22 June 2004

If You're Anxious for to Shine in the High Aesthetic Line...

Rake's Progress points to a marvelous article in The New Yorker, a review by Louis Menand of the bestselling punctuation handbook, Eats, Shoots & Leaves. It's much more than a review, though, which is the best sort of review to read, especially when you have no intention of reading whatever is being reviewed.

First, Menand turns the book into a rotting corpse and dissects it:
We are informed that when a sentence ends with a quotation American usage always places the terminal punctuation inside the quotation marks, which is not so. (An American would not write "Who said 'I cannot tell a lie?'") A line from "My Fair Lady" is misquoted ("The Arabs learn Arabian with the speed of summer lightning"). And it is stated that The New Yorker, "that famously punctilious periodical," renders "the nineteen-eighties" as the "1980's," which it does not. The New Yorker renders "the nineteen-eighties" as "the nineteen-eighties."
But then he moves on to other, larger topics, ideas that defy short excerpts, so all I can do is point you toward the article itself.

Yesterday, the latest issue of Flytrap arrived, and I immediately read all the nonfiction, which includes an extended comparison of writing to professional wrestling by Nick Mamatas and an essay on grammatical shibboleths by Jed Hartman, who has written quite a lot about words, wordgames, linguistics, grammar, and style. I am particularly glad to now have a name for Hartman's Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation, a natural occurrence I have observed, suffered from, and probably even committed:
[HLoPR] states that any article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one eror.
I'm sure The New Yorker will hear about the following passage from Menand's review:
There are probably all kinds of literary sins that prevent a piece of writing from having a voice, but there seems to be no guaranteed technique for creating one. Grammatical correctness doesn’t insure it.
Some people maintain there is a general rule of thumb concerning "insure" vs. "ensure", with "insure" primarily involving money. Grammatical correctness doesn't insure voice any more than Geico does.

However, the good folks at The New Yorker could fight back with the following, from the "ensure, insure, assure" entry of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, which has a wonderfully dry wit:
Quite a few commentators insist on distinctions between these words, but Bernstein 1977 says there are none, flatly contradicting Einstein 1985 who says that each means something different. Usage agrees better with Bernstein. ... A few commentators, such as Trimble 1975 and Sellers 1975, suggest assure for people, ensure for things, and insure for money and guarantees (insurance). These are nice distinctions and you can follow them if you want to.
And now I promise not to write about grammar and usage for at least another week...

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