Excerpt From: “Talk Talk”

by Louis Menand | February 16, 1987

Now that the schools have more or less abandoned the responsibility, passing judgment on speech has become semi-institutionalized in our society in the columns and commentaries of the so-called 'pop grammarians.' The label is a little unfair, since talking about talk is, or ought to be, a kind of right of cultural citizenship. But the unfairness reflects a suspicion that usage commentators are not really talking about talk at all: they are trying to tell us how to live.

William Safire, who writes the "On Language" column for the New York Times Magazine, is usually counted among these linguistic authoritarians--The Story of English lists him with Edwin Newman and John Simon as one of the "high priests of correct English usage" whose writings "play to a wide public anxiety about the changing language." But Safire is not really the high priest he seems; he's a descriptivist in prescriptivist clothing.

Like most people in what he calls "The usage dodge," Safire's attitude toward linguistic change is a function of his attitude towards social and political change more generally. And sociopolitically, Safire is a (self-proclaimed) libertarian conservative: his motto is "Let thinking people decide for themselves." (He opposes, for example, the suppression of pornography.) This he can sometimes sound like a subscriber to the principle that "The native speaker is never wrong"--a principle dreaded by most usage experts for the obvious reasons that if natives cannot be wrong, they can have no use for experts. Safire sees nothing incorrect about "It's me" for instance, on grounds that "when established idiom clashes with grammar, correctness is on the side of the idiom." And he determines the number of the noun "savings" by administering a broccoli-or-spinach test: "I say that "savings is" sounds funny and if something funny I say to hell with it." He has (like Shakespeare) little Latin and less Greek, and he regards with skepticism the language dictator's secret weapon, etymology.

Safire reprints letters from readers when he published his columns as books; it's an attractive custom, and the letters are sometimes informative as the columns themselves. But they reveal the remarkable extent to which the column's readers take its authors to be an embattled champion of "standards." This happy misprision can be attributed to Safire's canny ability (developed perhaps during his tenure in the Nixon White House)--to make fun of the neologisms, solecisms, and Alexander Haigisms he dissects without every quite registering disapproval.

The task of having the fun looks serious is made easier by Safire's trick of picking targets that are inherently mockable: corporate types, yuppies, bureaucrats, and, especially, politicians (just as "60 Minutes" plays crusader by attacking people--medical quacks, arms dealers, executives of chemical companies--no one wants to defend). But Safire does occasionally slip into an authoritarian mode, casting out newness. He justifies these disciplinarian moments with the following baffling syllogism: "In a thousand years, change will win, but if we do not fight change, there will not be much left to be changed"--in other words, it's a pointless job, but somebody's got to do it.

When the mood strikes, Safire finds himself confronted by every linguistic lawgiver's dilemma: how to make a usage everyone manages to live perfectly comfortably with seem like another step on the road to anarchy. Safire takes Jane Russell and Playtex severely to task for the phrase "For we full-figures gals," to have a reader (Henreietta Wexler of Washington, D.C.) point out that no doubt "we" is used instead of the grammatical "us" because it sounds more ladylike--just as the "us" in "Us Tareyton smokers" suggests a manly indifference to the niceties of proper usage. Similarly, Safire makes exceedingly heavy weather of a promiscuous use of the virgule (/) and other offenses against sense and syntax in a Henri Bendel's ad. But advertisers don't care about sense and syntax; they care about attracting attention. They want to treat punctuation like paint, dabbing it here and there on the page, let them. No one will get the wrong idea. In usage, as in meaning, context is all.

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