Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Words, Words, Words

“Build your vocabulary to make yourself a better reader; choose simple words whenever possible to make yourself a better writer” (Bryan A. Garner).

I couldn’t resist the temptation of sharing that sentence. It’s so brilliant, even more so in light of its simplicity. We (it can’t be just me) often turn that sickening desire to learn words into an obnoxious tendency to deploy them (especially if they’re both obscure and coruscating). I used to say that big words are like toothpicks left on your table at a restaurant: yes, they’re there, but you’re in breach of something when you use them. Garner hits the nail on the head: learn as many words as you can, because they’re useful to understand what others say, but keep them at a healthy minimum when it’s your turn to write. Garner goes on to say that no self-respecting mathematician would speak of, I don’t know, the fraction 36/48 instead of saying 3/4. Garner says all this in an entry (aptly) called sesquipedality (Garner is quite inventive with the names of many entries), in the fabulous Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, 2009). David Foster Wallace described the author as a “genius,” and it’s a well-deserved title. Garner’s usage dictionary is fantastic. It is deeply scholarly, reasoned, respectful of the evolution of language (while remaining unabashed of his stances toward certain developments), and filled with humor and perspicuity. It’s a dictionary I actually enjoy reading.

Since we’re on the subject of words and OUP, how not to turn to the robust Oxford English Dictionary (which I’ve mentioned before)? A good resource for word junkies is OED’s Word of the Day, to which you can subscribe by email here. Sometimes the words are admittedly unimpressive (pursuit, for instance); but some are more engaging (perigraphic, narcocracy). In any case, the OED’s wealth of information about any word is worth having in your inbox.

And speaking of your inbox, my friend Mauricio Salvador let me in on another email-based service that seems very promising. It’s Library of America’s Story of the Week, to which you can sign up here. I’ll certainly comment on some of these stories throughout the year, which are plucked from LOA’s marvelous and wide-ranging array of American literature. I guess that’s that for now.

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