Monday, April 05, 2010


Too often, I use this blog to take cheap shots at usage errors committed by those for whom mastering Standard English is a struggle. This makes me a pedantic ass. Today, however, I'm going to take a cheap shot at someone whose understanding of, and abilities with, the English language far exceeded what I could ever hope to accomplish in many lifetimes. Plus, he's tragically and prematurely dead. This makes me a captious little weasel.

I was listening to one of those Slate podcasts when the subject of usage issues in general, and David Foster Wallace's piece "Authority and American Usage" in particular, came up. This led me to pull down the collection Consider the Lobster, in which that essay is contained, pour myself a glass of wine, and spend a Sunday afternoon blissfully immersed in the strange and wonderful mind of DFW as he picked apart prescriptive vs. descriptive arguments in the usage wars.

Early on in the piece, in one of those discursive footnotes he was so famous for, he apologizes for using the phrase "historical context" and writes:
One of the personal little lessons I've learned in working on this essay is that being chronically inclined to sneer/wince at other people's usage tends to make me chronically anxious about other people sneering/wincing at my usage.
I perfectly understand the fear of being caught with one's syntactical fly open--and I promise I did not sneer or wince when I came upon this sentence, in which Wallace is analyzing an excerpt from Bryan A. Garner's preface to A Dictionary of Modern American Usage:
Whole monographs could be written just on the masterful rhetoric of this passage.
Normally, this wouldn't be worth mentioning (and probably still isn't), but given Wallace's hyper-vigilance when it comes to word selection, I think I'll just point out what Bill Bryson (who is also quoted in Wallace's piece) has to say in his Dictionary of Troublesome Words:
masterful, masterly. Most authorities continue to insist that we observe a distinction between these two--namely that masterly should apply to that which is adroit and expert and masterful to that which is imperious and domineering.
True, Bryson goes on to note that no leading dictionary insists on the distinction, and that indeed masterly is often an awkward choice of adverb, but he still observes that "masterly should perhaps be your first choice when you mean in the manner of a master..."

That said, David Foster Wallace's essay remains a masterly exegesis on the subject of English usage and is highly recommended for Sunday afternoon perusal with a glass of assertive, but never masterful, Shiraz.