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Making meanings from scrap

One of the passages Roy Peter Clark quotes in The Glamour of Grammar (previously mentioned here) has been on my mind a good deal this week. It’s from Salman Rushdie’s Imaginary Homelands:

But human beings do not perceive things whole; we are not gods but wounded creatures, cracked lenses, capable only of fractured perceptions. Partial beings, in all senses of that phrase. Meaning is a shaky edifice we build out of scraps, dogmas, childhood injuries, newspaper articles, chance remarks, old films, small victories, people hated, people loved; perhaps it is because our sense of what is the case is constructed from such inadequate materials that we defend it so fiercely, even to the death.

This helps explain to me why so many have lately been expressing attitudes about Muslims that seem to have been preserved unchanged in the culture since the Habsburgs and their allies fought off the Turks outside Vienna in 1683. Or why some teacher’s superstition about infinitives or passive voice sticks in the mind and declines to be dislodged. Or how I might have been less rebarbative an adult had children and teenagers in eastern Kentucky in the 1960s been more tolerant and accepting of bookworms.

When Eliot says in The Waste Land, “These fragments I have shored against my ruin,” he is describing how we all arrive at meaning. We collect the things that Mr. Rushdie catalogues and them patch together in jerry-built structures that, once we inhabit them, we maintain to ensure our integrity and survival.

It would be pleasant to think, against all evidence, that people would be open to reason and new experience. And no doubt there are times when we find ourselves able to make a brief sortie out of the keep.

In the nearly five years since I began writing this blog, the exchanges with my readers, with other editors and writers, and with linguists have loosened me up considerably. I’ve come to recognize how often I have clung to some rule of usage merely because it was in a stylebook or a passing dictum by some author whose name I don’t even remember—a usage that I had never bothered to investigate to determine its validity and usefulness. There is also a recognition of how many times, when challenged on such a point of usage, I’ve felt that my integrity and authority were under attack and reacted accordingly.

So I try to keep in mind Cromwell’s plea to the synod of the Church of Scotland: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.”



Posted by John McIntyre at 12:22 PM | | Comments (21)


Thanks for introducing me to the word "rebarbative." I had to look it up but now that I know its meaning I feel as if I have met with an old friend, and am the richer for having a new word in the vocabulary quiver. Rebarbatively speaking, that is.

Excellent post!

Rebarbative; that means growing your beard back, right?

Yes- I'm a "Book-Worm" and new to your paper...Just found this site, and I like it.
One of my favorite authors is the late Howard Zinn.."A people's History of the United States" is my bible when it pertains to history.
The Baltimore-Sun keeps "popping up" on my computer, so I decided to start reading it.......(the paper we get is also owned by the Tribune.) Also like 2nd.Opinion,where I left some comments..

Reading this blog, among others, has loosened me up considerably too. Problem is I no longer know how to respond to people from my more prescriptivist past when they send me articles, etc., I can't agree with anymore. Case in point, the typo-correction guys you derided here. I agree with you, but some of my past colleagues wanted me to join in cheering them on. You can't go home again. Or something like that. Sigh...

The line is: "These fragments I have shored against my ruin."

No "s" on ruin. It's singular.

Like bacterium.

Fixed, thank you. This is what I get for quoting from memory.

Just read your "Bio" after posting..Lived in Louisville, Kentucky when my hubby was stationed at Fort Knox, (in the mid-50's)
Being young, and from inner-city Chicago, I had never heard a deep southern accent. My first trip to the grocery store---The clerk said, "Kin I tote yer sack cross the street.?" (as he ran the words together, Thought he was speaking a foreign language.)
I suppose he thought I was from the planet "Zeno" when I replied, "Naw,the car ain't der."
Dialect can be fun...Bet you pronounce Louisville different than myself...
Lou-a-ville, right.?

For "Louisville":

Thanks John,
Loved the "Louisville" video....a good laugh, and brought back old memories....

"...the culture since the Habsburgs and their allies fought off the Turks outside Vienna in 1683..." Fortunately, there were no "Habsburgs" in Vienna in 1683. They were the Hapsburgs. (That's how Churchill called them, and he would know; he was kin to 'em. That's what Westerners call them. So unless you're writing for Eastern Europeans, there's a "p" needs catching up on.)

That's right - blame your current ornery adult self on high school classmates who didn't understand you.

I only blamed my peers for my orneriness to get my mother off the hook.

You should have listened to your mother.

Re: "They were the Hapsburgs":

This just in from the Associated Press:

A descendant of the Habsburgs is taking Austria to the European Court for Human Rights for not allowing him to run for president, his lawyer said Tuesday.

Ulrich Habsburg-Lothringen could not become a candidate in April 25 elections because he lacked the required number of signatures and Austrian law bars members of all ruling or former ruling families from running for the largely ceremonial post.

I miss the Hapsburgs. Also the Hohenzollerns, Medicis and other ruling families.

I am pleased to announce that I have never read about the Hohenzollerns and therefore have no idea what you are talking about. I never read more than a paragraph or two about the Hapsburgs, either, and am sure I am a better person for it.

Sly point to Tim!

As Jane Austen pointed out, Dahlink, "For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn?"

Tim, one of many reasons to love Jane! And I am sure you are a better person for it (no snark intended).

"Mind The Gap", is incorrect. The quote (and I am looking at my F&F printed collection of TS Eliot now) is "These fragments I have shored against my ruins".
Line 430.
He is not necessarily referring to his personal ruin.

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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
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