“Quack This Way” and the merits of prescriptive linguistics

This book is really more a transcribed conversation than anything else, but it is absolutely worth your time. In it, David Foster Wallace and Bryan Garner (of Garner’s Usage Dictionary fame) discuss language, writing, and the particular importance of the “descriptive vs. prescriptive” debate as it pertains to writing well. Both of these men were fans of each other’s work at the time of the interview, and since I’m rather impressed with their execution of their respective literary projects and inclined to listen to their thoughts on the words we use and the order in which we use them, I found the thing to be not only immensely useful, but one of the most fun reads I’ve had in recent memory.

Garner spends equal time on questions about writing and on teaching writing. There are some great conversations on the extent to which writing can be taught, and the general consensus seems to be that writing can be improved within that context, and that writers are often challenged and improved by that environment, but that a certain innate perspective or ability still needs to be present for anything really impressive to happen. With regard to the question of descriptive/prescriptive linguistics, those familiar with these two won’t be surprised at their perspective: while descriptive objectivity is vital to the science of linguistic reportage, some degree of prescriptivism is an absolutely necessary answer to the question of craft. That doesn’t mean holding fast and blindly to arcane rules of Latinate grammar, or thinking that a preposition is a silly thing to end a sentence with (I kind of nonsense “up with which I will not put”). But it does mean having an awareness of the center of our modern American usage of English and an understanding of the rules, which allows an author to follow them well when it suits his/her purposes and break them in interesting ways when it doesn’t.

There is a wealth of correspondence built up and cataloged by previous generations of writers -think of Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet” and the like- but it’s often a thinner soup with more contemporary authors (and, in this case, lexicographers). This is generally a function of the way we look at and contextualize a given person’s life work. We want to read their letters and their journals after they’ve died and left behind their entire body of work. Even this slim volume only came into being after Wallace’s death. Although I understand why, it’s still a shame that so many of these conversations only really enter the more public conversation in such a canonical after the death of at least one of the significant parties.

Recommendation: Read it. Also, get a copy of Garner’s usage dictionary if you don’t already have it and put it next to your toilet. And if you have one and it’s not next to your toilet, move it next to your toilet.

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