Grammar lessons, pt. 3: Metagrammar, loosely

Taken from Garner’s Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner, 2009.

grammar is often misspelled *grammer–e.g.: “Writing Center tutors go through extensive training before being assigned to students. They complete notebooks on how to tutor and meet weekly to role-play, hear guest lectures, complete grammer [read grammar] exercises and look at their own writing.” “Center Has the Write Stuff for Students,” Boston Herald, 11 Aug. 2002, Mag. §, at M2. (400)

lexicography; lexicology. Lexicography is the making of dictionaries; lexicology is the study of words and their origins, meanings, and uses. (510)

misspelling, believe it or not, is often misspelled *mispelling. (543)

snoot. In the April 2001 issue of Harper’s, the late David Foster Wallace introduced his family’s acronym for syntax nudnik of our time or, alternatively, Sprachegefühl necessitates our ongoing tendence. (A fuller version of Wallace’s influential essay, purportedly a review essay of the first edition of this book, appears in Wallace’s Consider the Lobster [2006], at pp. 66–127, under the title “Authority and American Usage.”) The word denotes a well-informed language-lover and word connoisseur. It aptly captures the linguistic snootiness of those who weigh their words, value verbal nuances, resist the societal tendency to blur useful distinctions, reject newfangled usages without strong redeeming qualities, and concern themselves with linguistic tradition and continuity.

Here’s what Wallace himself had to say about the subject:

There are lots of epithets for people like this–Grammar Nazis, Usage Nerds, Syntax Snobs, the Language Police. The term I was raised with is snoot. The word might be slightly self-mocking, but those other terms are outright dysphemisms. A snoot can be defined as somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn’t mind letting you know it. . . . A fellow snoot I know likes to say that listening to most people’s English feels like watching somebody use a Stradivarius to pound nails. (Wallace, “Tense Present,” Harper’s, Apr. 2001, at 39, 41)

As he suggested, the language needs a neutral-to-positive word for this idea, and Wallace’s deserves a permanent place in language.

A well-executed usage book systematically records linguistic predilections of snoots at a given time, as well as the reasons underlying those predilections. The great snoots of the 18th century were Samuel Johnson and Robert Lowth; of the 19th, Lindley Murray and Richard Grant White; of the 20th, H.W. Fowler and Theodore M. Bernstein. Snoots have gotten better with time because, with the constant progress of scholarship and technology, they have become better-informed about the actual state of the language. Less guesswork is involved.

As in the quotation above, Wallace capitalized snoot. Actually, he used small caps. But his own capitalization practices throughout the essay were idiosyncratic, and the better approach–if the word is going to win its way–is surely to treat it more like radar or scuba and make it lowercase. Time and snoots will tell.

The corresponding abstract noun is snootitude. (756)

Invariably inferior words or phrases are marked with an asterisk (*). (almost every odd-numbered page)

There you have it! You all know what a snoot is and have the potential to become one. Or, at least, hopefully won’t fall into the trap of misspelling misspell. But what am I thinking! You need one more thing.

dysphemism (/dis-fǝ-miz-ǝm/) = (1) the substitution of a disagreeable word or phrase for a neutral or even positive one; or (2) a word or phrase so substituted. Dysphemism is the opposite of euphemism. Examples usually fall into the realm of slang–e.g.:

Ordinary Term               Dysphemism

accountant                            bean-counter

athlete                                    (dumb) jock . . .

Many dysphemisms, of course, are unprintable, as when the word man or woman is reduced in reference to the low word for a sexual organ. Most racist terms likewise illustrate the phenomenon of dysphemism.

Although they frequently appear in dialogue, dysphemisms rarely find a place in well-educated prose that is not intended to be jocular. (286)

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3 Responses to Grammar lessons, pt. 3: Metagrammar, loosely

  1. Z Norwood says:

    I love DFW’s friend here: “A fellow snoot I know likes to say that listening to most people’s English feels like watching somebody use a Stradivarius to pound nails.”

    Also, these are really usage lessons, not ‘grammar’ lessons.

  2. Sara says:

    I’ve been misspelling “misspelling” my entire life. Thanks.

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