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Cocking a snoot

Please excuse my neglect of you this week, but my custom is, when I have nothing to say, to say nothing.*

Today I want to explain why Bryan Garner’s tweeting as a snoot troubles me a little.

Mr. Garner, whose excellent guide to English usage I have repeatedly commended to my students and colleagues, takes the term snoot from the late David Foster Wallace’s “Authority and American Usage,” which has been collected in Consider the Lobster. SNOOT was a family acronym, variously explained, for Wallace’s family custom of identifying other people’s errors in grammar and usage.

Mr. Wallace explains: “There are lots of epithets for people like this—Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, the Grammar Battalion, the Language Police. The term I was raised with is SNOOT. The word might be slightly self-mocking, but those other terms are outright dysphemisms. A SNOOT can be defined as somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn't mind letting you know it.”

SNOOTs are “just about the last remaining kind of truly elitist nerd.” They “combine a missionary zeal and a near-neural faith in our beliefs' importance with a curmudgeonly hell-in-a-handbasket despair at the way English is routinely manhandled and corrupted by supposedly literate adults.”

You get the drift.

Mr. Garner is tweeting SNOOTitude about both written and spoken English, viz., “If you say 'anyways' instead of 'anyway,' you're no snoot." “If you write ‘wet the appetite,’ you're no snoot. The correct phrase is ‘whet the appetite.’ ”

You get the drift.

It’s harmless enough, and informative, but I wince a little every time he expresses the snoot view. The source of discomfort can be identified in a passage from the Wallace essay: “We know how very few other Americans know this stuff or even care, and we judge them accordingly.”

This reminds me of my callow youth, when, as a weedy, unprosperous English major, I was a thoroughgoing and unrepentant snob about language, having little else with which to prop up any sense of superiority. It has been a continuing struggle over the years to get free of that tendency, with many lapses.

We do, of course, judge people every day, by their clothes, their accents, their choices of food and drink and how they consume them, their income, their neighborhoods, their social class, their education, their taste in music, their automobiles. We are human, and we all do that. It is a way of sorting out the world. But such judgments, we have to keep reminding ourselves, are always partial, and superficial.

Both David Foster Wallace and Bryan Garner use snoot in a light, playful, ironic way, knowing perfectly well what attitudes snooty represents. It’s their attempt to have it both ways that leaves me itching.

I remind my students every semester that I don’t care how they talk or how they text. Not my bailiwick. What I care about is how they write and edit for publication. Professionally, I “judge accordingly” how texts for publication are appropriate for the subject, the publication, and the audience. Those are the matters for which I come to the bench to pronounce judgment—and even there we don’t wear the black cap any longer.


*I might, however, have reminded you Monday that the word of the week, cozen, was available.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:29 AM | | Comments (1)


"It’s their attempt to have it both ways that leaves me itching."

Amen to that. And aside from the simple linguistic chauvinism of the "you're no snoot" game, I'm also bothered by the fact that, with his usage guide, Garner is essentially selling a remedy for a malady that he's helping to create. Want to avoid the negative judgements of people like Garner? Buy Garner's book. It's one reason why I prefer Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage.

(And yes, I spell "judgements" that way on purpose.)

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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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