It’s not every day one encounters the word sprachgefühl – that gut feeling for language that fuels editors and spurs proofreaders to action – let alone in two books back to back. Granted, these two books about the English language deal with similar topics: the first with words and the ‘rules’ that govern them; the second ditto, but vis à vis punctuation. For that reason alone, I’d recommend reading these two as a pair – a literary double feature if you will.
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries
Many (all?) editors have a distaste for words like ‘irregardless’ and ‘impactful’, but most don’t have to define and enshrine them for a living. Kory Stamper hated these words too – until she realised they were both already in the dictionary she worked for. (As ‘non-standard’ terms, mind you.)
Can you imagine a book that describes English as “our quicksilver darling” deserving of “careful attention and care” but also “that whore, English”? That recounts the prickly process of defining ‘marriage’ and the colour ‘nude’ with sincerity and wit? That makes you guffaw audibly at the etymology of ‘pumpernickel’? (In summary, it means ‘fart goblin’.)
Word by Word does double duty: describing the intricacies of office life as a lexicographer – which by Stamper’s account is more entertaining than but just as hushed as you’d expect – and discussing the hotly debated (in some circles…) role of dictionaries themselves. Stamper’s exploration of both angles is deeply fascinating and engaging, though the former may make you want to exclaim “Hey! No shop talk at the dinner table!” if you’re in the business of words yourself.
When I had just started reading Word by Word, a friend asked whether it was worth extracting it from her bedside ‘to read’ stack (there’s a word for that: tsundoku). I replied “Yes! It’s FUN!” and I meant it. That’s not what you’d expect to hear about a book that describes, in procedurally specific detail, the day-to-day processes of working for a dictionary. And yet … these pages are full of dazzling quips, waiting to jump out as you turn the corner of an otherwise straightforward passage.
And if you’ve ever wondered whether a career lexicographer would have a vocabulary as startlingly boundless as Mary Poppins’s carpet bag, the answer is also yes. What’s more delightful is how judiciously – and non-obnoxiously – Stamper reaches into that vast grab-bag of obscure words, using it to entertain and decorate rather than show off.
Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark
People, generally, fear the semicolon. Or loathe it. Or both. Cecelia Watson’s mission, it seems, is to quash that needless animosity.
What appears at first to be a whistle-stop tour through the history of the semicolon shifts gear about halfway through, where Watson dips down deep into the debate over rules versus style, and the idea that conforming strictly to the former can extinguish any sense of the latter. More significantly, the idea that style may actually be more important than grammatical perfection: “You could write perfectly ‘correct’ English all day and still not have what most of us really want, which is style. We want our words to have impact … we want to persuade and to be understood.” So yes, this goes much deeper than just the semicolon – or even punctuation generally.
That’s not to say that the book is at all dry or didactic. Indeed, Watson’s writing is positively jaunty, even when discussing some of history’s more dramatic semicolons (prohibition and the capital punishment are involved). Semicolon could be a Sunday read, if you’re into punctuation enough to spend your Sunday reading about it. Or if you want to become better acquainted with the context and politics of punctuation – to demystify its mysteries, transforming foreign foe into familiar friend.
If you’re after a textbook or style guide or user manual, this isn’t it. Perhaps intentionally, Watson almost rushes over what we might call the present narrow ‘rules’ for ‘correctly’ using a semicolon. Instead, she introduces the historical context of this maligned punctuation mark; examines how some famous authors (Herman Melville, Henry James, Rebecca Solnit, Thoreau) have wielded the semicolon like an artist’s brush; and positively tears into David Foster Wallace’s views on ‘standard English’ – and his frankly racist lecturing tactics. The book crescendos in a discussion about the politics, prejudices and cultural power surrounding ‘correct’ usage, asking us to question our own motives for enforcing the rules handed down to us. So maybe not a light Sunday read, but perhaps a necessary one for those in the business of words, grammar and punctuation.