Thursday, February 19, 2009

Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage

William and Mary Morris. New York: Harper & Row Publishers. 1975.

Why read it? Entertaining comments on the English language and English usage. The distinctions are sometimes “nice” in the sense of splitting hairs. For example, NEVER say “an historic….” If you hear the sound of the “h” as a consonant, you use “a.” If you can’t hear the sound of the consonant, use “an,”” as in “an hour.”

The authors set up a usage panel consisting of some of the country’s best-known writers. There were disagreements on almost every item of usage. The best line, however, was Lionel Trilling’s: “I find righteous denunciations of the present state of the language no less dismaying than the present state of the language.”

Will appeal to anyone who enjoys reading about language.

Some sample quotes:

“…treats of virtually every aspect of today’s language—idioms, slang, vogue words and regionalisms as well as all the vast range of words used in formal speech and writing.” p. ix. ………. “Only one answer to a question was unanimous. All others had yea-sayers and nay-sayers. Inasmuch as all the panelists have amply demonstrated their ability to use the language effectively, this lack of unanimity is proof that language is not a static thing to be fixed by rules.” p. x. ……….Stewart Beach: “I hope the panel will overwhelmingly flout the incorrect and flaunt the correct.” p. xi. ………. Abe Burrows: “Good grammar has to be good sound.” p. xii. .......... John Ciardi: “Are there any enduring standards of English usage? I think there are only preferences, ‘passionate preferences….’ ” p. xii.

John Ciardi: “In the long run the usage of those who do not think about the language will prevail.” p. xii. ………. Walter Cronkite: “Language has many functions from simple communication to the emotional stimulation of great literature….” p. xii. ……….. Leon Edel: “The media are changing our language…. If TV speech could be improved our young would speak more accurately.” p. xiii. ………. Alex Faulkner: “…catch the careless, the commercial, the bureaucratic and the technological making a mess of the language….” p. xiii. ………. Elizabeth Janeway: “We must strive for precision on pain of losing our ability to talk together at all.” p. xiv. ……….

Lester Kinsolving: “Someone once defined a classic as a book which would never be read unless assigned in class.” p. xiv. ………. Eugene McCarthy: “The integrity of language is always threatened most seriously by those who have difficulty explaining themselves or who don’t want to explain. The English language, as used in the United States, has survived the assaults of the Pentagon and of the Johnson and Nixon Administrations, as they attempted to justify and explain the Vietnam War.” p. xv.

David Poling: “There are so many forces in opposition to clear and precise language.” p. xvi. ……… Jean Stafford: “THE WORD ‘HOPEFULLY’ MUST NOT BE MISUSED ON THESE PREMISES. VIOLATORS WILL BE HUMILIATED.” p. xviii. ………. Judith Viorst: “Some things simply make me wince…. I love splitting infinitives, but ‘performancewise’ gives me pains in my stomach.” p. xix.

Much ado about language usage, but a lot of fun to read if you enjoy reading about language. RayS.

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