Book Review: “Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Unendurable English”

By Mark Nichol

Distinguishing between the many guides for writers and speakers of the English language may appear difficult at first glance, but on closer examination of bookstore and library shelves, one at least, Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Unendurable English, is notable for the courage of its convictions.

The exemplar of this category of resources for writers, Garner’s Modern English Usage, in its commentary clearly exhorts its readers to be careful writers, but Robert Hartwell Fiske’s book ratchets up the rhetoric with militant admonitions to those who consult its pages to help preserve proper language.

This alphabetically organized book, subtitled A Compendium of Mistakes in Grammar, Usage, and Spelling with Commentary on Lexicographers and Linguists, is one of several books written by Robert Hartwell Fiske, editor and publisher of the online journal The Vocabula Review. Fiske’s periodical and his other publications champion a rigidly prescriptivist approach to language, one that seeks to conservatively retain precise and narrow meanings and connotations and eradicate careless usage. The Dictionary of Unendurable English is yet another front in that campaign.

In its pages, you will find entries that warn readers about the usual usage-error suspects. For example, it lists misspelling mistakes like wierd used in place of weird, homophonic hoo-hah such as using gibe instead of jibe, word-form follies such as writing loath for loathe, and inept renderings of idiomatic expressions like “step foot in,” rather than the established phrase “set foot in.” But while you’ll also see discussion of useful distinctions such as that between bring and take, Fiske occasionally reveals a distinct lack of humor, such as in citing the apparent abomination of the playful term moresome in the example “The Couples Group is for couples and individuals who are part of a couple, triad, foursome, or moresome.”

The impetus for The Vocabula Review and Fiske’s other works is undeniably valid: Dictionaries that list such words as mantle and mantel as interchangeable do a disservice to writers who want to do the right thing. But Fiske is sometimes unapologetically arrogant about what he perceives as ignorant and/or lazy usage such as donut as a substitute for doughnut (“The people who spell doughnuts donuts are the people who eat them”).

In his epilogue, Fiske decries “language cravens” (a play on William Safire’s self-description “language maven”), linguists who pander to popular usage rather than strive to maintain a high standard of precision in grammar, spelling, and vocabulary. One appendix, “Mock Merriam,” does just that, castigating Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the supremely successful descriptivist dictionary of American English, for blithely listing nonstandard variants without comment or with little guidance.

The second appendix, “The Fiske Ranking of College Dictionaries,” takes Merriam-Webster’s and other dictionaries to task for legitimizing usage errors such as alright for “all right” and flaunt for flout by listing them as alternatives. Fiske’s third appendix culminates his castigation by listing mailing addresses for editors of descriptive dictionaries and providing a form letter to send to them to berate them for failing to provide prescriptive guidance to their readers.

Readers will find the depth of content in this compendium commendable, but the commentary is an acquired taste.

You can find the book on Amazon.com

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5 Responses to “Book Review: “Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Unendurable English””

  • Meg Brookman

    Yes, I have something to say. Three cheers for Robert Hartwell Fiske!

  • venqax

    Well…I’m rarely against humor (moresome, in context, is lightly clever, not ignorant bad usage, FGS), I use short-cuts like altho and thru when writing things like…well…this, and I text in some txtese (not 2much I hope). HOWEVER, all that said, I can’t help but sympathize with his frustration at bad usage and publications that could guard against it simply limp-wristedly approving it as “alternatives”. Mistakes are mistakes and SOMEONE should have the cojones to point them out. When dictionaries– and I agree MW is among the worst– use their claims of “descriptiveness” as an excuse from fulfilling a responsibility to users who want to be correct by listing illegitimate forms without any comment they really should be taken to the woodshed. If they MUST give print to things like alright, irregardless, and restauranteur, they should at least have the spine to say they are sub-standard, not preferred, colloquial, or simply “wrong though common”. As we see on this board time and time again, for most people a popular dictionary is the final word of authority on these matters. They aren’t acquainted with more scholarly references and if it’s “in the dictionary”, the thinking goes, it must be fine. Would it were that it were so. Using the term “Collegiate” in the title has always struck me as particularly flagrant false advertising.

  • Nelida K.

    @venqax Well said. I also am not above resorting to shortcuts like “nite, 2 (for to or too, depending on context), thru, tho, altho” when texting or otherwise writing in a very (underline “very”) informal context. And I am not opposed to a descriptivist approach to language – which ultimately is what speakers make it to be – but when writing in a cultured register and for an educated readership or in a professional context, it irks me no end to see out-of-place colloquial forms interspersed with an otherwise academic or at least professional text. Case in point: I was reading some days ago a nice post in the blog of a translator colleague, who used not once but twice, “irregardless” (when he should have used ‘irrespective of” or simply “regardless”). The effect this had on me, was comparable to that of a hefty punch in the eye. It sort of jumped out of the page into my face, and prevented me from fully enjoying or paying attention to the content.

  • Ray

    In due respect to the above and to Mr. Fiske, is not the English language ever evolving? At what point in time does the more common usage of a word supersede the originally accepted word. We no longer say ye, do we not. How about all of the dialects used in this country, let alone in the rest of the English speaking parts of the world. Is there only one correct spoken / written word?
    Just an aside I happen to agree with the above letter and book, as I have a lot to learn and do appreciate all of the “input” as it were.
    I just wish that they would do a better job of teaching the differences between, to, too. two. or weather and whether, or there and their, LOL.
    l love to read the comments in news blogs and other similar places on the Net.

  • Ray

    Oops, (“With” due respect)…..see previous submission.
    Mark, could we get an “Edit” review before final submission for ME…. at least.

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