Word Court
By Barbara Wallraff

Harcourt, 2000
360 pp., $24

By Doug Shaver
April 9, 2002

A subtitle nicely conveys the tone of this book: "Wherein verbal virtue is rewarded, crimes against the language are punished, and poetic justice is done." The irony-deficient might not get it, but this is fair warning that Wallraff hopes to entertain as much as to instruct.

She does well at both. The book takes its title from the author’s column in the Atlantic Monthly, where she has been senior editor since 1983, and is largely a sampler from it with commentary. Those who are familiar with William Safire’s series of compilations from his "On Language" column will have the idea.

In an introductory chapter, titled "Who Cares," Wallraff gives the reader unfamiliar with the magazine, or with the column, an idea of what it is about. People have questions about how to speak or write correctly, and she answers them. Or, they have opinions about how others speak or write, and they solicit her endorsement of those opinions. Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t.

Wallraff gets to the heart of things with the next chapter, "The Elements of Fashion," addressing an assortment of issues new to the current generation of writers. She notes that in some cases, the current generation only thinks they are new, as when she informs one reader that disrespect is not the neologism he believed it was. A section titled "Sex and the Single Pronoun," she fields queries about female college freshmen, they with singular antecedents, and the like. She tends to favor historical usage over ideology, but says that communication without distraction is what matters most:

A speaker or writer who is trying simply to express an idea, rather than to pick a fight with listeners or readers, needs to tread carefully. Changing freshman to first-year student is probably treading too far: women have been freshmen in great numbers for decades. . . .

She considers chairperson "harmless enough" but sees nothing wrong with chairman, either, even if a subsequent pronoun must be rendered he or she or his or her. She does insist on pronoun-antecedent agreement while observing, as AP does, that it’s often trivially easy to simply avoid the issue by rewriting.

There can be a good reason for certain evolutions, as Wallraff explains to someone who objected to the expansive gender. The reader noted having been taught that "nouns in romance languages have gender; people, bless their little hearts, have sex." Wallraff replies:

Call me radical and reckless, but I just can’t see changing the phrase gender gap to sex gap.

The very suggestiveness of your wording suggests something else as well: one reason the word gender is catching on may well be that sex sometimes conveys something – well, sexier than the speaker or writer intends.

Some are bound to find her too accommodating. She quotes a reader who says, in reference to niggardly, "I have grown to like the word, and will use it as I please," and responds, "Whether or not you use the word depends on your audience. If you hope to be persuasive to a group of ‘uneducated self-righteous PC word-police type,’ as you put it, then perhaps niggardly isn’t your best word choice."

However, if angering both ends of a spectrum is evidence that one is on the right track, Wallraff is doing fine. To a reader defending political correctness, she writes:

. . . an expression like women’s work is demeaning only if women are already demeaned. The important thing, therefore, rather than changing the wording, is to change the low status of women – or whatever group is at issue. Otherwise, any new wording will come to seem like a slur, too. After all, what has been gained by the transition from crippled to handicapped to physically challenged and so on?

She moves on to issues of longer standing in "A Grammarian’s Dozen," starting with split infinitives, about which she cites Fowler approvingly. By this time the reader knows that prepositions at ends of sentences are bound to come up, and that she will have little patience with anyone who thinks they’re a bad thing.

If the same reader by this time suspects her of laissez-faire permissiveness, he or she will be relieved by her prescriptive analysis of the distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, the latter of which she prefers to call "descriptive clauses." A section on sentence adverbs takes up the issue of hopefully, naturally. Predictably, she finds it unobjectionable in principle to write something like "Hopefully, this explanation will be clear," but she also warns the writer, ". . . many people who care about language happen to loathe this usage."

As she implies here and elsewhere, correctness alone is not always sufficient. A reader asks her about the plural of the hole in one to which golfers aspire. It is, she declares, holes in one. "All the same," she adds, "to say ‘two holes in one’ is to ask to be misunderstood."

Wallraff explains, as clearly as one can imagine, how to decide between who and whom and to sort out other case issues that seem to befuddle even writers whom one would expect to know better. She expresses a bit of impatience with those who think they are hard questions: "Now, then, will everyone please stop acting as if the difference between the subjective case and the objective case were quantum mechanics, and get it right? It’s not complicated at all."

The chapter "Say No More" is a kind of writer’s FAQ, from "A, An" to "Zeds, Zeros," starting about halfway through the book and comprising most of the remainder. "A number of the questions in this chapter are ones to which I once supposed everybody already knew the answer," she notes. That this is not the case is due to the inevitable evolution of our language. An historian, she observes, actually was correct once upon a time in England, and it still has its defenders.

This is, arguably, the most entertaining chapter in the book. (She says, about arguably, "It isn’t much loved. And it is newer than many words, having been part of our language for merely a century or so. It has a niche to occupy, however, if we’ll let it.") Most wordsmiths should enjoy browsing through entries on distinctions to be made between bring and take, degree and diploma, lectern and podium, or on whether one’s home town must refer to where one was born, or on what to do if tempted to use literally to modify a figure of speech.

Some misusages are so entrenched as to compel evasion by careful writers. Wallraff’s column is published every other month. Is it a bimonthly column, then? Yes, but it would be folly to assume all readers will know that: The prefix bi- "is useless for making clear a rate of recurrence," she says. If a task is deceptively easy, is it more or less difficult than one would suppose? "If you want to be understood, you need to phrase it some other way," she says.

Some battles still remain worth fighting, though. On the difference between every day and everyday, she remarks, "I refuse to believe that most people can’t tell an adverb or a noun from an adjective." On fortuitous, she comments,

It is true that over the past several decades the word has inched further from accidental in meaning, and closer to lucky, until something like "The billing records were found fortuitously, casting doubt on Hillary Clinton’s credibility" sounds very strange – except, no doubt, to Mrs. Clinton’s detractors. What the word is still not allowed to mean is, simply, fortunate, this word being perfectly capable of doing its own job.

She holds the line on placement of only, while siding with Fowler in noting that once in a while it works better someplace where slavish observance of the rule says it shouldn’t be.

Good writers comply with rules. The best writers know when to disregard them. One reason is that, as Wallraff demonstrates repeatedly, many rules are not so well fixed as some of us admitted pedants might wish they were. An appeal to authority might be a legitimate argument in debating grammar or style, but the authorities are not always of one mind, and in any event usage is, after all, the final authority. Word Court is an amusing and enlightening review of scores of cases on which either the jury is still out or, despite all pronouncements by putative legislators, the people persist in their civil disobedience.


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This page last updated on November 7, 2010.