Words, Words, and More Words (concluded)

William and Mary Morris in their book the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage promote standards for the English language that were unknown to me and are likely to fade from my memory. For example, the “fine distinction between completely and wholly should be observed in formal writing.”  While they sought to preserve many seemingly arcane distinctions, the Morrises surprisingly concluded that some standards had passed away. (“Pass away/pass on. Euphemisms for ‘to die.’ Both should be avoided.”) Most surprising: “The subjunctive mood of verbs is used to express hypothesis, supposition, contingency. You don’t hear or read the subjunctive much any more. Nowadays the way language is used by educated, literate speakers and writers is the final criterion, and, by this standard, the subjunctive is today just about dead.”

The subjunctive continues to bedevil me. I have read several language “experts” on the topic, and they seem to be inconsistent upon when it should be used. Perhaps it should be abandoned simply because of the trouble it presents. (Mark Twain said: “Damn the subjunctive. It brings all our writers to shame.”) Perhaps I should totally abandon its use, but in spite of what William and Mary wrote, I know that many people, including “educated, literate speakers and writers” continue to struggle to use it correctly. Perhaps I should accept what they say and give up the burden of trying to get it right.

All this highlights the difficulty for those trying to identify what is appropriate English usage. The language is not static; it changes, and no one can know the precise point when some substandard usage becomes acceptable. That is also true for the creation or new use of words. William and Mary Morris refer to vogue words that crop up suddenly, get attention, but “soon become debased by overuse and lose their initial sparkle and freshness.” They gave a list from thirty or more years ago: “input, output, hangup, freak out, flap, camp, kitsch, watershed, bench mark, overview, empathy, infrastructure, phase (in and out), ongoing, seminal, in depth, feedback, escalate, relevant, generation gap, clout, biodegradable, interface, parameter, ingroup, outgroup, peer group, synergy and synergistic, and longuette.” Presumably the authors thought these terms would largely have disappeared by now, but many of them are still in frequent use. However, I would like to banish some of them. I just turned off a TV show about cars during which the voiceover told me about driver inputs. I would have been embarrassed to have said that, but there it was. But some of those vogue words–even those that are cringeworthy–have not disappeared but have settled into secure and useful places in the language. It is hard to predict the development of English.

If the language is constantly changing, why try to promulgate standards of what some maintain is correct usage? A century ago Ambrose Bierce would demean such a standard bearer as a “lexicographer”: “A pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods.”

In an epilogue, panelists for Contemporary Usage commented on this tension between correct usage and ongoing language development. Frances Fritchman said, “We are not just quaint antiquarians opposing progress. What we are really fighting for is clarity, accuracy, exactitude—qualities never more needed than now!” Of course, every age probably says that clarity and accuracy are essential, but it is correct that standards can help assure proper communication. (Some would, however, vehemently object to that exclamation point.)

The panelist Vermont Royster also makes that point: “What I deplore is the debasement of the language, whether from violation of the simple and logical rules of grammar or from using good, useful words wrongly. . . . The consequence is a breakdown in communication. Not only are subtleties and shades of meaning lost, but in some cases there is actual misunderstanding between writer and reader, the writer intending one meaning, the reader receiving another. This occurs no matter whether it is the writer or the reader who is using the language wrongly.” However, in spite of what Royster says, the rules of grammar are often not simple and logical. For example, even though recognizing its illogicality, William and Mary Morris maintain that the “preferred usage is ‘two times two is four,’ not ‘two times two are four.’” But why does it matter for accurate communication whether is or are is used?

Similarly, should there be a concern if a subtlety or shade of meaning is lost if the communication is still clear? The panelist Earl Ubell wrote: “When someone says ‘I am nauseous’ rather than the correct ‘I am nauseated,’ I have to learn to hold my tongue because if I make the correction, no matter how gently, my respondent responds with a grimace that say ‘Pedant! Elitist! Nit-Picker!’ and worse.” (Wasn’t it condescending to write to William and Mary Morris and the other panelists that “nauseated” was correct?) Who doesn’t understand me if I say “I am nauseous” or “A nauseating smell came from the rendering plant”? If the communication is clear, when is it pedantry to say the “wrong” word is used? Since I learned at about the age of sixty-five the difference between the two words, I have tried to use them correctly, but I believe that I was understood perfectly well before then. (The Morrises, unwittingly anticipating and differing with Royster, say about the increasing misuse of “nauseous,” “it seems reasonable to infer that we may be here considering an instance of gradually changing usage.”)

Correct usage, however, can also help the struggle against pomposity and euphemisms. Elizabeth Hardwick, another panelist, wrote, “I feel a great many of the barbarisms are an expression of distrust of simple language, a fear that the simple words are not refined enough. . . . Bureaucratic, Latinate words are preferred to old root words of common speech. All of this depresses me.” Clear, simple language is worth promoting, but I also like Hardwick’s openness to new formulations. She also said, “On the other hand I love new coinages from ‘street language’ when they are imaginative and fresh. I like ‘split’ for going away quickly. . . .”

Her comment made me think of when I first heard dissed, as in, “He dissed me.” When I understood that coinage, it conveyed in a succinct manner something meaner than “He insulted me” or “He ignored me.” It had value. Promoting English language standards should not stand opposed to all changes in speech and writing.

 As I write this, I wonder why I read style and usage books, and I realize that mostly I hope to make my speech and writing clearer and more precise. But I also realize that there is something more at work. I like words. They are fascinating and magical. I simply like learning about them. The use of some words can make me cringe; the use of some words is befuddling. However, the use of some can please and delight. I read the guidebooks in hopes of being better able to use words well. I agree with Evelyn Waugh who said, “Words should be an intense pleasure just as leather should be to a shoemaker.” I have never made shoes, but I like both words and leather. So, I read on.

The Last Book I Ever Need to Read

Paperbacks printed years ago often contain promotions on the covers for other books. I read this material to see how many of those books published back then or their authors I even recognize. They are sometimes the most entertaining part of the book. Take, for example, the ads in my oldest softcover book printed by the American News Company in 1895.

Bought for a buck or two at an art and antique show. I was attracted to it not because I was familiar with the title or author but because of the remarkable picture on the cover of the author–or as I am guessing she, Miss Laura Jean Libbey, might have called herself–the authoress. She is staring straight ahead. Her eyes are hypnotic, but it is almost impossible to concentrate on them because the gaze is drawn to the noteworthy hat that spreads wide over the head and has three visible plumes plus something else I cannot identify. The back cover shows a fuller, three-quarters view of the same picture, which shows that Libbey had an enviable bust and a waist, surely cinched in, that does not look humanly possible.

I was also drawn to the book because of its title—When His Love Grew Cold. Her other books that were advertised inside the covers showed that Libbey had a way with titles that at least attracted me: Miss Middleton’s Lover: or Parted on their Bridal Tour; A Forbidden Marriage: or in Love with a Handsome Spendthrift; He Loved, but was Lured Away; and Lovers Once, but Strangers Now. A couple of her titles at first glance were letdowns, but only until I read their descriptions. I learned about Olive’s Courtship that “the quiet title does not prepare you for the powerful story that follows. No living author has ever equaled it.” And the reader “will never lay down That Pretty Young Girl until you discover who killed the handsome, profligate Earl of Dunraven on his wedding night, and unravel the mystery which surrounds the beautiful, hapless Helen, whom to love—was fatal.” Strong stuff.

Nearly as surprising as this body of work was to me was the conclusion of the preface. Libbey, after teasing her readers–as she had apparently done before–with the suggestion that this would be her last book, not only gives her name, but her address: No. 916 President Street, Brooklyn—a house that in all probability still exists.

Other ads in my older paperbacks pique my interest. I read in small doses The Sardonic Humor of Ambrose Bierce, which was reprinted in 1963 and published by Dover Books. It has an eight-page catalog of other Dover Books at the back of the volume. Three of those pages are for art books, including the intriguing Foot-High Letters: A Guide to Lettering (A Practical Syllabus for Teachers).

I only recognize a few of the authors in the “Entertainments, Humor” section of the Dover Books list. A book I am not familiar with, however, fascinates me: The Bear that Wasn’t by Frank Tashlin. Its description: “What does it mean? Is it simply delightful wry humor, or a charming story of a bear who wakes up in the midst of a factory, or a satire on Big Business, or an existential cartoon-story of the human condition, or a symbolization of the struggle between conformity and the individual?” Sounds like quite a book.

I recognize more of the authors in “Fiction,” but not always the listed books. I have read Tarzan, and take a certain pride that Tarzan has a Wisconsin connection. But should I now read Three Martian Novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs? Or the other Mars novels by Burroughs that are listed? Further down in “Fiction” I found the listing for Five Great Dog Novels and tried to think of five dog novels, period. Maybe you will recognize more than the only one I did: Call of the Wild by Jack London; Rab and his Friends by John Brown; Bob, Son of Battle, by Alfred Ollivant; Beautiful Joe by Marshall Saunders; and A Dog of Flanders by Ouida. Who knew?

My favorite, however, was the last listing: Gesta Romanorum, translated by Charles Swan and edited by Wynnard Hooper. “181 tales of Greeks, Roman, Britons, Biblical characters, comprise one of (sic) greatest medieval story collections, source of plots for writers including Shakespeare, Chaucer, Gower, etc. Imaginative tales of wars, incest, thwarted love, magic, fantasy, allegory, humor, tell about kings, prostitutes, philosophers, fair damsels, knights, Noah, pirates, all walks, stations of life.” I feel as if my education is sorely lacking for never having heard of this book. Surely, it has everything, and if I had read it, I would not have to read anything else ever again. Five hundred pages, and the list price: $1.85. Where can I find this?

The Last Book I Ever Need to Read

Paperbacks printed years ago often contained promotions for other publications on the inside covers or at the back of the book. I read this material to see how many of those books published back then or their authors I even recognize. They are sometimes the most entertaining part of the book. Take, for example, the ads in my oldest softcover book printed by the American News Company in 1895.

Bought for a buck or two at an art and antiques show, I was attracted to it not because I was familiar with the title or author but because of the remarkable picture on the cover of the author, or as I am guessing she, Miss Laura Jean Libbey, might have called herself, the authoress. She is staring straight ahead. Her eyes are hypnotic, but it is almost impossible to concentrate on them because the gaze is drawn to the noteworthy hat that spreads wide over her head and has three visible plumes plus something else I cannot identify. The back cover shows a fuller, three-quarters view of the same picture, which shows that Libbey had an enviable bust and a waist, surely cinched in, that does not look humanly possible.

I was also drawn to the book because of its title—When His Love Grew Cold. Her other books that were advertised inside the covers showed that Libbey had a way with titles that at least attracted me: Miss Middleton’s Lover: or Parted on their Bridal Tour; A Forbidden Marriage: or in Love with a Handsome Spendthrift; He Loved, but was Lured Away; and Lovers Once, but Strangers Now. A couple of her titles at first glance were letdowns, but only until I read their descriptions. I learned about Olive’s Courtship that “the quiet title does not prepare you for the powerful story that follows. No living author has ever equaled it.” And the reader “will never lay down That Pretty Young Girl until you discover who killed the handsome, profligate Earl of Dunraven on his wedding night, and unravel the mystery which surrounds the beautiful, hapless Helen, whom to love—was fatal.”

Nearly as surprising as this body of work was to me was the conclusion of the preface. Libbey, after teasing her readers, as she had apparently done before, with the suggestion that this would be her last book, not only gives her name, but her address: No. 916 President Street, Brooklyn, where the four-story brownstone house still stands.

Other ads in my older paperbacks pique my interest. While I finished Libbey’s novel a whiIe ago, I am now reading in small doses The Sardonic Humor of Ambrose Bierce, which was printed in 1963 and published by Dover Books. It has an eight-page catalog of other Dover Books at the back of the volume. Three of those pages are for art books, including the intriguing Foot-High Letters: A Guide to Lettering (A Practical Syllabus for Teachers).

I only recognize a few of the authors in the “Entertainments, Humor” section. A book I am not familiar with, however, fascinates me: The Bear that Wasn’t by Frank Tashlin. Its description: “What does it mean? Is it simply delightful wry humor, or a charming story of a bear who wakes up in the midst of a factory, or a satire on Big Business, or an existential cartoon-story of the human condition, or a symbolization of the struggle between conformity and the individual?” Sounds like quite a book.

I recognize more of the authors in “Fiction,” but not always the listed books. I have read Tarzan and take certain pride that Tarzan has a Wisconsin connection. But should I now read Three Martian Novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs? Or the other Mars novels by Burroughs that are listed? Further down in “Fiction” I found the listing for Five Great Dog Novels and tried to think of five dog novels, period. Maybe you will recognize more than the only one I did: Call of the Wild by Jack London; Rab and his Friends by John Brown; Bob, Son of Battle, by Alfred Ollivant; Beautiful Joe by Marshall Saunders; and A Dog of Flanders by Ouida. Who knew?

My favorite, however, was the last listing: Gesta Romanorum, translated by Charles Swan and edited by Wynnard Hooper. “181 tales of Greeks, Romans, Britons, Biblical characters, comprise one of (sic) greatest medieval story collections, source of plots for writers including Shakespeare, Chaucer, Gower, etc. Imaginative tales of wars, incest, thwarted love, magic, fantasy, allegory, humor, tell about kings, prostitutes, philosophers, fair damsels, knights, Noah, pirates, all walks, stations of life.” I feel as if my education is sorely lacking for never having heard of this book. Surely, it has everything, and if I had read it, I would not have to read anything else ever again. Five hundred pages, and the list price: $1.85. Where can I find this remarkable compendium?