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Robert Hartwell Fiske: A fanatical stickler for diction

Readers of Lynne Truss's entertaining jeremiad Eats, Shoots & Leaves know that she is a hard taskmaster. She decries the misplaced apostrophe with a tone that makes the Ten Commandments appear tentative by comparison.

This week brings the publication of a book next to which Truss seems a mild-mannered word whisperer. Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English, a Scribner paperback, is so passionate in the prescriptivist cause of smiting the lax and the uncaring that the book at times resembles a parody of itself. (Essentially, descriptivists record language as it is being used; prescriptivists opine on how it should be used.)

Readers who believe there is a right way and a wrong way of writing – that dictionaries too often bend rules that should stay unbent – will find themselves in a strange position. They may pump their fists in the air with relief that someone is lamenting the use of "hone in on" instead of the correct "home in on," while at the same time questioning Fiske's decision to banish "inflammable" because it means the same as flammable, or excommunicate those who pronounce the "h" in herb, or attack a dictionary for recognizing the colloquial words ginormous and humongous.

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Much of the book consists of correcting simple spelling errors (harrass for harass) and a number of far less familiar mistakes (comfrontable for comfortable, intrest for interest). Those few who make such errors may mend their ways, but the entries carry a strong whiff of padding.

Fiske has for years edited The Vocabula Review, an online periodical ( dedicated to the English language. He taps a market that has embraced Truss and that saluted Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson for their amusing 2010 book The Great Typo Hunt, which chronicled their journey to correct poor grammar and spelling wherever they came across it.

A good example of this drive to stand up for correct English is Ambrose Bierce's 1909 book Write It Right, which listed the common errors that infuriated the author. Yet posterity has shown that while such crusades are admirable, they are tricky. It is frequently difficult to distinguish between an ignorant error and the initial stage of an irreversible change in the language.

Jan Freeman, author since 1997 of a word column for the Boston Sunday Globe, produced an excellent annotated version of Bierce's book in 2009. She noted that, in common with several other such guides, this one "meant to instruct readers not just on errors but on taste. Don't use slang (bogus, brainy), or pretentious words (banquet, demise), or euphemisms (casket, retire for 'go to bed')."

She marvelled at how many of the 441 cautions in Bierce's book are obsolete. "Even a usage traditionalist would agree that half of them are now either resolved (we accept 'run a business') or irrelevant (do we 'ride' or 'drive' in a carriage?)." And she was torn between recognizing that "the passion we sometimes devote to minor points of usage ... is perhaps a bit excessive" and admiring Bierce for proving that "the devil gets all the best lines and that indignation has charms that reason can't match."

Indignation is a driving force behind Fiske's book, expressed in frequently baroque language that indicates how much fun the author was having when he put this together. There is an occasionally discomforting Tea Party flavour to his approach, as in his definition of lexicographers as "descriptivists, language liberals." And the tone of his feud with Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (for, he says, "including idiotic slang and apparently omitting more useful words") can obscure the substance of his argument: that a major dictionary shouldn't be, say, legitimizing sherbert as a variant spelling of sherbet.

The book provides one major service. It will help readers determine where their sympathies lie on the spectrum between extreme prescriptivism and extreme descriptivism. Expect to cheer for one page and quarrel with the next.

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