Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage

It’s always a rewarding journey to meander through David Foster Wallace’s brain. This 2001 Harper’s essay (PDF link) popped up on my radar recently and I spent the afternoon with printed essay in hand and dictionary in lap, ready to flip back and forth between text and footnotes. Dictionary diving led to many diversions, even looking up words within other definitions to get the utmost of clarity. (DFW uses “carbuncular” defined as “painful, local purulent inflammation of the skin…” and “purulent” then defined as “containing, consisting or being pus.” My bag of insults swells after contact with DFW.) The article ostensibly reviews Bryan Gardner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage, but really casts a wider net to discuss the Usage Wars between Descriptivists and Prescriptivists with personal history sprinkled throughout. The only people who care about the Usage Wars are defined by DFW to be SNOOTS, a kinder term for what we know as Grammar Nazis. Interesting sidenote that he mispronounced “trough” with a th ending instead of f until he was writing this article. Listening to a delightful NPR joint interview with DFW and Gardner now.
Note: another non-PDF version of the article is here, but beware the few typos that made it into the transcription, made even more jarring by the close attention necessary to read this.
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I’d never seen the uncut version of this German TV interview.
“If I read a paragraph I like a lot I go back and read it over again, so I’m trapped in time but I’ve got more mobility in time… When I’m reading something that’s good and that’s real, I’m able to jump over that wall of self and inhabit someone else in a way that we can’t in regular life.”
“There are forms of art that offer us escapes from ourselves and our daily lives and I think that’s fine in small doses and there are kinds of art that offer us more confrontation with our own lives and I don’t think it’s surprising that there isn’t as much demand or as much money in the latter because it’s more difficult and less pleasant.”
“My stuff I don’t feel is meant to be read out loud, it’s not supposed to live on the breath, there’s not enough punctuation.”
“I don’t think it’s very good, the whole going around and reading in bookstores thing, it’s turning writers into penny-ante or cheap versions of celebrities. People are coming out to see what you look like and see whether your voice matches the voice in their head when they read and none of it is important and it’s icky.”
“If you do work like this, you pay certain prices, you don’t make as much money, not as many people read your stuff, but the people who do read it, you’re pretty sure… the thing that I like, I’m pretty sure my readers are about as smart as I am… I don’t worry that people who are reading my stuff are misunderstanding it or banalizing it… I do worry weirdly about when it’s translated into languages that I don’t know.”