Holy Sh*t, Melissa Mohr; Yes, I Could Care Less, Bill Walsh; Building Great Sentences, Brooks Landon

July 9, 2013

Leading off this cheerful troika of books on language is Brooks Landon’s Building Great Sentences (Plume, $16), a print offshoot of the popular Great Courses series. Landon’s earnest primer hews to the more-is-more approach to composition, in which a basic declarative sentence is merely a platform for an entire superstructure of subclauses and qualifying phrases. This works well for William Gass or Thomas Berger — two writers Landon idolizes — but seems potentially hazardous in the hands of lesser mortals. Landon admits that “everyone who writes about prose style advances a particular view of it.” His own view runs counter to the minimalist, “omit needless words” approach of William Strunk and E.B. White. He criticizes their iconic “Elements of Style” for placing undue “emphasis on error avoidance” at the expense of “the diversity and fecundity of prose style.” Writing geeks will appreciate the way Landon gets under the hood, so to speak, of prose to see how it really works. Those not interested in the “mechanics of coordinate and subordinate and mixed cumulative sentences” or the difference between anaphora and epanalepsis, however, will find Landon’s instruction progressively dry and hard to follow, although he does his best to keep the tone light and friendly.

If Landon is your affable, enthusiastic college professor, full of corny jokes and encouragement, Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh revels in his role as “some past-his-prime newspaper guy . . . yelling at you.” Reading Yes, I Could Care Less (St. Martin’s, $14.99) is like bellying up to your favorite neighborhood bar while a cranky yet lovable uncle holds forth on the perils of comma splices and misplaced hyphens. Walsh is combative and funny, and he doesn’t suffer fools gladly (“Humans are often idiots,” he explains helpfully at one point). An unabashed prescriptivist, he refers to the scholars in the enemy descriptivist camp as “the Geoffs” and calls Strunk and White “the Red Lobster of usage manuals.” He likes R.E.M., Mexican food, Sam Adams beer and tennis; he dislikes “media parrots” and “the louts on planes who recline their seats into our laps.” In short, Walsh brings some welcome newsroom swagger and regular-guy moxie into the often prim world of style and syntax. And all this freewheeling scorn is ultimately motivated by the sober understanding that in the Internet age “the way you use language will be the only clue most . . . people have about your intelligence and your capabilities.”

Melissa Mohr would no doubt agree with Walsh’s respect for the impression-forming power of language, if for very different reasons. Holy Sh*t: A Brief History of Swearing (Oxford Univ., $24.95) is one of the most absorbing and entertaining books on language I have encountered in a long time. Mohr — with a Ph.D. in Renaissance studies, no foul-mouthed guttersnipe she — gives us an engaging and winningly droll tour of dirty words from Roman times forward, sparing no obscenity, profanity, sexual slur, epithet, barnyard locution or insult along the way. Although “Holy Sh*t” makes for peerless cocktail party fodder (did you know that “sard” and “swive” were common predecessors of our heavily over-burdened f-word?), it also advances a sophisticated historical argument. Mohr traces the increase in verbal potency of curse words based on bodily and sexual function and the concomitant loss of taboo for religion- or deity-based profanity. Elsewhere, she notes that the Victorians banned the word “trousers” from public discourse because “their shape revealed a man’s legs, and a man’s having legs implied that he very likely had other body parts up there, and . . . please, remember yourself. The women! The children!” Her most trenchant and elegantly executed passage argues that moral disapproval of swearing is actually a relatively recent phenomenon, “the legacy of Victorian social climbers who were afraid to look working-class” — the same people, she notes, who forbid us to split infinitives or use double negatives, those other inherited shibboleths of aspirational gentility. Change in language, it seems, is like air — invisible but ubiquitous.

Lindgren is a writer and musician who divides his time between Manhattan and Pennsylvania.

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