Monday, July 12, 2004

Previews of reviews

James J. Kilpatrick gets around to reviewing "Eats, Shoots & Leaves." He arrives at the en vogue conclusion that it is "grammar-lite" and then lists some of the book's grammatical flaws. "A greater regret," he says, "is that the author provides neither an index nor even a table of contents."

He then gives an account on Strumpf-Douglas' well-indexed "Grammar Bible."
The authors offer sound advice in saying, for example, that the dash "is a mark of punctuation that the conscientious author should use sparingly." Their discussion of "who" and "whom" is short but simple. On the other hand, I believe they are quite wrong in saying that a question mark is "not required" in rhetorical questions. How can they say that.
And note the errant CQ marks at the end of the work. Intended for publication? I'd guess no.

And we should give a big nod of approval to William Safire for finally giving Bill Walsh his props on "The Elephants of Style." (Perhaps people are moving from "grammar-lite" to something with a bit more weight?)
His "gray areas" are stimulating. On the singular of data, he rejects the traditional datum, holding that "itÂ’s time to pull the plug and acknowledge that data is a collective noun, like information." I agree. But Walsh also accepts as "useful linguistic evolution" the word gender to mean "sex." I say it's feminese, shying from the blunt word sex, and resolutely limit gender to treating nouns in foreign languages as masculine or feminine. He'll win on this.

We really part company on "news media." He holds that it is usually used by people as a collective singular: "Change 'The media are restless tonight' to 'The media is restless tonight,' because obviously the reference is to the communicators, not the modes of communication." It's good to hear an intelligent argument for "media is," but I think it lumps together each medium (radio, TV, blogs) when it is important to recognize the multiplicity of communications voices. I'd stick with "media are" (unless I forget, which is often, and the copy editor saves me).
I'm with Safire on gender, and I'm with Bill on media, but beware: Your publication probably isn't.

Safire looks at two books on presidential linguistics, including Geoffrey Nunberg's "Going Nucular." And he offers a glimpse of the new American Heritage Collegiate Thesaurus:
Take the noun "hello"; its synonyms are "hail, greeting, salutation, salute, welcome." (A noneffusive Damon Runyon character offered "a medium hello.") The AHCT, which I pronounce as the first syllable in "achtung!" also provides hello's alternatives as an informal interjection: "aloha, hey, hey ho, hey there, hi, hi there, howdy, howdy do." Then as slang: "yo, 'sup." Finally, as idiom: "how do you do, what's up." (No, AHCT does not include "what's buzzin', cousin," which is out of date. Send the latest salutations to onlanguage@nytimes. Com.)

Splitting hairs is instructive and fun. AHCT is proud of its "core synonym" feature for abrupt, in the sense of "rudely informal." It notes that while brusque "emphasizes rude abruptness," gruff "implies roughness or surliness but does not necessarily suggest rudeness," and blunt "stresses utter frankness and usually a disconcerting directness."

Thesauri open new semantic worlds to wordnerds. Let us stop worrying about the meaning of life and start enjoying the life of meaning.
Hear, hear.


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