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