SIMON SAYS: "It is, in fact, usually safe not to continue reading a letter that follows up the addressee's invocation with a semicolon: nothing intelligent is likely to be contained therein."

He's an exasperating man, John Simon. Of many provocative and unpopular dicta in Paradigms Lost, that assertion about the implications of a semicolon is one of the milder. If you are shocked by its elitist flavor and the suggestion that skill in punctuation has something to do with intelligence, you might want to read the book. Then you can be shocked by the realization that what the man says is nothing more than a reasonable hypothesis drawn from evidence.

Paradigms lost is a collection of three dozen essays on the state of literacy, which is, as we know, poor. The reader will discover what Simon must have known all along: an examination of the language we use is, must be, an examination of the meaning of everything that we do. Language is not, as we automatically assume, an optional accessory to humanity, like air-conditioning in a car. Failures of language are not inconveniences. They are dimunitions of humanity, which at some point (where is that point?) must become severe enough to preclude the essentially human achievements: knowing, thinking and judging.

Simon is not picking nits when he deplores "between you and I" and the muddling of "its" and "it's" or of "uninterested" and "disinterested." He is saying that the making of fine distinctions, which is necessary for accurate knowing, logical thinking and prudent judging, is a skill that we can have only in language. When we lose that skill, or abandon it, or, worst of all, suppress it, we lose not only the ability to make fine distinctions but even the idea that they are worth making. A collection of human beings who neither can nor will seek fine distinctions is no longer a culture or a society; it's a herd.

That is why, for all its wit and erudition, for all the pleasure it gives us in watching and unusually able mind at work, this book is depressing and frightening. Simon calls a herd a herd, and the vulgar, vulgar. He is explicit and convincing when he describes the damage done to language and thought in the name of liberation by militant minorities and special interests, in the name of information by featherbrained entertainers and hucksters, many of whom call themselves journalists, and in the name of education by populist faddists scrambling to outdo one another in applauding those routinely natural ignorances that once made education seem desirable. He is so explicit and convincing that we have to fear that such forces and invincible.

Some of Simon's evidence suggests, in fact, that the battle is already over. He tells of a 12-year-old girl whose school gives much attention to the study of "gay" rights and who is utterly unaware of any other meaning for that word. Can she be the only child in America thus deprived? Can that be the only idea of which she has been deprived? And there's the English teacher who doesn't intend to bother with "lay" and "lie" any more, since those who do want to make that distinction may have to deal with cab drivers who don't. Thus, she reasons, we will escape either embarrassment or confusion. Can she be the only English teacher who is willing to let cab drivers set limits to the distinguishing and analytical powers of language?

This question is implicit in every one of these essays:

"Who is to decide how, and even whether, we are to do the work of the mind?" Although Simon is referring to nothing more portentous than the pronunciation of "lingerie," he certainly had more than that in mind in saying that "democracy encourages the majority to decide things about which the majority is blissfully ignorant." Jefferson knew that too, but he wasn't thinking about pronunciation. He knew, and so did the other devisers of our constitutional liberty, that the single most ominous threat to liberty was exactly that: the irrevocable harm that might be done by a thoughtless and self-seeking majority. The only protection against such a threat, at least the only protection appropriate to a free society, is what Jefferson prescribed: the "informed discretion" of the public. In what can informed discretion consist except in skill language?

Because even a Jefferson could not foresee what we would do about informing the discretion of the public, he did not think to urge on us the study of the semicolon, which is a step along the path to informed discretion, a conventional sign of social concord as well as an indicator of one kind of logical relationship rather than another. That's the big difference between Jefferson and Simon. Simon has to make a fuss about what Jefferson took for granted, the very idea that everyone should be educated.

Simon is often called an authoritarian elitist. Authoritarian he surely is. Not only does he speak as one having authority, and out of large learning and formidable argument, but he approves the principle of authority. He would like to have, for instance, an American equivalent of the French Academy, an official arbiter of language. (I'd like that too, for its determinations might well be very funny). But an elitist he is not.

These essays flow from a conviction that something wrong should be set right. An elitist finds pleasure and profit, not pain, in the fact that vast multitudes are ignorant of the skills of language and thought. An elitist would not say, as Simon does, that "The main problem with education, actually, is not those who need it and cannot get it, but those who should impart it and, for various reasons, do not." Those are the elitists. It is they who debar the multitudes from the skills of thought and language. John Simon is not on their side.

He quotes from The Philosophy of Composition by E. D. Hirsch Jr.: "Without a normative grapholect, a classless society could not be plausibly imagined." By "normative grapholect," Hirsch means and damn well should have said: "a standard written English." That Simon could bring himself to tolerate such jargon for the sake of citing the assertion must be testimony to his commitment to something very different from elitism. Paradigms Lost is a powerful apology for that commitment. It could have been written only by a man who hoped to write, someday, the obvious sequel: Paradigms regained.