- Hardcover: 272 pages
- Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1 edition (January 18, 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0151003815
- ISBN-13: 978-0151003815
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 13 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,353,713 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Word Court: Wherein verbal virtue is rewarded, crimes against the language are punished, and poetic justice is done 1st Edition
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Do you find the errors on a menu before the waiter has a chance to recite the specials? Is "Your call will be answered in the order in which it was received" as grating to you as fingernails on a blackboard? Would you cringe if an advertisement for your child's school promised a "low teacher-to-student ratio"? If so, Barbara Wallraff's Word Court is a book without which you cannot live. For seasoned wordsmiths, books about language can entertain; on occasion they may also enlighten. But rare is the book such as this that can teach an old pro so many new tricks, and in such a delightful manner. If you are a reader of Wallraff's "Word Court" column for The Atlantic Monthly, you will have already seen much of what is included here. If not, caveat lector: Though there is an index, this book is arranged in such a way that one may well find oneself reading the proverbial "one more page" long into the night.
"What I know about language," says Wallraff, "derives chiefly from my having edited, line by line and word by word, other people's writing over the past two decades." In Word Court, Wallraff addresses changes in the language, questions of grammar, issues concerning specific words and phrases, and a bunch of other, uncategorizable linguistic concerns. She recommends rewriting in order to avoid problems ("recast, recast"), treading carefully when you don't want controversial word use to obscure your point, and forgiving significant others "for any lapse of grammar committed in a bathrobe, before the coffee is ready." This book is delicious. And I'll bet your first-edition Fowler that Wallraff even introduces a few issues you may never have considered (perhaps the exceptional which, "picnic's grandmother" constructions, or those rare instances in which a sentence's two grammatically independent clauses should not--I repeat, not--be separated by a comma). --Jane Steinberg
From Library Journal
Here are two new books by well-known columnists/language mavens. Safire is funny, thought-provoking, and, after 20 years of writing columns for the New York Times Magazine, an American institution. Gathering these columns and including many letters from readers, his book focuses on the way our language was used historically and how it is used now. The columns are clever and highly readable, and some of the letters from readers are just as much fun. Wallraff has been writing her witty column for The Atlantic Monthly for many years. Partly a style and usage manual that will be valuable for reference and on the corner of a writing desk, this book is also a written lecture by a great English teacher. Safire and Wallraff cover some of the same ground and sometimes differ, one notable example being the use of the article an before words that start with h such as historian. The best part of these books is, in most instances, that the "right" usage is not as important as reading about how the authors formed their opinions. Safire may have a slight edge owing to name recognition, but both books will put smiles on many a reader's face.ALisa J. Cihlar, Monroe P.L., WI
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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I am a grammar geek. It probably doesn't come out in my writing, with its myriad typos (I am both absent-minded and klutzy, which is a prescription for bad typing skills), but I am. Books about spelling, grammar, and other easily-gaffed aspects of the English language are like balm to my soul. This one in particular is a fine thing, a compendium of Wallraff's "Word Court" columns that's been whipped into a book-length manuscript (so that it doesn't read like a compendium of columns). Usage dictionary for oft-misused words? It's here. Tricky, obscure grammar nitpicking? Yep. Wondering, by both the author and readers of the column, that sometimes explodes into scathing debate? Oh, most surely.
It should be obvious that this book is not for everyone. Grammar geeks, on the other hand, will love it to pieces. Those who find themselves mulling over a particular grammatical quirk will likely find it a valuable reference, and much more readable than your basic style manual. A good one to keep around the house. *** ½
Her Fowler-like humor aside, what's great about Judge Barbara is that while authoritative and incisive and usually right--or at least in agreement with my prejudices--she is sometimes woefully "wrong, Wrong, WRONG!" (to quote one of her letter writers). For example her idea that informal English, as distinguished from standard English, ought to be labeled "house English" since that is the way we speak around the house, is curiously amiss. (Better yet how about "house arrest" for the good Judge for such an uncouth "improvement"?) Or the fact that she doesn't "get" in her discussion of "I could care less" on pages 61-62 that the seemingly illogical phrase is in fact IRONIC. (Sorry for the loud caps, but Amazon.com's editor isn't capable of italics, which is a shame, particularly in the present instance.)
All of this keeps us interested. Wallraff is neither a pedant nor a permissive. She wants to "do what we can to ensure that...[the language] changes as slowly as possible" (p. 10). And she wants to do it with humor, as on page 102 where she notes that the sentence, "Time flies when you're having fun," could be a command! Wonderfully she does not explain this; but for those in a hurry here's a hint: use a stop watch. However she is NOT like the French word police who, due to their irrational fear of creeping "franglais," will go to great lengths to protect their language from neologisms and foreign intrusions. Wallraff, for example, does something her mentors, Fowler, Strunk and White, Bernstein, et al., never could do. She consults the Internet for instances of usage! On page 72 she reports about browsing Web sites to see how people are formulating the term, "Health Care," with or without a hyphen, one word or two?
Now a confession: I'm a semi-careful writer, more interested in being incisive than in being pristinely correct. I don't always make a proper distinction between "shall" and "will," (pp. 249-250) and I habitually say "hopefully" when I mean "I hope" or "it is hoped." (pp. 119-120) and I care not a whit whether my infinitives are split or not (pp. 98-100). I used to confuse "which" and "that" but have recently seen the grammatical light (pp. 112-117). My pet peeves include pretentious and PC jargon such as the overuse of "paradigm" when "construct," "body of knowledge" or simply "idea" is meant; or the "woman as victim" use of "empowering" as, after a feminist fringe group meeting in which men are trashed about, it is heard, "That was so empowering!"
To my ears, however, the singular, most annoying usage faux pas is the ungrammatical "between you and I." I would like to observe as an addendum to a reader's discussion on pages 133-134 that "between you and I" is often misused NOT by educated people but by people who unconsciously feel that "I" is somehow grander than "me," especially when THEY are speaking. They may be more educated than the disadvantaged; some may even have attended Yale; but they are usually poorly read and more interested in appearance than substance.
Wallraff mentions the considerable and controversial distinction made between Webster's Second and Third Internationals, and recalls some very fine word experts and usage mavens en route, but curiously does not mention Dwight MacDonald, who wrote a wonderful critique and comparison of those editions that surely Judge Barbara must have read. Also not mentioned are Bergen and Cornelia Evans, authors of the still-influential A Dictionary of Contemporary American Usage (1957).
To close (before I exceed Amazon's 1,000-word limit) I should like to recall that while reading Wallraff's discussion of what to call a freshman in this age of PC gender usage, a Neil Simon-like scene came to mind: A darling young thing bounces into her English prof's office and announces her vote: "I'm a freshperson!" To which the professor sagely nods, "Indeed you are."