Reading, Writing, and History: The Dreadful Noise

Modern American Usage: A Guide, by Wilson Follett, edited and completed by Jacques Barzun, in collaboration with Carlos Baker, Frederick W. Dupee, Dudley Fitts, James D. Hart, Phyllis McGinley, and Lionel Trilling. Hill & Wang, Inc. 436 pp. $7.50.

A man who tried to play the violin in public without studying the rules of music and the techniques of musicianship would of course need to have his head examined. (He would also need to be silenced, but that would come automatically.) Not even in this permissive age would anyone argue that the simple desire to produce pleasing sounds could make up for a total lack of craftsmanship, because it is so obvious that without craftsmanship the sounds would not be pleasing.

In other words, there are rules that have to be observed by anyone who wants to make music. These rules are rigid, the student has to work within their limits, and he cannot do it unless he knows what the rules are and what they require of him. He may be able to whistle a tune acceptably without this knowledge, but if he wants to go further he must prepare himself. The violin is a marvelously flexible and expressive instrument, but when it is badly handled it makes a dreadful noise.

What is true of the violin is also true of the English language. You can do almost anything you want to do with it if you know how to handle it, but there are rules to be observed. Some of them seem arbitrary, and learning to work with them can be a great deal of trouble, but to go ahead without even knowing what they are and why they exist is dangerous. In trying to produce persuasive prose, the writer is likely to commit an atrocity.

This to be sure would not be worth saying, except that so many educators nowadays are arguing that the rules no longer exist. If you can speak the language, we are told, you can write it: go ahead boldly with never a backward glance, and if you make a hash out of grammar and syntax nobody will notice. The fact that by doing this you lose first clarity and then meaning itself is probably beside the point.

That is why Modern American Usage: A Guide, by the late Wilson Follett, is such a welcome and important book. I wish that anyone who ever tries to write anything more consequential than a letter to his family might be required to read it, to reread it, and to meditate upon it. Here is a wise, effective, and pleasingly witty attack on sloppy writing and on the things that cause sloppy writing.

Mr. Follett, unfortunately, died before the manuscript was finished. It was edited and completed by Jacques Barzun, with the assistance of some able collaborators, and it is altogether excellent.

Mr. Follett begins with the idea that the noise the violin makes ought not to be dreadful. As he puts it: ”… there is a right way to use words and construct sentences, and many wrong ways. The right way is believed to be clearer, simpler, more logical, and hence more likely to prevent error and confusion. Good writing is easier to read; it offers a pleasant combination of sound and sense.”

This seems indisputable; but hear Mr. Follett:

Against this majority view is the doctrine of an embattled minority, who make up for their small number by their great learning and their place of authority in the school system and the world of scholarship. They are the professional linguists, who deny that there is such a thing as correctness. The language, they say, is what anybody and everybody speaks. Hence there must be no interference with what they regard as a product of nature; they denounce all attempts at guiding choice; their governing principle is epitomized in the title of a speech by a distinguished member of the profession: “Can Native Speakers of a Language Make Mistakes?”

Well, they can, and do; and Mr. Follett demands “the increasingly obvious and imperative reform—a resumption in our schools of the teaching of grammar and the reading of books.” What the writer needs most, he believes, is “the blessing of an orderly mind,” because “for all who speak or write, the road to effective language is thinking straight.” What you write reflects what you think, and if your writing is fuzzy your thinking is probably fuzzy. But old-style grammar is out of date. We used to believe that any good sentence can be parsed; that is, “it can be broken down into subjects and objects and antecedents, cases and parts of speech, modes and tenses.” To do this is a lot of trouble, of course, and I can remember weary hours spent as a grade-school inmate—come to think of it, we used to say “grammar school”—parsing sentences, building intricate sentence-structure diagrams to show subject, predicate, modifying clause, and what not. It was a great bore, and I would have preferred to go fishing, but it was part of the process of learning the rules: “English does have a structure, a logic at its center, a set of principles, a consistency matching that of the orderly mind. Of this structure grammar is the working diagram and teachable plan—reason enough why, to the worker in prose, grammar remains indispensable.”