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The Future of English?

The New York Times has called the author Jess Walter “ridiculously talented.” “His sentences nearly sing,” says the Los Angeles Review of Books. “One of my favorite young American writers,” says fellow novelist Nick Hornby.

We agree with the critics. Walter’s 2012 best-seller Beautiful Ruins is a masterpiece. But today we’ll do a different kind of book review.

Our job at GrammarBook.com is to preserve and promote standard English. This sometimes puts us at cross-purposes with Walter, who chooses to speak to his readers in an easy, accessible voice—the people’s English, not the scholars’ English. If his writing is where the language is headed, we traditionalists must accept that we are fighting numerous losing battles.

In Walter’s short story We Live in Water one finds this line: “The resort was comprised of three newer buildings.” Word nerds will question why he didn’t use composed instead of comprised. In 1926, in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, H.W. Fowler hissed, “This lamentably common use of comprise as a synonym of compose or constitute is a wanton and indefensible weakening of our vocabulary.” Seventy-six years later, in 2002, Bill Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words was no less emphatic: “Comprised of is a common expression, but it is always wrong.”

So it seems clear that Walter used the phrase because he either did not know or did not care that “the experts” say it’s wrong. By writing “comprised of,” Walter is legitimizing this “common expression” over the adamant objections of a dwindling cadre of fuddy-duddies.

From Walter’s 2003 novel Land of the Blind: “I don’t know who liked this new world less, him or Mr. Leggett.” Walter, who could have used the correct he in this sentence without sounding stilted or affected, opted instead for the colloquial him. Apparently, neither he nor his target audience loses any sleep over such erudite technicalities.

In another short story, The New Frontier, the author writes, “He convinced her to model.” But technically, he persuaded her to model. “Convince may be followed by an of phrase or a that clause, but not by a to infinitive,” counsels Theodore M. Bernstein in The Careful Writer (1983). That rule is upheld to this day by the Associated Press Stylebook: “You may [only] be convinced that something or of something.” Walter isn’t buying. He’s trusting his own ear, as writers will do. The fine distinction between convince and persuade, he is saying, has become a quaint bit of trivia.

He introduces sentences with danglers. He repeatedly writes “different than” rather than “different from.” He says “snuck” even though sneaked is still considered the correct option. At least once, he uses strata—the plural of stratum—as a singular. He writes “close proximity,” long dismissed by sticklers as a windy redundancy.

Walter is too busy spinning his wondrous tales to be distracted by such minutiae—his instincts tell him: Why bother?

Why, indeed? That question gives all language watchdogs nightmares.

Posted on Wednesday, January 22, 2014, at 10:57 am


16 Comments

16 Responses to “The Future of English?”

  1. Maggie D. says:

    We must continue to instill the importance of proper English in our children and grandchildren, along with proper diction.

  2. Christine S. says:

    I guess I too am a word nerd. I hope we are not a dying breed.

    As always, thank you for all you do!

  3. Mary W. says:

    I am sixty-five years old and have always been concerned with grammar and taught both of my children to be care about the English language. Even when I compose an e-mail I make sure that it is done with care. I always double check it to be sure there are no mistakes.

    I have not read any of Mr. Walter’s books. After reading your always enlightening website, it is not likely that I ever will read his books. Nothing is more frustrating to me than to read a “supposed” literary work, and find poorly written sentences (sometimes not even true sentences) with incorrect phrasing. I will reread that sentence until I can make sense of it. After this happens too many times, I will not continue to read it. In my opinion authors should be held to the highest standards. A good writer encourages the reader to keep reading. A careless writer discourages his reader and future writers-to-be.

    Thank you for your GrammarBook Newsletter. I thoroughly enjoy it and know that is as helpful to many readers. It is most encouraging to know that there are people who still care about the English language, grammar, and the sanctity of the written word.

    • Jane says:

      We appreciate your letting us know how helpful our newsletters have been and how much you enjoy them. (You may, however, be missing some good reading by avoiding Mr. Walter’s books.)

  4. Gary W. says:

    This article brought forth an important issue.
    Essentially has the written word evolved like many other aspects of contemporary society?

    Consider the readership, where are they coming from? Are they really adamant about formal written word protocols?

    Should we all be speaking in a Shakespearean type mode?

    I enjoy your informative articles.

  5. Allan G. says:

    I am an admirer of the English language. It gives us wonderful opportunities to shade meaning in our writing. Do the kinds of criticisms shown in your article alter its ability to concisely describe our world? I have my doubts and I like to believe I am a strict rule follower, knowledge permitting. Perhaps English is like golf, the rules in some situations are so overbearing they no longer make much sense.

    Your reference to Walter’s book, Land of the Blind, brought another question to mind. Is the language of the blind, Braille, changing or being eroded as you describe below? I don’t know anything about it. Perhaps its history would be worth a future story.

    I thoroughly enjoy these newsletters.

    • Jane says:

      The Braille idea is intriguing; we’ll look into it.

      As we said in the blog, we know English rules are changing, but sometimes the changes seem needless. The examples of Mr. Walter’s writing were included because it seemed to us that he could have written those sentences correctly without seeming stuffy.

  6. Michael A. says:

    In The Future of English editorial you mention Jess Walter using ‘comprised of’ in We Live in Water. I read this story two weeks ago (!) and was pulled up short by this ‘error’. It made me wonder about him which is not the interruption you want in a story. It makes me think of the effect some of these mistakes have on the reader and is the author considering this? This is the only fault with Jess that I notice — otherwise he is a master of situation, character, and mood. By the way, where is the editor in all this?!!!

    • Jane says:

      Where is the editor, indeed. We pondered the same thing. Evidently, author and editor were complicit in choosing colloquial over scholarly English.

  7. Michele E. says:

    Thank you for another enlightening newsletter! Proper use of comprised is an Achilles heel for me, so I appreciate that clarification.

    I am, however, confused about what you’ve stated regarding convince and persuade. I feel as though the definitions and examples I see in the Concise Oxford American Dictionary and Merriam Webster conflict with your definitions.

    • Jane says:

      We remain loyal to the English usage scholars and standard references we cited in the article that, in formal writing, the rule is that convince never takes an infinitive, but persuade does. This is echoed by Bill Bryson, author of Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words; A Writer’s Guide to Getting it Right. However, we do acknowledge that the informal is unfortunately making headway. This is from the American Heritage Dictionary:
      Usage Note: According to a traditional rule, one persuades someone to act but convinces someone of the truth of a statement or proposition: By convincing me that no good could come of staying, he persuaded me to leave. If the distinction is accepted, then convince should not be used with an infinitive: He persuaded (not convinced) me to go. In our 1981 survey, 61 percent of the Usage Panel rejected the use of convince with an infinitive. But the tide of sentiment against the construction has turned. In a 1996 survey, 74 percent accepted it in the sentence I tried to convince him to chip in a few dollars, but he refused. Even in passive constructions, a majority of the Panel accepted convince with an infinitive. Fifty-two percent accepted the sentence After listening to the teacher’s report, the committee was convinced to go ahead with the new reading program. Persuade, on the other hand, is perfectly acceptable when used with an infinitive or a that clause in both active and passive constructions. An overwhelming majority of Panelists in the 1996 survey accepted the following sentences: After a long discussion with her lawyer, she was persuaded to drop the lawsuit. The President persuaded his advisers that military action was necessary. Some writers may wish to preserve the traditional distinction, but they should bear in mind that most readers will probably not notice.

      Apparently, Jess Walter considers it a trivial distinction.

  8. khine says:

    I’ve always learned that you do not “eat” lunch (or breakfast or dinner). You “have” lunch. I eat pasta for lunch. I had lunch before I slept. However, Americans use “eat” with meals all the time. Please let me know what is correct? THANK YOU

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