Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Tense Present

Possibly one of the greatest essays written on the changes in the English language over time, by David Foster Wallace for Harper’s Magazine in 2001:

From one perspective, a certain irony attends the publication of any good new book on American usage. It is that the people who are going to be interested in such a book are also the people who are least going to need it, i.e., that offering counsel on the finer points of U.S. English is Preaching to the Choir. The relevant Choir here comprises that small percentage of American citizens who actually care about the current status of double modals and ergative verbs. The same sorts of people who watched Story of English on PBS (twice) and read W. Safire’s column with their half-caff every Sunday. The sorts of people who feel that special blend of wincing despair and sneering superiority when they see EXPRESS LANE — 10 ITEMS OR LESS or hear dialogue used as a verb or realize that the founders of the Super 8 motel chain must surely have been ignorant of the meaning of suppurate. 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.

This essay is infinitely quotable, but deserves to be read in full if you want an idea of the ever-changing possibilities of the English language. True to Sally Kerrigan’s point, it’s a surprisingly readable article for a fairly niche audience; appropriately, it advocates for clarity and contemporaneity in the use of language.