SOMETIMES, ON DAYS when English has taken a turn for the worse, I probe my funk. Why fuss so much over language, anyway? Granted, "impact" is not a transitive verb (except in a recondite sense); but when someone says, "That impacts my vacation plans," nobody misunderstands him. No, high-school students don't read as well as they did in the 1960s, but they grok films and computers better. Writing is only one among many ways of imparting knowledge, I try to tell myself, and the drop in literacy may not entail a rise in stupidity.
But soon I recall that writing is merely committed speech -- speech that we are willing to polish, fix and vouch for. And then I reflect on the relief that speech affords from confusion and lonesomeness. In saying things well, of necessity we put them in order. And by expressing our joys and sorrows articulately, we can at least be assured that a sensitive listener comprehends them. Correct usage, a wide vocabulary and precise diction are worth fussing over, I conclude, because they counter our tendencies toward solipsism. Concerned again, I pick up books like the three under review.
William Zinsser is a veteran journalist, and On writing welll exhibits his savvy. Like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style, to which it pays homage, Zinsser's book is crisp and bossy. "Clutter is the disease of American writing," he grouses. "We are a society strnagling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon." You want specifics? "Beware . . . of all the slippery new fad words for which the language already has equivalents: overview and quantify, paradigm and parameter, input and throughput, peer group and interface, private sector and public sector, optimize and maximize, prioritize and potentialize. They are all weeds that will smother what you write."
Zinsser himself is an emphatic and colorful writer. Concerning George Orwell's famous translation of a Biblical verse into bureaucratese, he remarks: "Gone are the short words and vivid images from everyday life . . . and in their place have waddled the long and flabby nouns of generalized meaning."
Yet even Zinsser nods. "The only way to learn to write," he says, "is to force yourself too produce a certain number of words on a regular basis." The last four words in that sentence are fulsome. Instead, say "regularly." The same goes for "on a daily basis" (say "daily"), "on an annual basis" (say "annually"), and all the other basis phrases that are bruited about these days. But this is a peccadillo in a lively and helpful book.
Willard Espy's goal is to help the reader speak better. His method comprises doggerel, anecdote, tests, drills and conversations between himself and his foil, the Hermit Hoar, who is old enough to have heard the English language develop from infancy. But it is a method that distracts as much as it informs; the jokes and verses tend to be forgettable, and too many of them center on toping and groping.
Yet there is much to be learned from Say It My Way. This is one of Espy's better poems of pronunciation -- it stays in the mind and should help in overcoming the underlying fault (if applicable). "For 'height,' you keep on saying 'heighth.' I might not hit you, but I mighth."
Among his "Words Often Mispronounced," he offers some handy reminders. "Apricot. A-pricot. Coupon. coo, not cu. Despicable. accent des. Exquisite. accent ex. Formidable. accent for. Long-lived. long i, not as in to live."
But I don't always agree with Espy. He says to pronounce "servile" with a short i; I make the i long and capture a condign association with the word "vile." Admittedly, though, there are graver things to worry about, such as a maddening mispronunciation now in vogue among lawyers and peddlers of abstractions: the plural of the noun "process." The plural of "crisis" is pronounced criseeze, the plural of "basis" is pronounced baseeze. But the plural of "process" is not pronounced processeze: the es in "processes" has the same quality it has in "dresses" and "princesses." Better yet, don't say "processes" at all -- replace it with something more concrete.
American Usage and Style: The Consensus is a synthesis of what the chief authorities say about various niceties, disputes and blunders in American English. The synthesizer is Roy Copperud, professor of journalism at the University of Southern California, who manages to be both magisterial and witty. Listen to him complain about the phrase "at this point in time": "It expresses the bureaucrat's yearning to complicate and fatten up the simple, in an attempt to suggest profundity and importance." As an aid in spelling and pronouncing the word "asterick," he offhandedly produces a verse as deft as any of Espy's. "Mary bought an aeroplace Among the clouds to frisk Now wasn't she a plucky girl Her little *?"
The book is arranged alphabetically, and I turned immediately to the C's to find out if Copperud joins me in condemning the trendiest usage in Washington today: "craft" as a cute substitute for "draft," as in "The Subcommittee on Euphemisms crafted this bill." To my surprise the master is unperturbed; this is from the entry:
"craft. As a verb for make, design, produce, etc. ('We proudly craft every cabinet'. . .), considered superfluous by two critics but may be regarded as established beyond cavil, because this is a revival, not a neologism."
It's not established beyond my cavil. The rub is that "craft" has rapidly passed from revival to banality, reverberating everywhere from down in the Bureau of Mines to up in the Office of Solar Applications. For freshness' sake, let's be done with it. And now you have my small craft warning.