« A forthright political stand | Main | Making meanings from scrap »

Feel the power

Roy Peter Clark wants you to be empowered.

Empowerment comes through expression, particularly in writing, because power resides within words. He comes to this insight through the etymological connection between grammar and glamour. Grammar, which originally indicated the whole range of knowledge, became glamour in Scottish English for power in magic, spell-casting, the manipulation of language. (The transformation of the latter word into a label for women who wear too much makeup is a subject for another time.)

So if you want to be autonomous, to have some control over the external world and to influence the people in it, you must master the use of words, never more than when you write. We should all “be on the lookout for language that builds a bridge between the world of things and the world of ideas.”

Don’t cower. Dr. Clark, a fixture at the Poynter Institute for thirty years, doesn’t want you to be afraid. He wants you to relish language, explore it, exploit it, revel in it. In The Glamour of Grammar (Little, Brown, 294 pages, $19.99), he shows you the possibilities.

In fifty short essays on various aspects of writing—vocabulary, mechanics of writing, usage—he covers the territory. He wants you to make use of the full resources of English, quoting approvingly Camille Paglia’s appreciation of its “blunt Anglo-Saxon concreteness, sleek Norman French urbanity, and polysyllabic Greco-Roman abstraction.”

He wants you to wallow in the dictionary, use the serial comma (good man!), use the active and passive voices when either is appropriate, ignore language crotchets, recognize when nonstandard English will work, use different sentence lengths and forms for pacing, and illuminate the abstract with the particular.

For example, he says, “Language can be general or particular, and the reader or writer must be versatile enough to travel back and forth between the two. Writers and readers look for the small thing the represents the big thing, whether in the form of a microcosm) a closed auto plant used to exemplify the depressed economy), a telling detail (a man who wears his grandmother’s wedding ring in her honor), the objective correlative of the poet (the object that correlates to an emotion—the red wheelbarrow glazed with rain), or a specific example used to make a point or teach a lesson.”

If you have not twigged to it yet, he is not of the hectoring, bullying school of language advice. He is an encourager, and the splendid texts with which he illustrates his points indicate the catholicity of his tastes and his relish for good writing in all its forms. (He knows that if you want to be serious as a writer you must read widely.) He revels in language and thinks you can, too, and should.

As I mentioned, this is a book of short chapters. He points to rules and conventions that the effective writer must master, and he indicates the areas in which the writer must develop judgment, but this book is an introduction to the whole range of writing, not a comprehensive manual. It is a good book for an aspiring writer, humane and sensible about the great craft, relishing its possibilities and its power.

And even I, long sunk in drudgery, found it heartening.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:57 AM | | Comments (5)


John, thank you so much for your generous review. To receive such praise from the Prince of American Copy Editors is a high honor, indeed.

My only concern is your self-identification as a "drudge." The AHD defines it as "a person who does tedious, menial, or unpleasant work." That cannot be you, my friend. Your obvious joy in the language, your clear sense of mission and purpose as an editor and wordsmith, that bowtie -- none of these suggests drudgery.

You are, in my opinion, the George Clooney of editors: dashing, full of good humor, completely devoted to your craft. Cheers, and hold the torch high.

Roy Peter Clark posted excerpts from this book as he was writing it, and in July 2008 Language Log addressed some points from the book, at and p=323

Roy Peter Clark posted excerpts from this book as he was writing it, and in July 2008 Language Log addressed some points from the book, at and p=323

Linda Seebach refers to the fact that I began the process of writing the book by posting some early chapters on the Poynter website. I learned back then that posting something like a chapter until it is fully cooked, rather than half baked, is a mistake.

The members of Language Log knocked me about a bit, and it helped me figure out what I knew and what I still needed to learn. I would welcome Linda or Mark Liberman to review the book -- which is much different than those early experiments -- for Language Log to see if it lives up to their standards.

I am commenting rather late in the game so to speak, but just wanted to compliment you on your whimsically pithy writing style. I am very much inclined to purchase the book, The Glamour of Grammar. Also, I shall not cower but look forward to being empowered!

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
Baltimore Sun Facebook page

Most Recent Comments
Sign up for FREE local news alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for local news text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
Stay connected