Writing well ain’t easy. If the word “ain’t” in the previous sentence raised hackles, U really need to read The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch. If not? Read it anyway. This post starts a series of posts that includes a glowing review of the book, with my own additions and amplifications for some points (and a few mild disagreements).
One of the few complaints I have about the book is that the title is too narrow. Yes, the book considers lexicography. It also considers grammar, punctuation, spelling, and vulgarisms. In just 276 well-written pages (not counting source notes and such), it considers all these things with serious historical scholarship and considerable humor (mostly dry; sometimes LOL).
Why a series of posts? Doing justice to the scope of the book in a single post would be tough unless what I wrote was only a book review, and the single post might still be quite long. Better to write a separate post of moderate length on each of several themes in the book, adding something worthwhile to each. In between posts in this Writing Well series, I can post on other topics. If I think of yet another way that the sane and decent people in the USA might resist the Age of Trumpery, I want to interrupt the series rather than interrupt work on a single humongous draft.
Can a noncontiguous series work? Across the Room and Into the Fire is working quite well for Óglach, with Part 6 (out of a projected 7) posted as of this writing.
Example 1.1: Recency of “Proper” English
The following quote from page 10 of the book poses a conundrum that cries out for the kind of historical investigation exemplified by the book.
For just one third of 1 percent of the history of language in general, and for just 20 percent of the history of our own language, have we had to go to school to study the language we already speak.
When something is that strange, asking how the Hell it happened is not just idle curiosity. It might lead to major insights. Here is something similarly strange in physics.
For every chunk of matter in the entire universe (no matter what it is made of), the gravitational mass is exactly the same as the inertial mass.
For everything we can get our hands on, the equality of the 2 kinds of mass has been verified to more decimal places than I can count on my fingers. Why is gravity like this? Isaac Newton had no idea at all. His theory of gravity could use this fact but could not explain it. Early in the previous century, many physicists were uneasy about this apparent cosmic coincidence. They were also uneasy about a piddling tiny difference between how Mercury orbited the sun and how Newton’s theory predicted it would orbit the sun.
One of the uneasy physicists was Albert Einstein, whose more elaborate theory of gravity gave an elegant explanation of the equality of the 2 kinds of mass and yielded predictions that were slightly different from Newton’s. When Einstein published his theory in 1916, the only known differences were just barely measurable by those who cared about nerdy stuff like the perihelion of Mercury’s orbit. Today, we know of many other differences. Thanks to our knowledge of some of them, your GPS is more than just an expensive paperweight.
Jack Lynch wrote the book that anchors this series. The historical perspective helped me refine my own views. Want to see many examples of clear writing that is balanced and nuanced w/o being wishy-washy? Read the book.
Óglach is among the bloggers who demonstrate that good writing can thrive in the blogosphere. Thanking all those I know would take up too much space and omit those I do not know, but I must thank him for the inspiration to try a noncontiguous series.
Miriam Sargon taught the AP English class that I took in my senior year of high school. (My post on lexicography will say a little more about that class.) Back in the 1962/1963 academic year, well-informed people could still believe that Enlightenment values were winning (albeit slowly and with many setbacks). She did not preach those values; she exemplified them.