I was recently given (by pf and a fellow grammar gremlin) a copy of Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Outmoded Rules of English Usage, by Theodore M. Bernstein (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1971). I must admit when I saw the word “usage” my Pavlovian response was to shudder, but when I looked more closely I realized that far from promoting absurd shibboleths, the surprising Mr. Bernstein was debunking them, an activity always dear to my heart. A sample entry:


Says Bierce: “Obviously an asylum cannot be unsound in mind. Say asylum for the insane.” Shall we, then, also banish foreign correspondent, madhouse (dating to 1687), dramatic critic, juvenile court, criminal lawyer, psychiatric clinic and civil engineer? To pose the question is to expose the ridiculousness of the objection. Adjectives are not always confined to a single narrow meaning. Many of them have coordinate meanings, such as characterized by, used by, designed for, derived from. It is one of the conveniences of English, and especially American English, that thoughts can be compressed into a couple of words instead of requiring elaborate phrases; thus, insane asylum rather than asylum for the insane. Of course, insane asylum is avoided these days for a quite different reason: It is too harsh, it does not meet the euphemistic requirement of the day. And so we are more likely to say mental hospital or home for the mentally disturbed.

So thanks, you goofy gremlins!


  1. Hee! I have this book! I like it quite a bit.

  2. “Shall we, then, also banish foreign correspondent, madhouse (dating to 1687), dramatic critic, juvenile court, criminal lawyer, psychiatric clinic and civil engineer?”
    “Excuse, pliz,” said the journalist, “I am by zis house entirely confounded. It eez built upon no rational principle.”
    “Enough!” cried the critic, entering stage left. “Your remarks are entirely without foundation! Have at you, sirrah!”
    And so the two of them were hauled off to court, where the judge was eating an apple, core and all, and showing signs of becoming overtired. All would have gone well with them, but their counsel was caught in the act of abstracting a packet of gobstoppers from the prosecutor’s briefcase.
    They were locked up for their own good. “I can give you some amyltriptemine if you think that would help,” remarked the clinic.
    “This building seems to be talking to us,” they said to each other. “We must be mad.”
    “Excuse me, gentlemen,” said the engineer, deferentially, “But if it isn’t too much trouble to you, I’ve been sent to demolish this nonesense.”

  3. Well played, sir. You have enlivened an otherwise soporific morning; indeed, you have brought an actual smile to my lips.

  4. Richard Hershberger says

    If you do not have it already, you might seek out a copy of _The Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage_ by Bergen and Cordelia Evans, from 1957. It is remarkably sensible. Take a look, for example, at its discussion of lay/lie. Unlike most other books in the genre, when the Evans wish to be cutting and opiniated, they can also be genuinely funny. The entry for “Lay on, MacDuff!” is my favorite.

  5. This is a comment to a previous entry: on May 13th there was some discussion of the word “factitious”. Though a dictionary said it was a synonym for “artificial” this didn’t seem to fit the New Yorker excerpt supplied as context.
    None of the speculations on the proper meaning considered that it might be based on “faction” – which would make “factitiousness” a sort of tactical mendacity in support of one faction against another.
    Even if this were the case, I’m still not sure the word was properly employed by the writer of the excerpt.

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