this book is the transcript of a video interview/conversation between david foster wallace and bryan a. garner that took place in 2006, several years after dfw wrote this amazing essay/review of bryan a. garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage:
i was lucky enough to have attended a similar interview/conversation between dfw and george saunders many years ago, and this book reminded me just how good he was in this context, how simultaneously awkward and natural—how his mind worked to make unexpected connections while still addressing the questions at hand.
for someone who has a(n undeserved) reputation for being “difficult” or “overwritten,” it is worth noting how much of this interview is focused on his preoccupation with clarity in writing, and his discomfort with all the linguistic clutter that plagues us, particularly in business writing and advertising.
Buried verbs, which I was taught are called nominalizations, are turning a verb into a noun for kind of BS-y reasons. “I tried to facilitate the organization of the unions,” instead of , “I tried to help organize the unions.” People like them in bureaucratic, institutional, academic writing, I think, because some people get the idea that maximum numbers of words, maximum amount of complication, equals intelligence and erudition.
and to that i say amen!! utilize, anyone? that word is my personal bugbear. it is so puffed-up and important-sounding to the person using it, but so, so clunky and unnecessary. “use” is such a great word. there’s no shame in using simple workhorse words.
But you’ll notice, this is the downside of starting to pay attention. You start noticing all of the people who say at this time rather then now. Why did they just take up one third of a second of my lifetime making me parse at this time, rather than just saying now to me? And you start being bugged.
exactly. don’t waste my time—just say what needs to be said in a way that will be understood. and i’m not trying to drain all the poetry from life—there are places in which big purple words are completely appropriate, but when you are trying to get a point across to the broadest range of people, sometimes simplicity is best.
…people, unless they’re paying attention, tend to confuse fanciness with intelligence or authority.
not me!! i see it for what it is: you like to hear yourself talk and are trying to be impressive, but any girl worth her pigtails is most impressed by precision.
i work in an office now, and have been newly exposed to so very many unconscious jargony words and phrases. it makes me feel like a little kid playing dress-up, so i refuse to adopt them. you want me to “reach out” to jack?? how ’bout i just “email” him? there is too much puffery in the world and i really appreciate that this bothered him as much as it bothers me.
because this just makes sense to me:
the fact remains that, particularly in the professions, that the average person you’re writing for is an acute, sensitive, attentive, sophisticated reader who will appreciate adroitness, precision, economy, and clarity.
“economy” is my favorite word there. no one needs to wade through five garbage words to get to the root of what you are trying to say.
i am not a great writer. i am not a SNOOT. i have SNOOT tendencies, in that the misuse of “random” or “epic” gives me chills and i always scowl at the “10 items or less” sign at the grocery store. i am altogether too casual in my writing, and even though i know the “right” way to do things, i am not as vigilant as i should be when i am banging out reviews or emails. but i love reading books like this, where articulate and thoughtful people get really passionate about language and its deployment. my etymology class in undergrad was one of my very favorites in my academic career. so while i probably wouldn’t have picked this up without the dfw-hook, i would still have loved reading it.
i could spend all day quoting from this book, but miles to go and all, so i am just going to leave with this really nice long portion of text, because it made the hibernating SNOOT in me smile sleepily at baby-dfw before returning to dreams of its own comma-addiction:
BAG: Why do you think so many children, not just in this country but in almost every English-speaking country, are taught not to begin sentences with conjunctions? You can’t begin a sentence with and or but. My own recent findings suggest that you really can’t write all that well until you’re beginning 10%-20% of your sentences with conjunctions.
DFW: Really? You like it, I notice. Again, it would be a guess. Teachers have a larger agenda, which is to teach students to be able to make compound sentences with more than one independent clause. The big way to do that is with conjunctions and commas.
They’re also probably trying to beat out of the students the kinds of sentences that students were exposed to when they were learning to read: “See Dick run. Period. See Jane run. Period. Dick is with Jane. Period.” Right? So as part of the attempt to talk about more complicated sentences, it becomes easy to go too far and get knee-jerk and say, “Therefore, just don’t do this. It’s caused nothing but trouble. Don’t start your sentences with but and and.” When the truth is, eh, 20% of the time you’re probably going to want to, but they’re very special cases. So let’s sit down for three hours and talk about them.
Well, you’re not going to do that with a third grader. Right? That’s why this is not a skill that you just learn once and you’re done with. This is…You’re never done.
BAG: A lifelong apprenticeship?
DFW: This is a lifelong apprenticeship with aspirations to journeymanhood. Right? Yeah. But I think that’s a guess. It’s very easy to make fun of teachers who do this.
A teacher of mine in junior high hated me because i corrected her about hopefully. She said, “You never start a sentence with hopefully. Hopefully is an adverb.” Right? So you never say, “Hopefully it will rain today because my crops really need it.” And the truth is there’s such a thing as a sentence adverb that expresses the speaker’s intention, but that’s college or grad-school grammar. It was appropriate in eighth grade for that teacher to tell her students, “Don’t do this,” because most of us were screwing up with adverbs anyway. Right?
So her nightmare was some little nerd in the back row who happened to know what a sentence adverb was. But when I look back on it, she was completely reasonable. It would have been nice if she would have said, “For now, don’t do it. Later on, as part of your lifelong apprenticeship, you’re going to learn there are certain adverbs that are in fact graceful at the start of the sentence. But for now, boys and girls, don’t do it.”
This is part of my own recovery from having hated my grammar teachers. I’m starting to realize they had reasons for what they were doing. They weren’t often real smart about them, though.