Sunday, September 24, 2006

Use This

I finished Word Court by Barbara Wallraff this past week.

Word Court is the best book on usage I've ever read. Why? Because it focuses on word problems your average person actually suffers with.*

I don't do well at just learning abstract information. I do better when I know I have problems with something and need to solve them. Grammar meant nothing to me until I realized how ungrammatical I was after I left school. Then I started learning. The same is true with sewing, gardening, cooking, working out, using the computer--you name it. I can't sit down and read about this stuff in general. I seek out information on what I need to know.

Barbara Wallraff edits a column called Word Court for The Atlantic Monthly. She answers questions about the English language for people who send them in to her. Her book, Word Court, is a collection of those letters and answers.

Thus she is responding to real questions from real people. Unlike whatever it is most other usage writers do.

Wallraff has a witty, down-to-earth style. She takes language seriously, but she's not over-the-top about it.

I was struck by two types of information in this book.

First: There are a number of word situations in which I know that I'm on shaky ground. So what I usually do is rephrase the sentence so I can eliminate the construction altogether. Wallraff discusses some of these and suggests...that we reword the sentence to eliminate the construction altogether.

I didn't know whether to pat myself on the back or get depressed because that's as good as it gets.

Second: Wallraff discusses all kinds of correct vs. incorrect wording that I've never known anything about. For instance, I wasn't aware that the is pronounced thee or thuh depending on whether the word that follows it begins with a consonant or a vowel. And I find the rules I just read for using the word reverend so confusing that I'm going to just call our minister Bob.

I don't know how much I've retained after reading Word Court. I hope that when certain words come up, I'll at least remember to look them up in Wallraff's book.

What really delights me about finishing Word Court is that I can now take it off my To Be Read shelf (where it languished for years) and move it to my reference shelf in the office. In fact, I took so long to get around to reading this book, that in the meantime Wallraff has written and published another, Word Fugitives.

*"...suffers from?" Barbara, help me with this.


MotherReader said...

Hold it. What's the "thee" and "thuu" thing? Which way is it? "Thee" with vowels? Do people just do this naturally when we speak, or did I miss teaching my kids something important?

Gail Gauthier said...

"Thee" before a word that begins with a vowel. Wallraff says, "This distinction is still considered to be basic to standard English."

So, in short, yes, we missed teaching our kids something important. To say nothing of the bad impressions we've been making on others all our lives.

Gail Gauthier said...

I asked my computer guy if he knew when to use "thee." He suggested at Renaissance Fairs.

You'll only get that joke if you've been to a Renaissance Fair.

Nancy said...

This book is still on my "to be read" pile. Thanks for the write-up -- I hope I get to it soon.

I somehow instinctively knew the THEE vs THUH thing. But I would take issue with using THEE before a word that started with an EE sound. Like "the eater" or "the eel"... in those cases I'd go with THUH.