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Many years ago, I came upon a little book called The Misspeller’s Guide. It listed, alphabetically, commonly misspelled words, under the principle that if one only knew how to misspell a word, one would not know how to find it in a dictionary. Thus went the logic of this obscene little book: one would look up the word one didn’t know how to spell and find it there misspelled, adjoining which misspelling would be… the correct spelling.
A rather roundabout way to get one’s way, and so I thank COMMAND-OPTION-L, which brings up the spellchecker in my word processor, every chance I get. I’m not that strong a speller, and so I don’t for a moment undervalue the idea of a guide, any guide, that should take as its ambition the deepening of a reader’s knowledge of a subject however narrow. And yet, I do want more than bran with my muffin, and expect these good-for-you-guides to offer something in the way of flavor, a flavor very absent from the Soviet-era soup of The Misspeller’s Guide.
Whereas Fowler’s Modern English Usage, in any of its incarnations, is pure pleasure. There’s doubtless a medicinal value to its entries, but they entertain so deeply and purely that it all goes down very sweetly. Over the years, I’m sure I’ve read it more for pleasure than with purpose, less in the hope of resolving a confusion over “pleonasm” than to discover that “pleonasm” was something at all. Where the New Oxford American Dictionary defines the term as “the use of more words than are necessary to convey meaning, either as a fault of style or for emphasis,” Fowler’s, at left, offers a little lesson.
And that’s just the beginning of the entry. It goes on, there, and elsewhere (“see also TAUTOLOGY;” “see also SIAMESE TWINS.”) I love to “see also,” and find there’s enormous pleasure in seeing the confusing and frequently frustrating set of expectations and hesitations we call a language wrestled with, agreeably. Who could resist the little dance of “piteous”?
Yes, spontaneous development has worked badly here, but one can always “See also PLENTEOUS” and watch things work out, if not better, charmingly enough.
(For more about “the seamy underbelly” of such guides, you could do a great deal worse than spend an hour with this.)
More from Wyatt Mason:
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”