Book Review: Unendurable English’s tone a bit too harsh

“Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Unendurable English” (Scribner), by Robert Hartwell Fiske

Grammarian Robert Hartwell Fiske doesn’t seem to have much tolerance for people who spell poorly and misuse idioms. But he saves his greatest contempt for the nation’s dictionary editors.

Fiske seems to have the best of intentions in his new book, “Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Unendurable English.” He catalogs hundreds of examples of misused grammar and provides the correct usage, but his tone is often so curmudgeonly as to be off-putting.

For example, plenty of grammar police point out that irregardless isn’t a word. But to Fiske, someone who uses the term is “a shoddy speaker, a third-rate writer, a thoughtless thinker.”

He also writes that people who use good where well should be used are “soulless speakers, hopeless writers.”

Those bouts of touchiness are infrequent, but they still get tiresome.

To be fair, Fiske has a clear passion for the English language. He believes words should be used according to their specific meanings, and that the meanings shouldn’t be allowed to change just because enough people fail to get the usage right.

That’s where he faults dictionaries. Too many dictionary editors allow alternate versions of words — or even non-words — simply because the terms or spellings have become more common, he laments. For example, he says there are dictionaries that now allow accidently and publically instead of accidentally and publicly.

“Some dictionaries, we can reasonably infer, actually promote illiteracy,” he writes.

Although Fiske’s heart seems to be in the right place, his message occasionally gets lost in his writing. Rather than limit an entry to the proper usage of a word or phrase, he starts with two to four examples of how others have used the term incorrectly. There’s no point to that, and it just takes longer to get to the real kernel of wisdom.

Perhaps he uses the flawed examples as a way to justify including entries that seem unnecessary. For example, do that many people really say ingenuitive when they mean ingenious? Or write jaundra when they mean genre? Or Exmas instead of Xmas?

If so, that could explain his lack of tolerance. Any word lover who comes across enough examples of poor spelling and woeful grammar might find his patience wearing thin.

But it’s not clear that Fiske’s book is the best way to address the problem. People who misuse except versus accept, or who confuse passed and past may not recognize their errors to the degree that they’d turn to his book for clarification. And those who do want to verify proper word usage might rely on an ordinary dictionary, not a dictionary of unendurable English.

Perhaps nonnative English speakers — those who fall into the language’s many traps, but who recognize their deficiencies and are trying to fix them — are the best audience for Fiske’s book.

In any case, one presumes that readers of this book are trying to become better English speakers and writers. That’s why it’s disappointing that Fiske seems more obsessed with criticizing people who make mistakes rather than helping them learn the right way.

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