This summer I picked up the habit of walking to the local branch of the library to read for an hour or two. It's a pleasant spot, with large and airy windows, lots of trees so the light isn't too intense, and an interesting mix of local people, yet is never too crowded. I love having reference books at my finger tips, and while I was perusing the dictionaries the other day to look up a Spanish word that showed up in my novel (I didn't have my computer with me), I saw a copy of Bryan Garner's Modern American Usage Dictionary, the dictionary made famous by David Foster Wallace's sparkling review.
I flipped through it and within seconds I had completely abandoned my original purpose in visiting the reference shelves. It was deliciously fun to see how authoritatively Garner explained his stylistic preferences, giving examples of improper usage straight from the pages of well-known publications (the San Diego Union-Tribune came off especially poorly). It stroked my cattiest impulses--it was like fashion police for the usage stickler.
Here's one of my favorite terms of Garner's: "slipshod extension," which "denotes the mistaken stretching of a word beyond its accepted meanings, the mistake lying in a misunderstanding of the true sense." I love this--"slipshod" is a word I need to use more--it's so much more visual than "slovenly." It makes me think of something like this:
In his list of slipshod extensions, he includes "protagonist." L.A. Times film critic Kenneth Turan (who is less obnoxious to me than most film critics) is cited for making the embarrassing mistake of referring to mere characters as "protagonists." Garner has the amusing habit of citing a malapropism and then correcting it:
I find his parenthetical "read characters" to be delightful.
I love having all my annoyances called out like this. In a culture where it's increasingly common to hear people say things like "it literally broke my heart" in all earnestness, Garner's comments are simultaneously validating and amusing.
But of course if I read more of the book, I'll be sure to find examples of words and phrases I use incorrectly. I have a fairly brilliant friend, one of the smartest people I know, who misuses the word "tendentious." I was 25 before someone pointed out to me that my pronunciation of miscellaneous as "mish-ell-aneous" was incorrect. I think what I'm deciding is that I feel okay allowing myself to laugh at other people, to smugly smirk at Kenneth Turans and Union Tribunes, if I can maintain my sense of humor at my own expense. We're all somewhat ridiculous.