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Don't let's be beastly to the barbarians

Much of what passes for commentary on language is of the things-have-gone-downhill-since-I-was-a-boy variety. That lost golden age of universal literacy and good taste is always one or two generations back.

Time should grant us better perspective. I recommend, for example, picking up Dwight Macdonald’s Against the American Grain for a look at his essays of the 1950s and 1960s inveighing against Webster’s Third International, the twentieth-century translations of the Bible, and other subjects. They are unintentionally hilarious, not so much for the substance of his arguments—though his arguments are certainly open to challenge—but for the over-the-top tone. It is the high-pitched whine of the peever, the embattled defender of Standards, alone on the parapet as the barbarians wheel up their siege engines.

What a lot of codswallop.

I came across a reference in the Edit Hawai‘I blog to a Language Log post by Arnold Zwicky, “Miss Gould Passes,” on the death on 2005 of the famed New Yorker copy editor Eleanor Gould Packard: “[W]hat Gould was trying to do was help writers say what they were aiming for in a language with "a kind of Euclidean clarity—transparent, precise, muscular" (Remnick).” But the writer of a letter to The New York Times “instead celebrates her career with ravings about the disintegration of civilization. We aim for grace and style, but somehow we get barbarians at the gates. Undisciplined barbarians, at that. Some people seem unable to think about matters of syntax, usage, logic, rhetoric, and diction except through the distorting glass of the image of the Great Decline.”

In the first quarter of the eighteenth century Jonathan Swift thought that English was in decline and needed the services of a royal academy to regulate it. He was wrong. Contemporary calls for an English Academy are equally mistaken, though less elegantly expressed. English is not in decline. The people whose usages you deplore may be slovenly writers with questionable judgment, but they are not a threat to the language. Those of us who get our bread as editors need to keep this in mind.

As Professor Zwicky says, “I've had many experiences with editors. Some I remember with distaste even after many years; few things are quite as alarming and frustrating as an editor who comes at your manuscript like a grammar-checking program, with nothing more than a long list of Don'ts and fixes for them. But other encounters were rewarding, with editors who aimed for clarity, an effective voice, and an appreciation of the audience, and who negotiated choices and changes with me.”

Take one of those deep, cleansing breaths. There is a great quantity of substandard prose out there that requires your attention. And there are choices by able writers that are open to question and subject to discussion. If you want to do a favor to Civilization, do your job without losing your head.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:02 AM | | Comments (2)


Whoever wrote this never read and digested Euclid's Fifth Postulate.

I plead guilty to the above.

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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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