Bad grammar and faulty syntax are easier to treat than physical clumsiness. Other than opting out of team sports and remembering to pick up their feet when they walk, what can the uncoordinated do? Verbal klutzes, however, can resort to an almost limitless library of self-help books. The following is a sampling of new pretenders to the throne shared by Fowler's English Usage and Strunk and White's The Elements of Style.
Quoth the Maven
William Safire is currently The Man when it comes to G&S (grammar and syntax). From his aerie at the New York Times, he has been issuing wise and witty advice on these subjects for decades. Now he has condensed his expertise into How Not to Write: The Essential Misrules of Grammar (Norton; paperback, $13.95), in which the chapter titles exemplify the mistakes he would have writers avoid: "Ixnay on colloquial stuff," for example, and "Avoid commas, that are not necessary."
This inside-out approach makes for many a clever moment, as when Safire ends a chapter called "Always pick on the correct idiom" by noting, "Idioms infuriate some people who insist on logic and revere order. Myself I could care less." (This last is one that drives me crazy -- I'll never come to terms with a phrase that says the exact opposite of what it means.)
For the most part, Safire is spot-on (to use a British import) -- which is another way of saying I agree with him nearly all the time. But at one point, he may be guilty of excessive cuteness. In a chapter on tenses, he tells this story: "Tourist seeking a fish restaurant in Boston climbs into a taxicab and says to the cabbie, 'Say, do you know where I can get scrod?' Cabbie replies admiringly: 'Mister, I've been asked that a thousand times, but never before in the pluperfect subjunctive.' " Not a bad joke ("scrod" as a form of the verb "to screw"). But if Safire really wants to be helpful on tense subjects, shouldn't he go on to explain that, in truth, (a) the tourist's question contains no subjunctive at all; and (b) in English, we call the completed-way-before-now tense the "past perfect," not the "pluperfect," and in any case there is no such thing as a pluperfect subjunctive? Well, now you know.
With most usage books boasting all the liveliness of a computer manual, it's hard to fault Richard Lederer and John Shore for joking their way through Comma Sense: A Fundamental Guide to Punctuation (St. Martin's, $22.95), which has the "Fun" in "Fundamental" highlighted in red on the cover. Thus, the reader gets pelted with such silliness as "What's the difference between a cat and a comma? A cat has claws at the end of its paws -- but (har! har!) a comma is a pause at the end of a clause."
For the most part, Lederer and Shore couple their clowning with good advice, as when they present a powerful case for the serial comma (that is, a comma inserted between the second-last and last items in a series -- which, I'm sorry to say, The Washington Post eschews). Someone once dedicated a book, they note, "To my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa."
But the book gets off to a bad start that left me on edge. In the second chapter, on the question mark, the authors give this example, along with two others in the same pattern: "I wonder if what dropped out of that chicken just now is edible?" But this is a declarative sentence, in which the writer is stating a fact: He simply wonders -- period, no question mark. To wedge a question mark into that sentence properly, you would have to rework it along the lines of: "I wonder: Is what dropped out of that chicken just now edible?" The rest of Comma Sense appears to be error-free, but it's hard to recommend a book that mixes up direct and indirect discourse when it's just out of the starting gate.
Anu Garg's Another Word a Day: An All-New Romp Through Some of the Most Unusual and Intriguing Words in English (Wiley; paperback, $14.95) is just the thing if romping with words is what you want to do. In chapters with titles such as "Words Borrowed from Arabic" and "Words with Interesting Etymologies," the founder of Wordsmith.org tells amusing stories about words that have caught his fancy. For example, there is the one about how Alfred Hitchcock settled upon "MacGuffin" for the secret documents or hidden gold or missing person or whatever it is that drives the plot of a thriller. The term comes from a joke about a man getting on a train carrying an odd-shaped package. Asked what he's got there, the man says it's a device for catching lions in the Scottish highlands. Informed that there aren't any lions in the Scottish highlands, he replies, "Well, then this can't be a MacGuffin."
But unlike the fun in the books by Safire and Lederer and Shore, Garg's lightsome chatter doesn't serve anything but itself. There are more direct ways to build a vocabulary than by poking around in this book and likelier ways to be tickled than by reading about odd words -- and in any case, the value of being able to define "exonym" and "sequela" seems marginal.
The title of R.L. Trask's Say What You Mean! A Troubleshooter's Guide to English Style & Usage (Godine, $25.95) testifies to how rapidly language can change -- or, rather, the title as of first publication in London four years ago gives such testimony. In his foreword to this revised edition, which the author did not live to see, publisher David R. Godine notes that the original title, Mind the Gaffe, was thought unsuitable for American readers because it plays on an obscure (to us) British warning about the space between a subway car and the platform. But this summer I kept hearing American sportscasters make a similar word-play by commenting, about a baseball hit between two outfielders, "Mind the gap."
Trask, an American who lived much of his life in England, would probably have taken this development in stride. In pronouncing on usage, he tried to split the difference between old fogeyism and wimpy trendiness. Take "prioritize," which Trask puts down very simply: "This verb means 'rank (a list of tasks) in order of urgency.' It is a bureaucratic word best avoided in most types of writing." He also plumps for retaining the difference between "forbid" and "prohibit": "We forbid someone to do something, but we prohibit someone from doing something. It is wrong to confuse the two." On the other hand, he calls the notion that "each other" should be restricted to two people while "one another" should apply to more than two "something of a superstition." Crisp, clear and outspoken, this is a book to mind if you want to avoid the gaffes.
Having spent so much time consorting with grammar geeks, we deserve a reward. In The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism (Bloomsbury, $19.95), James Geary presents several dozen coiners of pithy, memorable sayings, along with examples of their short stuff. Geary, a Time magazine editor, serves up old favorites: Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce. But he has also rustled up phrase-makers who are undeservedly forgotten or not usually thought of as such. Among the overlooked is Sebastien-Roch Nicholas Chamfort, who two centuries ago wrote a definition of celebrity that holds up well today: "the advantage of being known by those who do not know you." The surprises include Dr. Seuss, who gave us "You ought to be thankful, a whole heaping lot/ For the places and people you're lucky you're not."
Geary has an admitted fondness for aphorisms with a twist or bite to them, and one from the great 20th-century essayist E.M. Cioran could hardly be more mordant: "A book is a postponed suicide." According to Geary, Cioran was referring to his own chronic melancholy, which the act of writing could best alleviate, but the saying could apply equally well to those for whom reading is a mood-elevator. Incidentally, much aphoristic gloom seems to have originated in bodily ailments. As Geary wryly notes, "From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, there was an unusually high correlation between poor health and being a great aphorist."
Like a well wrought aphorism, the book itself is short, but that means that, inevitably, some worthy practitioners have been left out. Among the missing is one of my literary touchstones, Rebecca West, who might have penned the following words precisely to buck up Cioran: "The living philosophy which really sustains us," she wrote in the late 1930s, "which is our basic nourishment, more than any finding of the mind, is simply the sensation of life, exquisite when it is not painful." *
Dennis Drabelle is a contributing editor of Book World.