Reading, Writing, and History: The Dreadful Noise

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All of this is very good, but it seems to me that the real riches of this book are found in its lexicon, which constitutes about seven-eighths of the text. A few samples may suffice: Few periods in history have been so reluctant to call things by their right names as our own. Our neighbors do not go crazy, they become disturbed; employers no longer fire or discharge employees, they effect a separation or termination. Even important warnings come wrapped in cotton wool, not to say couched in falsehoods—witness this printed card put in the bedrooms of a first-class hotel: For your added comfort and convenience please lock your door and adjust chain before retiring.

Why, asks Mr. Follett, does it not simply say, “For your safety,” and tell you to “fasten” the chain?

The lexicon points out that there are pitfalls from which only a solid knowledge of language and grammar will protect us. There is, for instance, the misuse of like —as in the well-known example of the cigarette advertisement. The trouble here is that “the grammatically scared” refuse to use like when they ought to use it. As the book points out, “When we ought to write The Greenland birds, like the mallards, remain in the country in winter, we must not be done out of like by terror lest someone suspect us of meaning remain … in winter like the mallards do.” Even worse, perhaps, is the misuse—or the timid failure to use—the objective form of the pronoun who: “Between those who are afraid of sounding ignorant and those who are afraid of sounding superior, whom falls into comparative disuse and causes increasing discomfort in its users.” Thus we get such locutions as I know perfectly well whom you are, where the writer thinks whom is the object of know when it is really the subject of are; and a sentence reading Ahead of them on the Nonesuch road they descried Lord Grey de Hilton, whom Essex declared was his enemy. Mr. Follett’s comment here is satisfactory: “One of the paradoxes of the time is that some liberal grammarians who are implacable toward whom in its orthodox uses will tie themselves into knots in the effort to condone whom in this particular construction. Apparently they have a feeling that it ought to command the blessing of the learned because it tramples on prescriptive grammar.”

Then there is the terribly abused word disinterested. Maybe the battle here has been lost, but the writers of this book are not ready to give up. Thus: Disinterest, or disinterestedness, as it is now employed by the careless or the desperate, not only blurs the meaning but also stops the reader who can see two possible meanings, because it is still the name of a great, sterling, and positive virtue—freedom from self-seeking motives. It is not the name of a lack, which is what the writer was looking for. Is one of the consequences of good times a disinterest in bad news? Here disinterest is the wrong word, uninterestedness would be a fumbling one. Indifference (with to) is the inevitable word.

The temptation to go on quoting until closing time is strong, but there are limits. The point I want to make is that this book is an excellent corrective for the sloppiness, imprecision, and frequent unintelligibility of much that passes for writing these days. The English language is one of the most flexible instruments man has devised. Used properly, it can say anything the user wants to say. It cannot be used properly unless one knows something about the governing rules and principles. Although Mr. Follett pours out his scorn on the educationalist’s misuse of the word discipline, grammar does constitute a discipline, in the literal sense, and it is time writers began subjecting themselves to it.