are not ready to give up. Thus: Disinterest, or disinterestedness, as it is now employed by the careless or the desperate, not only blurs the meaning but also stops the reader who can see two possible meanings, because it is still the name of a great, sterling, and positive virtue—freedom from self-seeking motives. It is not the name of a lack, which is what the writer was looking for. Is one of the consequences of good times a disinterest in bad news? Here disinterest is the wrong word, uninterestedness would be a fumbling one. Indifference (with to) is the inevitable word.

The temptation to go on quoting until closing time is strong, but there are limits. The point I want to make is that this book is an excellent corrective for the sloppiness, imprecision, and frequent unintelligibility of much that passes for writing these days. The English language is one of the most flexible instruments man has devised. Used properly, it can say anything the user wants to say. It cannot be used properly unless one knows something about the governing rules and principles. Although Mr. Follett pours out his scorn on the educationalist’s misuse of the word discipline, grammar does constitute a discipline, in the literal sense, and it is time writers began subjecting themselves to it.

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