I was attacking DFW’s long Harper’s essay on usage in a comment on MeFi today, and the more I thought about it, the madder I got, and I finally couldn’t resist letting him have it at length. Wallace’s long, long article pretends to be a review of Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, but that’s just the pretext for yet another in the endless series of rants about how proper usage is being forgotten and language is going to hell in a handbasket that probably started in ancient Sumer and will continue until the sun goes supernova. Wallace uses cleverer rhetoric than most (establishing a folksy/learned persona that is intended to convince you of both his bona fides and his credentials, and conceding enough of his opponents’ arguments that he hopes to disarm the less truculent of them), but what he’s selling is the same old snake oil: “You’ve got to learn and use all those fourth-grade grammar rules—it’s really important!” He proudly admits to being what in his family is called a SNOOT (his caps), and when he admits that some of those rules are actually silly he says (on p. 51 of the original article) “…people who insist on them… are that very most pathetic and dangerous sort of SNOOT, the SNOOT Who Is Wrong” (again, his caps). Truer words were never spoke. Let’s take it from the top.
p. 41, fn. 3: “SNOOT (n) (highly colloq) is this reviewer’s nuclear family’s nickname à clef for a really extreme usage fanatic…” What does he mean here by “à clef“? A roman à clef is a novel with a key, a key which if you possess it (by being in the know) allows you to decipher which characters represent which real people. This is not how he uses “SNOOT” (if it were, it would be a coded designation for a single person, his mother perhaps); the word is simply family jargon. We are forced to conclude he does not know how to use the French phrase he deploys so snappily.
p. 42, fn. 8: “From personal experience, I can assure you that any kid like this is going to be at best marginalized and at worst savagely and repeatedly Wedgied.” Why the capital W? We go to Webster’s Third and find the answer: Wedgies is thus written. But wait! The definition is “trademark—used for shoes having a wedge heel.” In other words, it has nothing whatever to do with the colloquial usage he is trying to write down (having to do with the malicious pulling up of underwear). He is more intent on proving that he knows how to use a big dictionary than in reading what it says there.
p. 43: “…the notoriously liberal Webster’s Third New International Dictionary came out in 1961 and included such terms as heighth and irregardless without any monitory labels on them.” The lie direct: “heighth” is labeled “chiefly dial[ect]” and “irregardless” “nonstand[ard].” Does he think nobody’s going to check up on him?
Same page, next paragraph: “We regular citizens…” This sort of smarmy regular-guy rhetoric from someone who knows you know he’s a famous author and who is setting himself up as an all-knowing authority makes me sick.
p. 44, fn. 14: “q.v. this from the January ’62 Atlantic“: This is the first of at least three occasions on which he misuses “q.v.” as if it were “v.” (vide, Latin for ‘see’). Q.v. stands for quod vide ‘which see’ and is used after a reference to the thing seen.
p. 45: “These guys tend to be hard-core academics, mostly linguists or Comp theorists.” Comp theorists? I Googled “comp theorist” and got three (count ’em) hits, all lower-case and all apparently using “comp” for “composition.” So there are two issues here: why is he using such an obscure phrase (I’m still not clear on what “comp theorists” are or why they are “hard-core academics”), and why does he upper-case the C? [For “comp theorists,” see second Addendum below.]
Next paragraph: “…Descriptivism so quickly and thoroughly took over English education in this country that just about everybody who started junior high after c. 1970 has been taught to write Descriptively—via ‘freewriting,’ ‘brainstorming,’ ‘journaling,’ a view of writing as self-exploratory and -expressive rather than as communicative, an abandonment of systematic grammar, usage, semantics, rhetoric, etymology.” But descriptivism in the relevant sense (describing the observed usage of language rather than prescribing how it should be used) has nothing to do with “freewriting” and the like; you can be “self-exploratory and -expressive” using the most traditional Oxbridge prose style (and indeed many have). He’s trying to tar scientific linguists with any brush that comes to hand.
p. 46, fn. 19: “Standard Written English (SWE) is also sometimes called Standard English (SE) or Educated English, but the inditement-emphasis is the same.” “Inditement” means ‘act of composing, giving literary or formal expression to’; I have no idea how he’s using it here and I don’t think he does either.
At the end of the same footnote: “(Yr. SNOOT rev. cannot help observing, w/r/t these ads, that the opening r in Refer here should not be capitalized after a dependent clause + ellipses—Quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus.)” Ironically, the Latin words he is here using as an independent sentence are themselves a dependent clause: Horace says “Indignor quandoque bonus dormitat Homerus,” I am indignant whenever worthy Homer drowses (i.e., allows his attention to flag). All that quotation-grubbing only to show how poor his Latin is!
p. 47: “…Methodological Descriptivists seem either ignorant of this fact or oblivious to its consequences, as in for example one Charles Fries’s introduction to an epigone of Webster’s Third called The American College Dictionary.” This is the lowest kind of ad hominem, this condescending “one”—”some guy called Fries whose opinion we needn’t take seriously.” Charles Fries was a distinguished linguist and a president of the Linguistic Society of America, and he knew more about language than David Foster Wallace is ever likely to; the fact that Wallace is ignorant of him is a reflection on Wallace, not Fries. And matters degenerate from there; Wallace quotes Fries (comparing a dictionary to a book of chemistry or physics recording observed facts) and then says “This is so stupid it practically drools.” I will try to restrain myself and simply point out that that aspersion would be better cast on what Wallace says next:
An “authoritative” physics text presents the results of physicists’ observations and physicists’ theories about those observations. If a physics textbook operated on Descriptivist principles, the fact that some Americans believe that electricity flows better downhill (based on the observed fact that power lines tend to run high above the homes they serve) would require the Electricity Flows Better Downhill Theory to be included as a “valid” theory in the textbook—just as, for Dr. Fries, if some Americans use infer for imply, the use becomes an ipso facto “valid” part of the language. Structural linguists like Gove and Fries are not, finally, scientists but census-takers who happen to misconstrue the importance of “observed facts.” It isn’t scientific phenomena they’re tabulating but rather a set of human behaviors, and a lot of human behaviors are—to be blunt—moronic. Try, for instance, to imagine an “authoritative” ethics textbook whose principles were based on what most people actually do.
The confusion (or drooling stupidity, if you prefer) is evident: linguists describe the observed facts of linguistic usage, not people’s beliefs about it; the comparison would be not to an ethics textbook but to a textbook of human behavior, and what would such a catalog of behavior be worth if it included only behavior the author approved of?
Now, still on p. 47, we come to two of the most glaring patches of nonsense in the whole essay. The paragraph immediately following the quote above begins:
Norm-wise, let’s keep in mind that language didn’t come into being because our hairy ancestors were sitting around the veldt with nothing better to do. Language was invented to serve certain specific purposes: “That mushroom is poisonous”; “Knock these two rocks together and you can start a fire”; “This shelter is mine!”
Need I point out that David Foster Wallace has not the faintest idea how language came into being (nor does anybody else)? And the suggestion that it was “invented” to serve “certain specific purposes”… well, Wallace tries to justify this with the second nonsense patch, footnote 23, which takes up half the page. It begins:
This proposition is in fact true, as is interpolatively demonstrated below, and although the demonstration is extremely persuasive it is also, as you can see from the size of this FN, lengthy and involved and rather, umm, dense, so that again you’d probably be better off simply granting the truth of the proposition and forging on with the main text.
The haughty tone is bad enough, but in fact nothing is “demonstrated” in the footnote. The first part is irrelevant maundering about an adolescent pot-smoker; he continues with a deep bow in the direction of Wittgenstein, whose “very complex and opaque and gnomic” argument is summarized to the point of absurdity, and concludes with a grandiose bit of hand-waving about “class, race, gender, morality, pluralism… You name it.” Nothing was delivered.
p. 48: He provides examples contrived to show how important it is to follow the rules:
Some of these rules really do seem to serve clarity, and precision. The injunction against two-way adverbs (“People who eat this often get sick”) is an obvious example, as are rules about other kinds of misplaced modifiers (“There are many reasons why lawyers lie, some better than others”) and about relative pronouns’ proximity to the nouns they modify (“She’s the mother of an infant daughter who works twelve hours a day”).
Note that even these made-up examples are not actually ambiguous; say them aloud (or imagine them said aloud) and the meaning is clear.
p. 49: “I am 100-percent confident…” Hyphens are not used in this construction.
p. 50: “That ursine juggernaut bethought to sup upon my person!” This is not a correct use of “bethought,” which occurs only with a following reflexive pronoun and means ‘called to mind, reminded oneself’ (Charlotte Bronte: “I bethought myself of an expedient”). The word Wallace wants is “thought.” (This error is first cousin to “begrudgingly” used for “grudgingly.”)
p. 51: “Part of this is a naked desire to fit in and not get rejected as an egghead or fag (see sub).” Sub is a preposition. The word Wallace is fumbling around for is infra ‘below.’
Same page: “Garner himself takes out after the s.i. rule in both SPLIT INFINITIVES and SUPERSTITIONS.” Doesn’t he mean “takes on” rather than “takes out after”?
p. 52: “…ask ‘s’up, s’goin on,’ pronouncing on with that NYCish oo-o diphthong that Young Urban Black English deploys for a standard o” (there is supposed to be a macron over “oo” and a breve over “o”). I have lived in NYC for decades and have never heard a Young Urban Black, or anyone else, pronounce “on” in such a way. (On the same page he talks about “quadruple Wedgies”; see my remarks on p. 42 above.)
OK, even I am getting tired of this. It should be clear by now that Wallace is punching above his weight. He has no right to parade erudition he has no claim to, still less to condescend to people who know far more than he. But I have saved my favorite bit for last. In a long (and irrelevant, but large chunks of the essay are irrelevant, it’s Wallace’s little mannerism, owing nothing, I am sure, to his being paid by the word) attack on Academic English on p. 56, he mentions “pretentious diction (whose function is to signal the writer’s erudition).” How did he manage not to blush?
Addendum. More on DFW (his attack on Philip Gove) here. I should add, for the benefit of those who consider the above points “nitpicking,” that they are no such thing. I can’t hope to teach a basic course in linguistics in the space of a blog entry; all I can do is point to enough errors that you should be thinking “If the guy makes that many mistakes, how can I trust that he knows what he’s talking about?” It would be one thing if DFW were writing about, say, plumbing and I were picking apart his Latin; that would be nitpicking. But he’s writing about language, and his only claim to your attention is the idea that he knows more about it than you do. The more picky points he brings up, the more important it is that he get them right. Sure, it’s a minor matter that he misuses a capital letter in “Wedgied”—except that the only point of his using it (since nobody else ever has or ever will, unless they foolishly copy it from him) is to make a point of his extreme accuracy in the tiniest of matters… and he gets it wrong. That should bother even the most devoted DFW fan. (Imagine him as a guy on a podium promoting his brand of heal-all nostrums, which I, a licensed physician, know to be useless and potentially harmful. I can’t give you my medical education, but if I keep pointing out that he refers to “tibia” when he means “fibula” or talks about nonexistent glands, you might begin to distrust him even though he’s a charming guy with a great line of patter.)
I should also add that I am not attacking DFW as a writer. I’m a big fan of footnotes and asides and parades of erudition, and I enjoy his deployment of the full arsenal of rhetoric American style—except here, where it’s put in the service of a wrong and harmful doctrine. “Prescriptivism” is nothing more than linguistic elitism, and like any elitism it’s used as a club to harm the people least able to fight back. I despise it, and that’s why I get testy with anyone who defends it and is used by others to defend it.
Addendum 2. June 2005: I have heard from an actual comp theorist, Jay Steichmann, who says:
By my definition, only a very few comp (small c, most definitely) theorists are “hard-core” academics. This is not to say that they are weak theorists, only that our discipline as such still struggles to define itself, research is primarily qualitative, and teaching writing/composition occupies as much time in our thought and actions as does purely theoretical work… Our big conference is the 4Cs (Conference on College Composition and Communication). None of the people that I have been reading in composition theory would, as far as I know, describe themselves purely as “composition theorists” without veering off into describing their complementary interests in rhetoric, philosophy, education and so on. However, when we look at the works that try to theorize composition studies, the names most often cited would probably be Louise Wetherbee Phelps, Stephen North, James Berlin, Mike Rose, Geoff Sirc, Victor Vitanza, Victor Villanueva, Cindy Johanek, Joseph Harris—and there are probably quite a few names I am leaving out. But this field struggles to define itself because it is by nature an interdisciplinary, humanistic study. Joseph Williams (whose rules on grammar are those I most often teach) may or may not consider himself a comp theorist and the same applies to Andrea Lunsford… Where comp/rhet theorists and practitioners struggle is that there is no empirical proof that doing “x” will produce good writers/good writing, which is what Wallace and others like him seem to expect. And when we reject teaching rules of grammar as the be-all and end-all foundation of teaching composition, we come under considerable attack from that segment of the public who cannot write two cogent sentences in a row, but whose memory of being taught grammar sticks with them and they think that their children should be made to suffer equally.
I am grateful for the crash course in a field I didn’t know existed.