Thursday, March 14, 2013

Eager peevers

William Zinsser, author of "On Writing Well" (the book is 37 years and seven editions old), recently published a collection of blog posts he'd been writing for The American Scholar. I haven't read the essays, but Edwin M. Yoder Jr. has, and he is delighted, he reports in the Wall Street Journal, to find in Zinsser "as hardened a cultural tory as I." That is: a fellow peever.
Readers of "On Writing Well" may not remember it as particularly cranky, and it's not. But this new collection (whatever its actual contents) apparently includes enough language grousing to keep the reviewer happy. For instance, Yoder reports, Zinsser objects to the "weasel word" relationship:
Zinsser's problem with the word "is that it means whatever anyone needs it to mean. . . . But nowhere in bardic lore is there any word of Antony's relationship with Cleopatra, or Tristan's . . . with Isolde." Nor did Cole Porter "write, 'let's do it, let's have a relationship.' "
Zinsser also "doesn't use email and is offended by the term 'snail mail,' patronizing as it is to the dedicated workers of the U.S. Postal Service who get our checks and bills to us on time," says Yoder.

I suppose Zinsser deserves credit for not limiting himself to the same old peeves. But these new ones seem like odd targets. Relationship, after all, has described many sorts of connection in its three centuries of existence. Yes, for Jane Austen it meant a legal kinship, not mere love or friendship. But her contemporary Mary Wollstonecraft used it, writing to her baby daddy, in 1793: "Where shall I find a word to express the relationship which subsists between us?" So our modern use is hardly an unnatural development.

It's more understandable that Zinsser (in the sole excerpt of the book I could find) makes fun of his investment adviser for referring to a subordinate as “the lead assistant assigned to your relationship" with the brokerage. But even this commercial jargon usage has OED entries dating back decades: "Relationship management" and "relationship banking" took root in the 1970s.

As for snail mail, I was surprised to hear it might be offensive; I always assumed it was just an irresistible and innocent backronym coined for the age of e-mail. Google did turn up one example of genuine word rage at it, from a direct mail marketer defending his turf:  
I despise the term "snail mail." It is a pejorative that denigrates all hand-carried mail -- Standard, First Class and Parcel Post -- well as the dedicated men and women who deliver it. It is a far more offensive term than "junk mail."
But aside from this highly interested party, there were only a few people claiming snail mail was disparaging, and they were just guessing: inferring that it was intended that way, or was taken that way, but not themselves claiming to intend or take offense.

So has Zinsser become a complete curmudgeon? I suspect not; this article probably highlights the language gripes out of a combination of journalistic strategy (lead with the red meat) and the reviewer's own love of kvetching. So until I see the primary source, I'm reserving judgment on who's the eagerer peever of the pair.


Kay L. Davies said...

"Let's do it, let's have a relationship" does lack a certain something one would want to find in a love song, but the folk singers of the late 50s and early 60s would have loved it.
The term seems to have been given its apparent validity by Facebook. I've noticed one of my nephews is "in a relationship" with the mother of his child, and it certainly does seem to be a closer relationship than the one he has with his elderly aunt.
I'll save my kvetching for people my age who know better, but who nevertheless use the ridiculous "send it to my wife and I" as did my brother (father of the abovementioned nephew) in an e-mail to me recently. He received in return a verbal lambasting, because he never would have said such a thing 30 or even 20 years ago.
I've been told I'm fighting against the legitimate evolution of the English language, but I beg to differ. Some evolutionary paths lead to dead ends, like the dodo bird.

Bryan White said...

I actually got a copy of On Writing Well from my mother as a birthday gift when I was a kid. The book is one of those things that's deeply embedded in my mind and my habits. It's like a nagging voice that surfaces from time to time.

Stan said...

On Writing Well is an excellent guide with a great deal of sound and insightful advice. But not all of its suggestions are created equally, and peeve-weary readers may reflexively roll their eyes on occasion.
I read Zinsser's American Scholar column (and mentioned it on my blog when he started it). I enjoyed it for the most part; he's a careful and lucid writer, which makes disagreeing with him less disagreeable.

cucaracha said...

I LOVE the expression "snail-mail". I don't think it is at all pejorative; just shows that the mail is not electronic and instant, it is slow and real...

Unknown said...

I hold what seems to be a minority opinion in that I am unimpressed by Oh Writing Well. I first read it about ten years ago, in an edition released for the new millennium. It struck me as badly dated, borderline incoherent, and not very well written.

The first problem is that it isn't really about how to write well in any general sense. It has some good advice on writing undergraduate essays and articles for the sort of general interest magazine that mostly doesn't exist any more. When Zinsser sticks to this he mostly does fine, but he often forgets himself. So we get on the one hand the advice that a good work has exactly one important idea. Then elsewhere we get the passing opinion that the Bible is a good work. I have wondered ever since what its one (and only one) important idea is.

The edition I read claimed to be updated for the new century, but I was repeatedly referred to writers from before I was born, and I am not particularly young. This would be fine if this was the sort of works which I as an educated person should know, but the actual works cited tended toward topical issues of the day magazine writing. This supposedly updated edition was actually an example of glaring laziness.

Then, of course, the chapter on grammar is deeply regretable. It looks like a collection of language peeves from about a half century ago, because this is exactly what it is.

I think the book's good reputation comes from its strength with undergraduate essays. Persons condemned to read undergraduate essays recommend the book, and for that narrow purpose and for the right undergraduate this can even be good advice. But in any general sense, it is not a good book on its purported topic.

Glen said...

It's curious that someone with so many grammatical peeves would write "as hardened a cultural tory as I" rather than "as hardened a cultural tory as me."

empty said...

He wrote "Here is a writer, a fellow newspaperman, who is as hardened a cultural tory as I. "

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