Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Thursday, July 28, 2005


Emily just yesterday reminded me of an essay David Foster Wallace wrote for Harpers a few years back, and sent me a link to a copy of same. Mating modern usage guides to archaic usage guides to Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct, Wallace's book review is a compend- and hilarious riff on the state of modern English usage, and his own particular brand of "SNOOT"iness. SNOOT, of course, is a Wallace family acronym, as he explains (in a footnote omitted from the below passage), for "this reviewer's nuclear family's nickname a clef for a really extreme usage fanatic, the sort of person whose idea of Sunday fun is to look for mistakes in Safire's column's prose itself. This reviewer's family is roughly 70 percent SNOOT, which term itself derives from an acronym, with the big historical family joke being that whether S.N.O.O.T. stood for "Sprachgefuhl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance" or "Syntax Nudniks of Our Time" depended on whether or not you were one."

Of SNOOTS he writes:

There are lots of epithets for people like this — Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, the Language Police. The term I was raised with is SNOOT.[3] The word might be slightly self-mocking, but those other terms are outright dysphemisms. A SNOOT can be defined as somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn't mind letting you know it.

I submit that we SNOOTs are just about the last remaining kind of truly elitist nerd. There are, granted, plenty of nerd-species in today's America, and some of these are elitist within their own nerdy purview (e.g., the skinny, carbuncular, semi-autistic Computer Nerd moves instantly up on the totem pole of status when your screen freezes and now you need his help, and the bland condescension with which he performs the two occult keystrokes that unfreeze your screen is both elitist and situationally valid). But the SNOOT's purview is interhuman social life itself. You don't, after all (despite withering cultural pressure), have to use a computer, but you can't escape language: Language is everything and everywhere; it's what lets us have anything to do with one another; it's what separates us from the animals; Genesis 11:7-10 and so on. And we SNOOTS know when and how to hyphenate phrasal adjectives and to keep participles from dangling, and we know that we know, and we know how very few other Americans know this stuff or even care, and we judge them accordingly.

In ways that certain of us are uncomfortable about, SNOOTs' attitudes about contemporary usage resemble religious/political conservatives' attitudes about contemporary culture: We combine a missionary zeal and a near-neural faith in our beliefs' importance with a curmudgeonly hell-in-a-handbasket despair at the way English is routinely manhandled and corrupted by supposedly educated people. The Evil is all around us: boners and clunkers and solecistic howlers and bursts of voguish linguistic methane that make any SNOOT's cheek twitch and forehead darken. A fellow SNOOT I know likes to say that listening to most people's English feels like watching somebody use a Stradivarius to pound nails. We are the Few, the Proud, the Appalled at Everyone Else.
[footnotes omitted]
This absolutely slays me. Even as it makes me doubly self-conscious of my own malaprops and solecisms.

As an introduction to the article, I especially recommend the long block of exempla of common usage errors or banal undesirable usages DFW provides. He enumerates everything from trivial word errors to moderately difficult to spot grammar errors to bowdlerizations and so on. Here's a representative sample taken from the middle of the block of material:

"Chances of rain are prevalent." National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Rule and Regulation Amendment Task Force. Further for farther. "The Fred Pryor Seminar has opened my eyes to better time management techniques. Also it has given real life situations and how to deal with them effectively." Hands-on, can-do. "Each of the variants indicated in boldface type count as an entry." Visualization. "Insert and tighten metric calibrated hexscrews (K) into arc (G) comprised of intersecting vertical pieces (A) along transverse section of Structure. (see Diagram for #(3-4 inv.)" Creative, creativity. To message, to send a message, to bring our message to. To reach out to. Context. Straightlaced. A factor, a decisive factor. Myriads of decisive factors. "It is a federal requirement to comply with all safety regulations on this flight." In this context, of this context. On a — ly basis. From the standpoint of. Contextualization. Within the parameters of this context. Decontextualization. Defamiliarize. Orientated. "The artist's employment of a radical visual idiom serves to decontextualize both conventional modes of representation and the patriarchal contexts on which such traditional hegemonic notions as representation, tradition, and even conventional contextualization have come to be seen as depending for their privileged status as aestheto-interpretive mechanisms." I don't feel well and hope I recoup. "As parents, the responsibility of talking to your kids about drugs is up to you." Who would of thought? Last and final call. AS to. Achieve. Achievement. Competitive. Challenge, challenged, challenges. Excellence. Pursuit of a standard of total excellence. An astute observance. Misrepresent for lie. A longstanding tradition of achievement in the arena of excellence. "All copier stores are not the same." Visible to the eye. Which for that, I for me. That which. In regards to. Data as singular, media as singular, graffiti as singular.

Anyway, to add some critical, er, mass to this post, I think it's precisely Wallace's love for properly spoken English, his SNOOT status, that attunes him to the many oddities of common speech and in turns makes his dialogue so readable, even when it's surreal. Surreal dialogue works when it is anchored in reality, when beneath its surfact there's some kernel of colloquial truth. Wallace has that. In spades. And this essay / review says something about why.


Post a Comment

<< Home

eXTReMe Tracker