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The Abusage of Usage

ISSUE:  Winter 1977

The distinguished philosopher Brand Blanshard, once musing in a Yale Alumni Magazine on the pleasures of being an emeritus, put down as the first of these the freedom from reading student papers.”Though I enjoyed both lecturing and discussion, reading student papers was another matter. It is the grimmest part of a teacher’s life.” He went on to discuss the desperate stratagems which he, like most of us, embraced to do his duty and yet save time and sanity—checklists of standard errors, rubber stamps, the lot. The most desperate of these, of course, has always been to write a book, a book which will put down, clearly and economically, all the things one must say over and over about student papers. Then the office hour, purified of repetitive detail, will become more efficient and more refined. One can say simply, “Look, take this book and read it, memorize it in fact, rewrite the paper, and then come in again if you have any further questions.”

Jacques Barzun, toward the end of a long career which has always included an interest in prose style as well as a distinguished practice of it, has finally written the book, Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers.It is difficult for such books, by their nature as textbooks, to be more original than the errors they seek to chronicle and prevent. Thus Barzun, under such snappily traditional rubrics as “Tone and Tune, or What Impression Will It Make?” and “Composition, or How Does It Hang Together?” offers the same advice American composition texts have been retailing for the last 75 years. The purpose is “to be understood aright”; the prose is to be “simple and direct”; and for the writer, “the first requisite is sincerity.” The proper “tone” (by which Barzun seems to mean “style”) is a “plain” and “even” one, as exemplified, we are told, by both Whitman and Mark Twain. Neologisms are all but outlawed: “New words are rarely needed outside trade and technology.” If genuinely needed, better Anglo-Saxon than Greek or Latin derivatives: “Think how much plainer and finer, less obtruding and conceited the tone of prose would be if from the beginning we had said speed meter and not speedometer, laundry shop and not laundromat, moving stairs, icebox, and lift, instead of elevator, escalator and refrigerator,” “Gas station” and “scotch tape” show “the true democratic spirit” but not “discotheque” or “polyester.” The “wooly metaphorical style” of our generation is to be banished by “Principle 16”: “Worship no images and question the validity of all.” And jargons—in fact, all fancy wordings —are proscribed.

Barzun’s standard advice on organization ranges from “Grasp the subject and do not let go” to “move forward without wobble and meander.” Variety is to be shunned if it threatens “sincerity and truth.” We are to subordinate intelligently, use the active words, keep related elements together, keep parallel elements parallel and take thoughtful notes. As for closing, “finality is of course still in order. Nobody wants to stop, but rather to end.” There are exercises after each section, collections and mistakes headed by rubrics like, “This exercise should not prove difficult—the faults exhibited are obvious, Record your distaste and rewrite.” And there are half a dozen intercalated passages of specimen prose (Savers, Hoffer, Sapir), called “Time Out for Good Reading,” followed by reflections and questions.Simple and Direct is, then, the mixture as before, aimed here at an advanced undergraduate and graduate student audience.

Mr. Barzun’s book, Clifton Fadiman’s dust-jacket puff claims, is both funny and “alert to every manifestation of our linguistic barbarism.” I have enjoyed Barzun’s wit over the years as much as the next man, but I don’t see it often here. He aims to be clever but he ends up more often than not sounding schoolmarmish: “Those who are tempted to fiddle and tinker with words and who thereby lead some users astray might bear in mind that making up words is an art, not merely a trick of combining roots according to rule. . . . Nowadays innovators carelessly stretch meaning as well as coin new words.” Such admonitory fingers waving on every page make the reader feel preached at.

As for being “alert to every manifestation of our linguistic barbarism,” Fadiman is surely right. None—not even the panelists of the Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage — can stand before Barzun. Much of his book is in fact a discursive usage dictionary, an extended castigation of all the slovenly mistakes, seemingly, which have annoyed him over a long and busy career.”Hopefully” and “contact” figure strongly, of course, as well as advertising cliches and bureaucratic mumblespeak—the standard list of villains. Most literate people, one would guess, enjoy these Fowler games, but they must be played with a light touch. Barzun takes such mistakes, and especially his own impatience over them, with supreme seriousness.”Of particular annoyance to me,” which prefaces his annihilation of “personal,” might be the title of his book. If often he is sensible, sometimes he is shrill or silly: “economy size (a large, not a small quantity); belabor (beat with a stick, not “make a to-do about,” which is labor a point)”;” “Assistant Town clerk Mary Jones was married yesterday at noon to piccolo-player L, C.Robinson.” This is the tone of bureaucratic regimentation.” Sometimes he seems almost to court annoyance. In one exercise, for example, we find, “for the billing [and cooing!] month of June the charge will be 7.2% higher.” Cannot a billing month differ from a calendar one, as a fiscal year from a calendar one? The great thing in Fowler games is to sound like Fowler and not like those pedants who, as Barzun himself says, “stickle over minor points” but “stay blind to the significant ones.”

The Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage might accurately be described, perhaps, as Advanced Fowler Games. If you enjoy growing livid, with a carefully selected group of friends, over a misused “hopefully,” over “author” or “gift” as a verb, over “disinterested” for “uninterested,” over whatever current solecism happens to jiggle your bag of spleen, then you will doubly enjoy the Harper Dictionary, for there you will find your exasperation echoed by a panel of distinguished experts, all crying, “Ugh,” “Loathsome,” “Butchery,” “Horrible,” “Awkward,” “God,” “God, no,” “Incredible,” “Abominable,” “Highly objectionable,” “Ye Gods,” and”!!!”

Two things, besides this periodically invoked chorus, seem to distinguish this new usage dictionary from the fuller and more scholarly ones (I read it against Evans and Evans, A Dictionary of American Usage; Partridge, Usage and Abusage; and Fowler, revised and unrevised): it includes more very recent usages (Watergate talk, New York police slang, computerese), and it takes pains to include a number of Briticisms. It betrays, in fact, its origins in the newspaper column of its editors, “Words, Wit and Wisdom,” and the files of oddities such columns inevitably accumulate. Those addicted to Fowler games, or who need to know the British word for “popsicle,” will want to add it to their library. Those interested only in a basic reference text ought to choose one of the fuller and better ones.


Both these books share not only the same superior tone but the same unexamined premises, and tone and premises together make for a humorless and finally an unintelligent conception of language. Both Barzun and the Harper panelists seem to think that we live in a time of special linguistic barbarism and that their job is to stave it off. They think of themselves, that is, as academicians, and their job as preserving civilization by preserving its language. Now there is no convincing evidence for any of these flattering, if also disturbing, prejudices. Usage has always changed, and the change has always been regretted, but civilization has not seemed to rise and fall in concomitant variation. Newspeak is nothing new. Ideologies all distort language in about the same way. The language of the Henrician revolution, say, with its Troynovant myth, was no less violent in its distortions than the master race language of Nazi Germany; it just seems so to us because we applaud the one and loathe the other. England in her eclipse seems no less well-spoken than she was in her greatness. People who say “ain’t” or who use “hopefully” in the same way they would use “however” are not the necessary moral inferiors of those who do not.

One would think such platitudes need not be rehearsed, if these books and many like them did not so resolutely construe their task in moral terms. The only question to be asked of language usage is “Right or Wrong.” (Maybe this is why the chorus of praise and damnation from the Harper panelists so recalls in its vehemence the language of religious disputation.) This moral premise distorts every question asked in its name. It is not that the good/bad distinction is not useful. It is. But if it insists on being the only possible distinction, it will be much less useful than it could be if it were recognized as but one kind of question among many which usage poses. The good/bad distinction, in isolation, dooms itself, as these two books illustrate, to sterile repetition and finally to working against precisely the kind of correctness they seek to recommend.

The most obvious distortion introduced by this moral polarity is the conception of linguistic change it assumes. Although some among the Harper panelists fudge a bit, they generally assume that change is bad. Changes are mostly mistakes and the main motive for mistakes is ignorance. This assumption outlaws the play of language as a principle of change, of development and discovery. Consider, for example, one of the usages that drive the Harper panelists into fibrillation, the use of “author” as a verb: “He authored three books in a single year.” “Why,” Frank Sullivan asks, “use “author” when there’s a perfectly good word—”write.” “Why indeed? None of the panelists seems to have pondered the question, yet the fact that it can be asked disproves a major premise of these two books, that changes in usage are usually mistakes. No one could claim here that a native speaker would not know that “write” was an alternative. Whatever motive substituted “authored” for “wrote”—boredom, play, a desire to emphasize the act of writing as a role—it was not ignorance.

The “usage-abusage” cast of mind is willing to admit such play only if, as Anthony Burgess says in condemning “author,” some new nuance of meaning is added. That is, play is permitted only if it is properly purposeful. Yet Burgess is a student of Joyce. He knows that play must be free, purpose-less, if it is to keep language alive. He knows that language, even—maybe especially—ordinary language, is at least as playful as it is purposeful, expressive. Forcing all changes of expression into the good/evil polarity guarantees that most of ordinary language—the main concern of usage dictionaries, one would think—will be not only misunderstood but systematically misunderstood. One might, in fact, profitably and properly think of usage dictionaries as condemnatory histories of verbal play. Communicating concepts is the least of human purposes, most of the time. Communicating attitudes is far more important, and just playing with words, staving off boredom, perhaps equally so. Slang will perpetually renew itself just because we need to play with words, to enjoy them. Jargons will always coalesce not only because we need specialized languages but because we enjoy private ones, and because we enjoy metaphor. Jargons collect metaphors which express our attitude toward what we do, our sense that it is a separate kind of activity, with its own roles and characteristic identity. They allow us to declare our membership in a group and our participation in its values.(They are thus, in fact, instruments of clarity, in that they proclaim the context in which an assertion is to be understood.) The moralistic attitude toward usage cannot understand this range of expressivity. It can only condemn. Such play, it is argued, stands superfluous to the real, true, and only purpose of language: to express thought clearly. And yet such playful superfluities generate the main changes that any discussion of changing usage must take into account. Oddly enough, the point is made, and precisely, by one of the authors Barzun quotes for his style, Eric Hoffer:

We are more ready to strive and work for superfluities than for necessities. People who are clear-sighted, undeluded, and soberminded will not go on working once their reasonable needs are satisfied. A society that refuses to strive for super-fluities is likely to end up lacking in necessities. The readiness to work springs from trivial, questionable motives. . . . A vigorous society is a society made up of people who set their hearts on toys, and who would work harder for superfluities than for necessities. The selfrighteous moralists decry such a society, yet it is well to keep in mind that both children and artists need luxuries more than they need necessities.

It is the love of ornament, of play, that keeps language interesting and us interested it it. The great, fertile, inventive ages of language have always been the ages of intense ornamentation or, like our own, ages of the persistent metaphoricality that Barzun so deplores. This whole range of expressivity—nine-tenths of language, one is tempted to say— the good/bad polarity ignores by definition. It looks at “Thanks much” or “splanch” (new to me, too: a wonderful real estate shorthand for “split-level ranch,” which, of course, sets the Harper editors yowling) and can only unlimber the admonitory finger, Thus the really significant questions never even get asked. The first thing that strikes you about the Watergate/White House talk—deplorable by definition, of course, because a jargon—is its metaphoricality. Why did they all feel the need for such language? Why all those homey reductive metaphors? What hungers did they feed? Such expressiveness is condemned in the name of clarity, of course, but read aright, isn’t such language likely to tell us more clearly about the motives of those villains than a neutral expository prose ever would? A time always comes in studying language, and it should come early, when you credit the linguistic surface. You assume its total expressivity. That is the way you really learn from it. If you insist on translating it into denotative prose, you will never understand it. You will be exactly like the man who, though he knows—and deplores— that some people say perro, or chien, or cane, or canis, or Hund, also knows that God’s real name for a dog is dog.


In the moralistic analysis of style, virtue equals clarity, and sin is obscurity. Neither the Harper panelists nor Barzun has given this equation another thought. It is what Kenneth Burke calls a “god-term.” Yet a moment’s reflection will demonstrate that clarity is a disjunctive category. It points to a coincidence of attitudes, measures mutual contentment. It does not refer to any necessary verbal ingredients. How can it when there are obviously an infinite number of ways to be clear? And when the things one wishes to be clear about are so often feelings about, attitudes toward, a subject, rather than the subject itself? “Clarity” is a subset of the larger category “Satisfaction,” and satisfaction can come in many ways.

Failures to be clear are, much more often than not, successes rather than failures. They succeed in expressing very clearly a muddled state of mind, or in making perfectly clear a whole cluster of attitudes surrounding a conceptual message. What is usually called lack of clarity is often rather the presence of something else, something the virtue/vice polarity cannot account for and thus registers as a pure negative.

The fundamental premise of both these books, of the whole usage-abusage orchestration (admonitory finger for “orchestration”), is that mistakes in usage cause misunderstandings. Most of the time this is simply not true, The context usually makes things clear. In fact, it is only because the context does usually make things clear that the solecism stands out so, If, 19 times out of 20, we did not see that, though the speaker said “disinterested,” he meant “uninterested,” we wouldn’t heat our minds so about it. A real misunderstanding would occur. But it rarely does. Instead, a solecism occurs. And, though the Harper panel would have us think all culture stands at hazard, solecisms in language don’t make any more—or any less—difference than any other mistake in?> manners. Look, for example, at “disinterested” and “uninterested.” The reason for the confusion seems plain. On the pattern of “disinclined,” “disengaged,” “disenchanted,” people assume that the “dis” works the same way with “interested,” For their sins they get this torpedo from Anthony Burgess: “The diminution of meanings is what Orwell’s Newspeak is about.” But is it really a diminution? Children learn quite young that there is more than one word for an object. Language ensures itself against misunderstandings not only by context but by synonym. It doubly over-determines. If dis- and un-interested fall together, we will still have “unbiased,” “impartial,” “neutral,” and many more. If we stand in danger of running out of synonyms, the same process of metaphorical invention that Barzun and the panelists so dislike will make up some more. We are not going to run out of words.

As for such errors being Newspeak, this is the old “foot-in-the-door” ploy used at all levels of argument—most notably in our time to justify the American presence in Vietnam. Once your explaining machinery is reduced to such an on/off simplification, you guarantee yourself simple-minded explanations for linguistic change. People make analogies; they get tired of one rhythm and, as in “Thanks much,” invent another; they invent a new word to make the night-shift go faster or to sell a product or to hide a fear. Or, like the woman writing to the Welfare Department, they get harried and write, “Please acknowledge that I have given birth to twins in the enclosed return envelope.” Surely they are not all sinners, collaborators in a vast Newspeak conspiracy which only the Harper panelists can prevent. Clarity, if in one way the end of language, is also the end in another way, too, the death of language. Change and error and chance and play grow up intertwined, There are none of these in the “usage” view of language, and there is no fun, and no generosity either.

The worship of clarity as the only laudable aim or result of prose amounts really to a left-over positivist prejudice. It assumes that language is totally referential, that an independently-existing object “out there” is matched by a single word for it “in here,” an assumption, one would have thought, that had been declared dead in other areas of thought for a couple of generations. It is, in America, a variation of what C.Wright Mills might have called “crackpot practicality,” the conviction that words are only tools for the practical life, the pliers and screwdriver of communication. The best prose style is the wholly transparent one, the world seen undisturbed by our attitudes toward it. Now, aside from the troublesome fact that such neutral perception has for a long time been proved impossible, such an ideal draws a number of difficulties in its wake. It is hard to teach and to learn what, it being transparent, you cannot see, Barzun is right in insisting that “a person who wants to write adequately must put his mind on words to the point of self-consciousness.” Words must indeed, as he says, “become objects in themselves.” It was precisely because they appreciated this home truth that the classical rhetoricians approached language and language pedagogy through what was finally a theory of ornament, a continuing detailed discussion of the figures of speech. Play, ornament, imitation, these, they saw, led to that acute self-consciousness about language which permits the student to go beyond the rules and continue his stylistic education on his own.

Barzun’s pedagogy, and that of what we might perhaps call the Harper harpies, leads in precisely the opposite direction. They would argue ornament and play, the poetry of language, out of existence. Barzun’s book and the attitude toward style which it represents thus work against the very purposes he would embrace.”Words, in short, must be there, not unseen and unheard,” he argues, and then follows a book in which prose style is made simple, direct, transparent—unseen and unheard. Of course he does not really teach style this way, because he cannot. He offers what he considers examples of the transparent style in his “times out for good reading,” but these work against his purpose, as do all such sample collections of “good modern prose styles.” What Barzun really teaches by is his lists of errors. You can see errors. Errors are the substance of his book, as they are of the Harper Dictionary, The moralistic dichotomy prevents them both from seeing “error” as a sub-category of ornament, of the attitudinizing, poeticizing, evaluating use of language, and hence, in a very fundamental way, prohibits them from seeing what they are really doing. We begin to touch here on the settled and fundamental unintelligence of both these books. Both Barzun and the Harper worthies are interested in language for its own sake. They like to play games with it, to talk about it, to look at it rather than through it. Yet they are all prisoners of a theory of prose style which insists that the good style is looked through not at, that the good style is the unornamented, unmetaphorical, unslangy, uninventive style that never shows. They thus argue against their own real benefits and practices.

It might be possible, in fact, to argue that the theory of normative clarity as the end-all of prose style is responsible for the blindness to language which the theory of normative clarity seeks to remedy. The theory may cause the problem rather than cure it.

To argue thus is not quite the same thing as to argue for obscurity, to insist that in language “anything goes.” To argue thus is again to fall into the moralistic dichotomy as the only frame of reference possible for language. No, the first requirement would seem to be to chart where “clarity” really does fit in the whole spectrum of linguistic communication. It is, like strictly disinterested honesty, a special case in human behavior and must be seen as such. It is a form of satire finally, an exposure of motive by the stripping away of attitude. Clarity is finally as artificial as La Rochefoucauld’s Maximes, and for the same reasons. Perhaps this is why people so reliably flee it. It is too piercing and too simple. People don’t think of the world neutrally, without attitudes. The attitudes will always flood in. If we want to think straight, about prose or anything else, we must understand such attitudes, not abolish them.

A mature and sensible theory of clarity, when it comes, will, I think, chart a process which oscillates between looking at the surface and looking through it. The frequency of oscillation is fast in “good,” “clear” prose. In fact, I think the real variable for value judgments lies just here—the faster the oscillation, the better the prose. This conception of clarity would seem to make sense of the world in just the way that science does, for do we not now think of science as this kind of oscillation, at a considerably lower frequency to be sure, between hypothesizing on the one hand and testing on the other? The disproof of the theory of normative prose style, that is, would seem to follow Karl Popper’s disproof of induction. We never approach the world without a conditioning premise. Our mind, to use Popper’s metaphor, is a searchlight, not a bucket.

Popper does not argue that theories should not be tested but only that we should see what theories are, how they work, and should realize what the limits of testing are. So would I agree here. Conceptual thought obviously requires a different kind of language from poetry, but it is not a fundamentally different one. The frequency of oscillation is just different. Unless you understand how that oscillation works, unless you see “clarity” as only one point on a spectrum, you will never understand even clarity, much less written language. The mechanisms of expression, like those of perception, are constant, form a continuum; they do not divide into complementary extremes. By insisting on clarity as the only value in prose style, the usage guardians blind themselves to the real nature of clarity, as well as to everything else. Academicians represent a genuine part of the process of communication and the theory of style. But only a part. They stand to stylistics as the metaphysicians do to philosophy. Their job is, by setting language against itself, to refine and make consistent the set of symbols. Their job, that is—a nice paradox—is essentially non-referential.They are not really talking about clarity or communication at all. Their real job is to make language consistent with itself. And, of course, this can only be done through verbal play.


Any genuinely referential theory of meaning, of style, must deal with attitudes primarily, because human behavior is stylized, is primarily attitudinized. Usage thinking, armed with its reductive satiric premise, takes much the same place in a general theory of style that satire as a genre does in literary theory. It is a simplification but a needful one. It aims at the methodical exposure of imposture, realizing all the time that such exposure, and the theory of “real” motive on which it depends, is itself yet another pose. Good usage is, in fact, about as likely to save the world as satire and for the same reasons. Both premise, as paradise, a world of plain-dealing, of total honesty with ourselves and others. The best satirists have always realized that theirs was an idyllic vision, and a hopelessly impractical one here below. The “usage” people, still imprisoned in their crackpot practicality, cannot see so far. They still pretend that their vision of pure and untrammeled rational communication is the only genuine, honest, true, efficient, and practical vision. The Harper panelists cannot be such ninnies in real life—we know they are not—but in the Dictionary they are prisoners of their own simplistic theory of prose style. They advocate a theory of style which, had they really practiced it, would have insured that no one would ask them to serve on panels.

It is clear, if we think about it for a moment, that the application of clarity to the prose of the past denatures it. The usual standard of comparison used to be Dryden.(Barzun’s seems to be Abraham Lincoln, an example even more malapropos, if that is possible, than Dryden, ) But it really always has been a preposterous assertion that the vast richness of English prose from Malory onward yielded only Dryden’s clarity as its flower. What is not so clear is how clarity as a god-term denatures the present as well as the past, systematically disequips us to see, and enjoy, the richness around us now. Kenneth Burke’s apothegm, that every way of seeing is also a way of not seeing, has never found a better application.

The persona of the satirist has been a good deal investigated by critics. All agree that for satire the satirist’s pose as vir bonus is crucial. So for these two books. How we read them depends on how appealing and convincing we find the presented persona. Persona has always been a problem in usage dictionaries. Fowler has been worshipped—and rightly so, to my mind—because he is such a delightful satirist. We read him as we do Horace. For this reason, Fowler’s Fowler will always be the volume of choice for connoisseurs. Gowers is a schoolmaster. Fowler was a satirist.

It is perhaps already apparent that I do not think the personae of these two books, the one individual and the other collective, come off especially well. The first thing that strikes us, as I have tried to point out, is that they work at cross-purposes to themselves, illustrate what they seek to disprove, create what they wish to abolish. Or, to put it in “Simple and Direct,” they don’t know what they’re doing. Their conception of human behavior—and this is disastrous for a satirist— is ludicrously simple-minded. It is a commonplace commentary on satire, but a true one, that the satirist must in some way cherish the vices he castigates. The more Juvenalian and violent he is, the more must this be true. He must, like Juvenal, obviously enjoy laying about him, but he must also—and here Juvenal is unsurpassed—let us know that he lays about him partly just because he does so enjoy it. He himself is in his way as self-serving as those to whom he applies the lash.

It is here that both these books fail. They believe in their own virtue. As we have seen, what they really consider, nine times out of ten, is a matter of taste, not of communication. The great solecisms all start out, or shortly become, largely a matter of social snobbery, of “U” or “non-U” as the British, always more candid than we about their delight in snobbery, have it. What the panelists object to is not failure to communicate. They object to ignorance, laziness, above all to people who really do share the utilitarian attitude toward language which the panelists recommend but so markedly fail to embody, They dislike people who do not care about language for its own sake. So, let me hasten to add, do I. But I don’t see that my dislike of them makes them any worse, or me any more virtuous, at least to begin with. Nor do I think that the American people’s utilitarian attitude toward language— “Let it work is all I ask”—necessarily means the end of the world. If you are going to be a language snob, you ought to realize that that is what you are and not pose as the Defender of Public Linguistic Virtue. You ought not to enlist, in the name of reason and good sense, all the irrational attitudes toward language which you affect to deplore.


Snobbery, one of the Harper editors informs us, “does not belong in our democratic society.” Therefore, to savor its pleasures, we must disguise them as virtues. This is what the Harper panel and its editors proceed to do. They enjoy all the pleasures of outraged taste and of outraged virtue at the same time. Make no mistake about those solecisms. They love them. One panelist has a sign on her door prohibiting entry to anyone who misuses “hopefully.” You can scarcely enjoy your friends’ mistakes more egregiously than that.

This pose is not a specially attractive one. The panelists think of themselves as Tom Jones but they come across as Blifil. One keeps murmuring to oneself, “Because thou art virtuous. . . .” “Snob,” the Harper Dictionary tells us, means “one who acts smugly superior to others.” Fowler games, at one end of the spectrum, are pure snobbery; at the other genuine acts of self-reflection about the state of the language. The Harper Dictionary is a snob book from start to finish. It objects, in the name of communication, clarity, and civilization, to what really offends it on the grounds of taste. And it makes the worst mistake a snob can make. Although the panelists try hard, very hard, to be witty, they end up sounding boorish, silly, and repetitive.

Sometimes they are plainly ignorant as well. Take, for example, the use of “gift” as a verb, A cento from the panelists: “Dreadful,” “Vulgar advertising jargon. NO, NO, NO,” “No, No,” “Ugh,” “No! No! No!,” “Loathsome,” “Highly objectionable,” “I hate it,” “Horrible,” “Awkward,” “God,” “Horrible,” “God, no,” “It disgusts me.” This is the genuine language of snobbery. But what about “gift” as a verb? It has an interesting history, it turns out, as the OED reports it. It has been used as a verb since the beginning of the 17th century. The citations include a lovely line from a 17th-century sermon: “If God have not gifted us for it, he hath not called us to it.” The verb seems to have been used right through the 19th century. Yet when it surfaces again, it evokes the yahoo chorus I’ve just cited. Why? The current usage as a verb comes from advertising, and advertising, for the person of letters, is the big enchilada, the main villain. However genuine a villain advertising is (it probably, by its play with language, does as much good as harm), what we have here is guilt by association, a snobbish verdict masquerading—ignorantly—as linguistic virtue. If we use “gift” as a verb, we will make the same kind of mistake newcomers used to make in Louis XIV’s Versailles when they knocked on people’s doors (“Horrible,” “Awkward,” “Loathsome”) instead of, as all sensible and knowing people did, scratching at the door with a fingernail grown long especially for this purpose.

One of the basic questions that never seems to get asked about usage dictionaries is who uses them and for what purpose. Are we to picture a beginning or frequent writer who wants to use “accessorize” as a verb but will not if the Harper Dictionary forbids it? There may be some such, but surely they are not the typical cases. These people will go on and do as they like. They are doing the work of the world, and they’ll use the word that comes to hand. They will be like the man who does not know he is misspelling a word and so is not tempted to look it up. They lack, as we say, an “ear” for language, and it is the ear, finally, that tells us the difference between “disinterested” and “uninterested.” How do you cultivate an “ear”? Barzun knows the answer as well as the Harper panelists—wide reading. You cannot memorize rules, you will not even want to try, until you have an intuitive knowledge of language, until you have cultivated some taste. Now usage dictionaries, if you browse through them, can help you confirm and sharpen your taste, but they are unlikely to awaken it. They move, again, in the opposite direction, argue that intuitive judgments are not intuitive but conceptual, codify them, render them a matter of rules. They would keep us perpetually on our “p’s and q’s,” and a love for language does not lie that way. The perpetual single focus on correctness kills enjoyment, makes prose style into one long Sunday school. Usage dictionaries, that is, can teach us only what we already know. They tend to be the affectation of, well, of people specially interested in usage. They are most useful as the central document in a continuing word-game played by sophisticated people.

We face in America, there is no doubt about it, a genuine and genuinely frightening crisis in literacy. But the illiterate students who crowd the schools and campuses do not make the kinds of mistakes that vex Barzun and the Harper people. The mistakes of the new illiterates (admonitory finger) are much less trendy and far more fundamental. The needful pedagogy is as yet unclear, but it will certainly, when it co-heres, stand far from the sin-and-redemption simplicities offered by the books under review. For we finally ask of the usage-and-abusage doctrine what we finally ask of the preacher—why haven’t you been more successful? Why have so many, many books, all saying the same thing, failed so dismally to improve the situation? If what is really needed is the habit of wide reading before such advice can work, have we not said that we must be literate before instruction in literacy can do much good? Browsing in a usage dictionary is great fun, but for the wrong reasons. Knowing that “debag” is the British schoolboy’s slang for taking someone’s pants off, or that “argy-bargy” can mean a vociferous quarrel, will not save the world or solve the literacy problem. These words are just fun to know. And the same is true of watching Jacques Barzun, when he is funny, playing the vir bonus of language.

What will the answerable pedagogy be like for our time? Well, we can say for certain that it cannot be, as the usage-dictionary philosophy of language is, built on a pattern of fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of language. No successful pedagogy can. And, while the old pedagogy has failed for many reasons, clearly one of them is that its fundamental principles are wrong. It has mistaken a band-aid for the science of medicine. It has been a boomerang pedagogy, exacerbating the problem it sought to cure. At present so many social and political influences distort and mask the effect of these theoretical misunderstandings that it may seem unimportant to clear them up. Not so. The fons et origo of our problem is that instruction in language is based, when it is based on anything except the teacher’s desire to get through the hour unharmed, on mistaken positivist premises which have been disproved in other areas of thought for a hundred years. You can neither understand nor teach a subject by making special cases—and purely denotative clarity is a very special case—into norms. There is finally no substitute for knowing the real boundary conditions of your subject. You need not be against band-aids (I am for them, and have dispensed my share) to argue that they offer no proper substitute for the study of medicine.


Barzun is certainly correct that we must learn to see words as words, cultivate an acute self-consciousness about them. But the way to do that is to study words, the whole spectrum of prose styles from the most ornamental to the least. And study them as all possible strategies for different attitudes, places, and times. Put aside the moralistic polarity and study how, in fact, style works in the world, relates to and molds human behavior. Study styles, do not preach about and at them. Any pedagogy that hopes to work must educate intuitive judgments, not try to avoid them or legislate about them. We are good, finally, partly by intuition. It is the same with prose. What we need here, as in the curriculum in general, is to move from concept to intuition and back, from poetic knowing to scientific, the movement Whitehead recommended so long ago in The Aims of Education.He called these two phases the stage of romance and the stage of generalization. Instruction in prose style has embraced both, but it refuses to put them into oscillation. There is plenty of pure romance—it is called “creative writing” usually, and its pedagogy is, as Terry Southern immortally put it, “Right out of the old guts onto the goddam paper.” And there is the usage-abusage doctrine, which is all integration, all rules. The new pedagogy must combine both, and set them to work in the study of verbal style across its whole range. There is no reason at all why we snobs cannot go on playing Fowler games. If, however, they are mistaken for a serious, intelligent, and comprehensive pedagogy of style, then something has gone badly wrong and they are likely to cause more misunderstanding than they are worth.

The problem, at heart, is really the relation of formal to moral theories of art. I have been suggesting, of course, a poetic pedagogy for style, a pedagogy to complement—and indeed to surround, since it is so much more important—the older prescriptive theories. We cannot really notice words unless we love them, and love of words means the study of poetry, And it is in the relation of moral and formal theories of poetry that the root of our misunderstanding lies. I cannot here spell out how this relationship ought to be understood, but perhaps I can offer at least an apothegm: since human behavior is so fundamentally stylized, language will reflect behavior most accurately when it is stylized; the study of style is practical in the most immediate way, in that it explores the stylistic and intuitive sources of our basic human motives. If you do not understand this, you will, as do these two books, fundamentally misunderstand how language does in fact mislead. And if you look for the causes of misunderstanding so steadily in the wrong place you will never see them in the right one.

The premise of the Harper Dictionary, and Barzun’s premise too, is that the literate man is surrounded by an ocean of ignorance. This is, to be sure, the satirist’s perennial pose, but which of us does not feel it keenly just now? Yet ordinary people, every day, make the most acute stylistic judgments in other areas of their life, show the most acute stylistic sensitivities. Is it that they cannot be made equally aware of language, that it invokes a range of stylistic judgment other areas of life do not? I think not. The great question is how to tap, and then train, that great reservoir of stylistic expertise. To do it, you must first understand the stylistic roots of behavior. Teaching and Delighting always return to one another in poetry because they find their common ground in verbal pattern and behavior, both matters of style and in the same way.

The final weakness, then, of these two books lies in their misunderstanding not of prose only but of behavior, Their conception of motive is, like their conception of style, grotesquely simplistic. We speak either to be clear, or to deceive. Good or bad. Rational or the reverse. The great compensatory spectrum of motive is the one that stands right outside this polarity—the spectrum of play. Once we allow it in our universe of discourse, the fruitful pedagogical oscillation Whitehead counsels comes into being almost by itself. Barzun and the Harper panel will cease to talk at cross-purposes to themselves, to reenact a playful attitude while counseling a moral one. They may even, confronted with the problem in its fulness, see that their moral indignation is essentially playful, that they feel indignant in order that they may savor fully the pleasures of indignation, that this behavior disproves their counsel, that the attention to language they recommended leads to the stylistic play, the endless free variation which they abhor.

These two books, then, are not remarkable for their freshness of thought or the innovation of their form. They are both, as I have said, the mixture as before. But they are not the less interesting for that. For if they do not offer a new genre and a new pedagogy, they demonstrate beyond a doubt the bankruptcy of the old, and for this we ought to be thankful. In this matter, they are equally eloquent. Your author has long admired Barzun’s work and his career, In his combination of scholar, teacher, and dean, where are we to find his equal? Yet when he imprisons himself in an outmoded form and adopts its simplistic axioms of clarity, brevity, and sincerity, look what is the humorless result. What he has done is illustrate the intellectual bankruptcy of the ethical mode of stylistic analysis. When Barzun says, in his introduction, that “Rhetoric in its essence is not concerned with your reason for writing,” he goes fundamentally wrong and stays there. The disastrous premise permits nothing else. Likewise (admonitory finger) with the Harper panelists. People of great distinction in many kinds of endeavor, people possessed of savvy, sense, and determination, men and women of the world, when they are fed questions based on fundamentally incompatible and misguided premises, turn into a collection of silly snobs who mistake their preoccupation with verbal scrimshaw for the cause of civilization. The fault lies in the axioms of the genre. Perhaps people will always talk about language in moral terms, since it is so much more enjoyable that way, but we ought not to elaborate this practice into a pedagogy. We are not talking here about, as Johnson put it, the “few wild blunders, and risible absurdities, from which no work of such multiplicity was ever free.” We are talking about the fundamental axioms of the inquiry.

Any serious usage dictionary of the future ought to chart usages, not condemn them. It should tell you that if you use “gift” as a verb you will have the New York literary establishment down on your head like a thousand bricks, but it need not smugly confuse the falling bricks with the preservation of culture. A genuinely new usage dictionary would understand, and show that it understood, how language is really used in human behavior. It would try to explain why the usages it discusses changed in the way they did. It would outgrow the whole Newtonian interlude that has given thinking about style a positivist bias since the days of Dryden. It would see that clarity is a very weak and incomplete god-term, and it would substitute for it a spectrum covering the whole range of prose styles, from the most transparent to the most self-consciously ornamental. And it would not come on, either as single spy or in a battalion, as the guardian of virtue. It would have been a gratifying task to report that these two books, coming from such impeccable sources, really did any of these things, really had anything new to say. Alas, they do not. They simply combine, scarcely even in a new dress, the same old combination of gossip, snobbery, good sense, good taste, misunderstood premises, and sanctimonious self-satisfaction which in the last hundred years has passed for thinking on the subject of prose style.


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