Paradigms Lost, by John Simon, New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1980, 222 pp., $12.95.
Are you more than just "functionally" literate? Well, don your grammar cap and peruse the following:
• "There seemed a general consensus that the best of the post-war environmental works was by…Maria Nordman."
• "What both conferences shared in common…"
• "If anyone picked up… a pair of Tasco Bantam Hunter glasses, could they please send them back to me."
• "Here are the rundowns on the two hot spots, neither of which have ever been especially praised for their food."
• "Good night from Barbara and I."
If any of the above looked just fine to you, then, dear reader, you are quite likely in need of grammar therapy—or so John Simon believes; and his book Paradigms Lost is a good place to begin. If you find yourself hesitating between lie and lay, flout and flaunt, uninterested and disinterested, who and whom, and a score of other siblings, or if you have no idea what the subjunctive mood requires or whether the comma goes inside or outside of the parenthesis or…then your language is tattered at the seams and no doubt your participles are shamefully dangling.
Should you meet John Simon on the street, speak not a word in his presence lest he rip out your tongue. To the list of commandments, Simon has added an eleventh: Thou shalt not maim, torture, or murder the language, under penalty of imprisonment at Babel.
Paradigms Lost is a collection of previously published essays that, in Simon's own words, "touch upon some major and minor abuses of the English language." He offers "little disquisitions on correct usage" in a treatment that is "brief and suggestive rather than academic and exhaustive."
This is an accurate description, but doesn't it make the book sound dull? Besides, who but a few academics has the time, much less the inclination, to worry about the language? Wasn't English 101 sacrifice enough? And is literacy really on the decline just because we slip now and then on slick and subtle distinctions that even some lexicographers are abandoning? In practical terms, "between you and I" means exactly the same thing as "between you and me"—so why all the fuss, and why write a book about such trivialities?
It is against just this view of language, a view held by increasing numbers of writers and educators, that Simon takes his stand, and Paradigms Lost is his defense of Standard English. Since the rules of grammar make possible our saying exactly what we mean—when at times we manage to do that—it is folly to abandon them or to take them lightly; incorrect English is counterproductive, and bad manners to boot from those who should know better.
Using the model of craftsmanship, Simon argues that, as long as we fail to respect the basic tools of clarity and logic, to keep them sharp and in good repair, our final product will fall short of our purpose—effective and beautiful expression. It is possible to derive "from every speaking moment the satisfaction we get from a cap that snaps on to a container perfectly, an elevator that stops flush with the landing, a roulette ball that comes to rest exactly on the number on which we have placed a bet. It gives us the pleasure of hearing or seeing our words—because they are abiding by the rules—snapping, sliding, falling, precisely into place, expressing with perfect lucidity and symmetry just what we wanted them to express. This is comparable to the satisfaction of the athlete or ballet dancer or pianist finding his body or legs or fingers doing his bidding with unimpeachable accuracy."
There is no denying Simon's command of the language. He writes as clearly as he would have others write and speak. His appreciation for and sensitivity to nuance, imagery, and rhythm are enviable, and he offers interesting observations on wit and humor, metaphor, etymology, film criticism, and the corrosive influence on the language of special-interest groups—observations made with clever twists of tone or meaning. For example, in objecting to the "unsavory euphemism" senior citizen, Simon observes: "They are the old, the aged, or the retired; they are not senior citizens, with grandiose implications of political importance well beyond the reduced bus fares and cheaper movie tickets they do in fact receive. Thus the fancy term…sounds, at first, hollow or jeering; later, stale and ludicrous. 'An old man lay drunk in the gutter' is sad but unexceptionable. 'A senior citizen lay drunk in the gutter' is risible."
Simon believes that the erosion of our language is in large measure attributable to two related causes: the political and social liberalism of the past two decades and the cowardice (and, in some cases, ignorance) of those presently in charge of the language—writers and educators. Liberalism has fostered an egalitarian attitude, the net effect of which is the view that teaching Standard English to minorities, and correcting their substandard usage, is to impose the standards of the privileged class upon the underprivileged. Simon quotes the Conference on College Composition and Communication: "We need to ask ourselves whether our rejection of students who do not adopt the dialect most familiar to us is based on any real merit in our dialect or whether we are actually rejecting the students themselves…because of their racial, social, and cultural origins." So there is a growing sentiment among teachers of English that we ought to slacken the reins of language and let people of all social and ethnic backgrounds use English as they please. Let the language be democratic. There, says Simon, is the road to ruin; to ambiguity, misunderstanding, confusion. We are slipping, backsliding, teetering; and the time for a return to the basics is overdue. "Words mean what I want them to mean," said the linguist Humpty Dumpty—shortly before the celebrated fall.
I fear, though, that I have not done justice to Simon's book. I have not even mentioned his thoroughly enjoyable essays on the superficiality of Barbara Walters ("Verbal Barbarisms"), on the ineptitude of Rex Reed ("Why Reed Can't Write"), and on the mistaken view that computers will replace literacy without significant loss ("Compare with Computers"). Furthermore, I have overemphasized the polemical nature of Simon's essays. Indeed, the book is argumentative from beginning to end, but it is far richer, more entertaining and challenging, than my review has suggested. Simon's wit abounds throughout his work, as does his erudition.
One thing is certain: one cannot read this book without beginning to pay closer attention to the language, without a renewed appreciation for something beautiful that we have come to take for granted. And what more could a reader or an author want?
James Chesher is a trustee of the Reason Foundation.