I never thought I’d laugh so much while reading an essay on dictionaries, but David Foster Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage” is really the funniest thing you’ll find on the subject. It’s a review of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, but it’s much more than that — it’s also a personal essay, a discussion of the differences between and merits of prescriptivist and descriptivist approaches to language, a meditation on what it means to try to teach Standard Written English (SWE), a consideration of how we all use dialects and subdialects to negotiate our way around the world, and a bunch of other stuff too.
And Wallace makes it all exciting reading. Before you even begin the essay itself, you will find a long list (in very small print) of violations of SWE, logic, and aesthetics that, we learn later, Wallace collected in a short period of observing and listening (the list begins: “Save up to 50% and more! Between you and I … The cause was due to numerous factors” and goes on and on). Then early on in the essay, Wallace writes this wonderful sentence:
But the really salient and ingenious features of A Dictionary of Modern American Usage involve issues of rhetoric and ideology and style, and it is impossible to describe why these issues are important and why Garner’s management of them borders on genius without talking about the historical context in which ADMAU appears, and this context turns out to be a veritable hurricane of controversies involving everything from technical linguistics and public education to political ideology, and these controversies take a certain amount of time to unpack before their relation to what makes Garner’s dictionary so eminently worth your hard-earned reference-book dollar can even be established; and in fact there’s no way even to begin the whole harrowing polymeric discussion without first taking a moment to establish and define the highly colloquial term SNOOT.
I love how the long serious sentence eventually winds its way around to what is a very funny and unexpected word. Snoots are, in one possible definition, “the sorts of people who feel that special blend of wincing despair and sneering superiority when they see EXPRESS LANE — 10 ITEMS OR LESS.” If this is you, you might very well love this essay as much as I did.
Wallace tells stories of growing up in a family full of snoots, including the story of how his mother would pretend to have a coughing fit whenever one of her children made a usage error and would keep coughing until that child discovered the error and fixed it. This is a family that made up songs about being snoots while driving in the car — actually, Wallace admits in a footnote to a footnote that he was the one who made up the song, and the first few lines went like this: “When idiots in this world appear / And fail to be concise or clear / And solecisms rend the ear / The cry goes up both far and near / For Blunderdog ….”
The essay covers a lot of intellectually deep territory — people like Saussure and Derrida and Wittgenstein get discussed — but Wallace’s writing is always charming, witty, and conversational. The voice is very down-to-earth, very honest and self-revealing. Wallace is not afraid let you laugh at him. There are a lot of footnotes and many footnotes on the footnotes and several interpolations and a semi-interpolation or two, and I love the way this creates a sense of back-and-forth, a feeling of dialogue, as though Wallace is so excited about the subject and has so much to say that it can’t be contained in the main text.
I think that rather than continuing to try to capture what it is I like about his writing, I’ll just quote a long passage and let you see for yourself:
Take, for example, the Descriptivist claim that so-called correct English usages like brought rather than brung and felt rather than feeled are arbitrary and restrictive and unfair and are supported only by custom and are (like irregular verbs in general) archaic and incommodious and an all-around pain in the ass. Let us concede for the moment that these claims are 100 percent reasonable. Then let’s talk about pants. Trousers, slacks. I suggest to you that having the so-called correct subthoracic clothing for US males be pants instead of skirts is arbitrary (lots of other cultures let men wear skirts), restrictive and unfair (US females get to wear either skirts or pants), based solely on archaic custom … and in certain ways not only incommodious but illogical (skirts are more comfortable than pants; pants ride up; pants are hot; pants can squish the ‘nads and reduce fertility; over time pants chafe and erode irrregular sections of men’s leg-hair and give older men hidious half-denuded legs; etc, etc). Let us grant — as a thought experiment if nothing else — that these are all sensible and compelling objections to pants as an androsartorial norm. Let us, in fact, in our minds and hearts say yes — shout yes — to the skirt, the kilt, the toga, the sarong, the jupe. Let us dream of or even in our spare time work toward an America where nobody lays any arbitrary sumptuary prescriptions on anyone else and we can all go around as comfortable and aerated and unchafed and motile as we want.
And yet the fact remains that in the broad cultural mainstream of millennial America, men do not wear skirts. If you, the reader, are a US male, and even if you share my personal objections to pants and dream as I do of a cool and genitally unsquishy American Tomorrow, the odds are still 99.9 percent that in 100 percent of public situations you wear pants/slacks/shorts/trunks. More to the point, if you are a US male and also have a US male child, and if that child might happen to come to you one evening and announce his desire/intention to wear a skirt rather than pants to school the next day, I am 100 percent confident that you are going ot discourage him from doing so. Strongly discourage him. You could be a Molotov-tossing anti-pants radical or a kilt manufacturer or Dr. Steven Pinker himself — you’re going to stand over your kid and be prescriptive about an arbitrary, archaic, uncomfortable, and inconsequentially decorative piece of clothing.
And he goes on to make the point that just as US males will wear pants because society expects them to, in the same way we use a certain form of English because society expects us to, and we are judged by the form of English we use. Language sends a message about who we are, and if we want to fit in and do well in society, we will send the right message. So language descriptivists who say that the traditional rules of grammar are nothing more than fashion, “inconsequential decoration,” are completely missing the point.
Ted kindly pointed me to a fabulous profile of Wallace at Rolling Stone that tells the story of his struggle with depression and his suicide. In a brief comparison of his fiction and nonfiction, it says his essays were “endless charming, they were the best friend you’d ever have, spotting everything, whispering jokes, sweeping you past what was irritating or boring or awful in humane style.” This strikes me as exactly right.