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NEH on DFW on Webster’s Third

July 21, 2009

Via The Book Bench, Humanities magazine has an article on Webster’s Third New International Dictionary which takes Wallace to task for some alleged fast-and-looseness with the facts in his 2001 Harper’s piece (PDF) on the usage wars. David Skinner, the author, writes:

At first glance, the controversy over Webster’s Third seems to symbolize a lurch in American culture from a late fifties’ respect for standards to a sixties’ rebellion against establishment values… But the dictionary-bashing that began in 1961 has continued well beyond America’s shift from square to hip. In 2001, Harper’s magazine published a cover story by David Foster Wallace that contained a fresh assault on Webster’s Third and its editor, Philip Gove. Like many earlier critiques, it showed little understanding of the thinking that went into Webster’s Third. It was unique, however, in its brazen misrepresentation of the book itself.

He gets into the meat of his allegations near the bottom of the piece. I haven’t read Wallace’s article in quite awhile, but I’m pretty sure Skinner is himself misrepresenting Wallace here — later Skinner characterizes Wallace as a “dyed-in-the-wool language purist,” which is partially correct but IIRC Wallace took considerable pains to treat his own grammar-compulsions from an ironic distance. In fact, the Wallace piece lauds Bryan Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage for charting a sensible middle ground between hardcore prescriptivism and descriptivism.

At any rate, Wallace does a better job of laying out the parameters of the descriptivist/prescriptivist kerfuffle, and of being generous to the opposing side despite disagreements, than this Skinner feller. Why this piece in Humanities, why now, 48 years after the publication of Webster’s 3, 8 years after the publication of Wallace’s piece, and 10 months after Wallace’s death?

UPDATE: Here’s how Wallace characterizes his own position. He uses the acronym “SNOOT” (which I won’t even get into here — read the piece for yourself):

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.

See the ironic distance here? See the way it implies humility and self-awareness without at all diminishing the sense of Wallace’s passion for the subject at hand? See how conveys that this is one of those academic-y topics in which the arguments get so fierce because the stakes are so small? Regardless of whether Skinner’s whinges are categorically valid or not, contrasting the two essays is an object lesson in how the right tone, particularly about contentious subjects, can disarm the reader and bring her over to your side.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 22, 2009 3:33 pm

    I’m thrilled to have found your blog, linked off of the mothership today. Your posts are engaging and thoughtful and deliciously well written (I have an obvious fondness for this one in particular as I am engaged in trying to unpack the ways in which Wallace subverted his own reputation as a purist in IJ).

    [something trite but completely sincere here about your recovery that I can’t actually bring myself to say]

  2. infinitedetox permalink*
    July 22, 2009 3:43 pm

    Dude — your post on all the hyphens in IJ? Great stuff:) There is probably an entire doctoral dissertation awaiting whoever’s crazy enough to tackle the issue of punctuation in Infinite Jest, a la the Moms’ “undergraduate Honors work at McGill on the use of hyphens, dashes, and colons in E. Dickinson.”

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