Letter 6: “Authority and American Usage”

Dear Mr. Wallace,

When I teach my students to write an introduction paragraph, I offer them the standard Scott Purdy “hooks” to use as their opening line, their attention-grabbers if you will.[1]  There are a number of hooks that he recommends; all of which, when students use properly, provide a means for getting their readers interested in what they have to say. 

However, there is one of Mr. Purdy’s hooks that I try to steer my students away from.  The “Three Questions.”  It seems so simple; ask three questions that will generate interest in your topic for the reader.  The problem is that very rarely can my students do it well.  And because it is a very simplistic way to start an essay, when done poorly, it only emphasizes the lack of sophistication.  It can often leave a very third-grade-book-report taste in the reader’s mouth.

I’ve only seen the question-as-hook pulled off well a handful of times, so I must tip my hat to your opening line: “Did you know probing the seamy underbelly of US lexicography reveals ideological strife and controversy and intrigue and nastiness and fervor on a near-Lewinskian scale?”  How is it that you can take something like US lexicography and make it sound so licentious, so dirty?

Anyway, not the point I wanted to focus on, but certainly worth noting.

After reading your review of Mr. Bryan A Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, I have a confession to make:  I, too, am a SNOOT.[2]  You can call me a “Grammar Nazi, Usage Nerd, Syntax Snob, Grammar Battalion, [or] Language Police” (69).  Call me what you will, but out of deference for the patron saint of this blogging endeavor, I prefer the term SNOOT.  I proudly swear my allegiance to “the Few, the Proud, the More or Less Constantly Appalled at Everyone Else” (71).

I don’t remember when I first became a SNOOT.  I do recall daily phonics lessons in elementary school, and I did take to reading pretty easily as a child.  But I guess my coming out as a SNOOT was being named the official proofreader of my junior high journalism class.  Every article that went to print had to pass my inspection.  You would have been so proud.

There isn’t much of a story to tell,[3] but I do have a pretty good list of credentials.  First, and perhaps most relevant, this is my second time reading “Authority and American Usage.”  I’ve also read Strunk and White’s Elements of Style; Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots, and Leaves;[4] and some of Zinsser’s On Writing Well.  Additionally, I became very well-acquainted with the Chicago Times Style Manual as a high school newspaper advisor, and on a slow Sunday afternoon I have been known to peruse the dictionary just for kicks.  To top this all off, I am a ten-year veteran high school English teacher who will on occasion engage his colleagues in lively lunch-time discussions of the prevalent misuse of adverbs and how to properly cite an online source with no stated author.

So as a certifiable SNOOT, I hereby dedicate myself to the defense of the English language.  I will reunite split infinitives and properly support dangling participles. 

But against whom or what am I fighting, you may ask.  The greatest enemy of the SNOOT is just plain ignorance.  The common man or woman puts gratuitous quotation marks around everything because they simply don’t know any better. Ignorance is a daunting foe, but one that can be overcome.  I can teach someone how to use a semicolon or which “there/their/they’re” is proper for the occasion. 

However, there is a greater foe; a giant that is not slain so easily: the Descriptivist.[5]  These liberal linguists who seek to disarm the SNOOT of his corrective fluid and force him to listen to sentences ending in prepositions.[6]  The Descriptivist takes a much more populist approach to the study of grammar.  If the basic meaning is effectively communicated, who cares if it’s in passive voice or if there is a gratuitous use of quotation marks?  The rules ought to conform to common usage, not vice versa.

It is this type of linguistic proletariat propaganda that makes every SNOOT’s skin crawl.

Now, to be fair, I ought to at least consider my opponent’s point of view, even if it is for argument’s sake.  Language is an ever-evolving means of communication.  Whether it is through random mutations, regional dialectical usage, or even widespread ignorance, language and the rules that govern it are constantly changing.[7]  The Descriptivist believes it is his or her job to study and document those changes, rather than try to correct them.  It is the meaning that is important, even if it is delivered in – shall we say – a rather unorthodox manner.

I am willing to admit I am not such an anal-retentive SNOOT to say that proper grammar trumps meaning.  Meaning is what is important, and language is simply a tool for conveying meaning.   But when the grammar – or lack thereof – gets in the way of the meaning, we have a problem.  Everyone knows that good writers break grammatical rules all the time, and they do so to emphasize the meaning of their work.  But they become good writers by learning and following the rules and gaining the respect of other good writers first.  Once they prove they can follow the rules, they can break them all they want.

The bottom line is that in order to function properly and serve its purpose of conveying meaning, language must have rules.  Those rules may change and evolve over time, but they never go away completely.  Without the rules and structure of language, written and spoken communication quickly becomes ineffective at best, impossible at worst.

And as long as there are rules and red pens, I will faithfully defend them.  It is my duty as a SNOOT.

[1] The “hooks” that Purdy teaches are (1) quote, song lyric, or poem; (2) personal or biographical anecdote; (3) bizarre or unusual fact; (4) riddle; (5) global statement; and (6) three questions.

[2] A SNOOT is DFW’s “family nickname… for a really extreme usage fanatic, the sort of person whose idea of Sunday fun is to hunt for mistakes in the very prose of Safire’s column.”  It is an acronym for “Sprachgefuhl* Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance” or “Syntax Nudniks Of Our Time” (69).  DFW confesses that the Wallace family even had a SNOOT theme song.

*Sprachgefuhl is the intuitive sense of what is linguistically appropriate.

[3] Knowing the proper usage of a semicolon doesn’t exactly get one invited to many parties; so even if there was a story, it would probably be a pretty boring one.

[4] Of which there is a hilarious parody entitled Eats, Shites, and Leaves that only serves as illustrative proof of the need for proper punctuation.  Punctuation gone wrong can be side-splittingly funny.

[5] Very brief explanation:  there are two camps in the world of linguistics, the Prescriptivists and Descriptivists.  Prescriptivists are at the more conservative end of the spectrum who believe that language does, and ought to, have a set of rules that must be followed with near-religious fervor.  Most Prescriptivists carry a red pen or bottle of White-Out with them at all times.  On the other hand, Descriptivists are the more liberal linguists who believe that grammar ought to be a product and reflection of common usage, rather than a set of dogmatic rules.  It is the obvious conflict between these two camps that provides the seamy, soap opera-esque drama to the study of language.

[6] To quote Brando quoting Conrad: “The horror.  The horror.”

[7] A point I am willing to concede.  I’m rather happy that we don’t still use the King’s English.  Because if we did, I could never actually teach Shakespeare in a high school classroom.  Shakespeare’s plays are full of all kinds of dirty jokes and sexual innuendos; we teachers can just skip over those because the students have no idea what’s being said anyway.

2 thoughts on “Letter 6: “Authority and American Usage”

  1. I love Strunk and White. How many copies do you own? I’ve got at least two upstairs, one in my office, and some sharing a box in the basement with Zinsser. I’ve also got two of Eats Shoots and Leaves, because after it was published two different people thought to gift it to me. My new favorites are John Trimble’s Writing with Style and absolutely Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird (I always tell my students about Shitty First Drafts, or I let them read it for themselves if they’re lucky)… However, I do believe I am more a Descriptivist. Now before you shudder and dismiss me forever, consider how hard it is to speak or write standard English after a day of correcting it and talking about it with ESL students and facilitating peer reviews and so on (that’s been my entire week). When one’s brain is mush, the rules of grammar don’t seem so concrete any more. I’m typing this instead of revising a book chapter right now, because my brain is mush, and I think I’m doing pretty well, come to consider. OK, back to writing.

    • Don’t worry, I don’t think any less of you for being more of a descriptivist (afterall, you do outrank me in terms of English degrees). I fall into the same “I really don’t care that I just ended a sentence with a preposition” mode all the time as well. But I will continue to arm myself with a red pen at all times.
      I think I only own one copy of Elements of Style. But I love Anne Lamott, especially Bird by Bird. She was my favorite writer before I came across Wallace.

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