Monday, 4 April 2011

David Foster Wallace: Authority and American Usage

It's been a busy week, and I've been trying to read David Foster Wallace's essays in Consider the Lobster, in between various other books and activities. I'm reading them in preparation for eventually tackling his unfinished novel, The Pale King, later in the year. I managed to finish his long piece about Bryan A Garner's A Dictionary of Modern Usage last night and felt immediately the urge to put up a link to it: it's HERE. It's the most cogently argued (and obviously well-written) piece of writing about 'correct' usage that I've ever read. In the essay he self-deprecatingly (and charmingly) calls himself a SNOOT: ie, somebody who winces at incorrect grammar usage. Now I've always been like that: hearing someone say 'between you and I' is enough to make my jaws slather. However, I've never minded split infinitives (which are only based on Latinate grammar anyway) - sometimes a split infinitive can be rather elegant.

The main thrust is the battle between Prescriptivists and Descriptivists; he shows how Descriptivists are actually logically incoherent. Wallace's argument is that Garner manages to show what 'correct' usage is without being polemical or snooty and so on, and that is therefore why he is a genius. If you have any interest in the English language, go and read it now.

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