Lewis Carroll, prescriptivist

June 15, 2017

Lewis Carroll was an enthusiastic and prolific letter-writer. On New Year’s Day in 1861, aged 28, he began to keep a register of the letters he sent, and the last one it records is number 98,721. The full tally, forever unknown, is probably much higher.

The Selected Letters of Lewis Carroll (Macmillan Press, 1982), edited by Morton Cohen, has some items of interest on the subject of language use. For example: Writing to Edith Rix on 15 January 1886, Carroll teases her about a spelling error and about her choice of preposition after different: she uses to, but he favours – insists on – from:

Now I come to your letter dated December 22nd, and must scold you for saying that my solution of the problem was “quite different to all common ways of doing it”: if you think that’s good English, well and good; but I must beg to differ to you, and to hope you will never write me a sentence similar from this again. However, “worse remains behind”; and if you deliberately intend in future, when writing to me about one of England’s greatest poets, to call him “Shelly”, then all I can say is, that you and I will have to quarrel! Be warned in time.

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When is a typo not a typo? In the wor(l)d of Ulysses

June 6, 2017

Thus the unfacts, did we possess them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude —James Joyce, Finnegans Wake

As a copy-editor I try to abide by the typographic oath: First, do no harm. When you’re making changes to a writer’s text, whatever you do, don’t introduce an error. But at the risk of undermining that solid principle, there is an occasional exception.

Enter James Joyce.

Cover of OUP edition of "Ulysses", the 1922 text, with cover illustration by Richard Hamilton featuring black and white figures in quasi-Cubist styleThe length and complexity of Ulysses, and the difficulties of its publication, mean that many subtly different versions of the text exist. The first legal edition in the US, which became its standard edition for decades, was based on a pirated copy, for example.

Typographical errors arose inevitably from multiple sources; complicating things further is the fact that some ‘errors’ were deliberate but wrongly ‘corrected’ by printers or editors. And then there were all those rewrites and updates by the author while the thing was being serialised. And afterwards.

So there is no ideal, ‘master’ text; in fact Joyce scholars fight over the best way to decide what this even means.

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The ambiguous Oxford comma

April 21, 2017

The more finicky a distinction, the more fanatically people take sides over it. The Oxford comma (aka serial comma, series comma, etc.) is a case in point. Some people – often copy editors or writers – adopt it as a tribal badge and commit to it so completely that it becomes part of their identity. They become true believers.

Being a true believer means adhering to the faith: swearing, hand on stylebook, that the Oxford comma is the best option, end of story. ‘It eliminates ambiguity,’ they assert without qualification. Many claim to use it ‘religiously’, or they convey their devotion to it in analogous secular terms.

Either way, this is dogma, and like all dogma it masks a more complicated (and more interesting) truth.

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The Samuel Johnson notes: A very nice word

April 5, 2017

Everyone who uses language has their crutch words. These personal clichés fill a gap in common contexts, giving us a break from the burden of originality. Many are adjectives: academics have noteworthy, campus kids have awesome, and I have nice.

Almost anything positive could invite it: nice tune, nice scarf, nice work, nice idea. I also use nice in its narrower sense meaning subtle, fine-grained: a nice distinction. Both senses are familiar to modern ears. Go back a few centuries, though, and the word becomes a chameleonic stranger.

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A sea of language at full boil

March 10, 2017

Jonathan Lethem is an author whose back catalogue I’ve been slowly, happily pecking away at. His protean, genre-blending style will not appeal to all tastes, but I’ve greatly enjoyed the few I’ve read. The most recent of these is Motherless Brooklyn, which won a couple of awards as the century turned. I single it out here because its narrator is obsessed with language.

Lionel Essrog is an orphan now grown up, more or less, and he has Tourette’s syndrome. (In his acknowledgements Lethem mentions Oliver Sacks, whose book An Anthropologist on Mars has a chapter on Tourette’s.) Lethem’s depiction of the syndrome is sympathetic and thoughtful, but he is alive too to its comic and dramatic possibilities, and the novel is often funny, tense, or otherwise affecting.

Lionel’s Tourette’s has its own particular contours, characterised by compulsive counting, ticcing, tapping (people’s shoulders, especially), kissing, collar-fixing, copying other people’s utterances and actions, and a kind of self-fuelling wordplay that draws on words heard or seen and then cannibalises itself unstoppably.

Early in the novel, staking out a meditation centre with a fellow orphan, the word Zendo catches Lionel’s eye and mind:

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Harry Bosch, trainee prescriptivist

February 22, 2017

The politics of English usage can show up anywhere. I was reading Michael Connelly’s 2010 crime novel The Reversal – gradually working my way through his back catalogue – when I found it depicting the spread of prescriptivism.

LAPD detective Harry Bosch and his 14-year-old daughter, Madeline, are at breakfast:

He checked his watch. It was time to go.

‘If you’re done playing with your food you can put your bowl in the sink. We have to get going.’

Finished, Dad. You should use the correct word.’

‘Sorry about that. Are you finished playing with your cereal?’


‘Good. Let’s go.’

Harry leaves Madeline with Sue Bambrough, her vice principal, for babysitting. He takes the opportunity to consult with the teacher:

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“We must write for our own time”

December 15, 2016

A few words from Sartre:

A book has its absolute truth in its own time. It is lived like a riot or a famine, with much less intensity of course, and by fewer people, but in the same way. It is an emanation of intersubjectivity, a living bond of rage, hatred, or love between those who have produced it and those who receive it. If it gains ground, thousands of people reject it and deny it: we all know very well that to read a book is to rewrite it. At the time it is first a panic, an escape, or a courageous affirmation; at the time it is a good or a bad action. Later, when the time has died, it will become relative; it will become a message. But the judgement of posterity will not invalidate the opinions men had of it during its lifetime. . . .

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