On occasion, I look up at the tagline of this blog (“Prescriptivism Must Die”) and wonder if perhaps I’m being too harsh.  But then I read something like Robert Hartwell Fiske’s Dictionary of Disagreeable English, and realize that the tagline is, if anything, understating the case.

Fiske seems to believe he is in some sort of competition for the title of King Prescriptivist, and his book seems to be his equivalent of the Eveningwear Competition.  His book flaunts everything that is wrong with prescriptivism: ad hominem attacks, unresearched prescriptions, illogic, wild invective against those who disagree with him.  You might remember his quote that the to no end idiom, which many of you well-educated readers use, is a “bastardization born of mishearing”, when — of course — he presented no evidence for this claim.

In his books, Fiske is a bully who asserts that disagreeing with him or making a simple usage error is evidence of poor mental faculties.  As it is with anyone who argues by bluster and bluff, proving Fiske wrong is an exercise in futility.  It’s like nailing jelly to the wall; you can do it, sure, but he’s just going to ignore the nail of evidence and continue his descent to the floor of absurdity.  It is a complete and utter waste of time.  That said, I haven’t much of a stomach for bullies, and have some time to waste.

Let’s start with an example of a bald assertion made without any effort made to back it up.  Check out this weaselly use of the passive: “Though both words are in common use, normality is considered preferable to normalcy.”  Who considers normality preferable, exactly? Certainly not The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage (which, by the way, is being sold through Fiske’s website), in which it is written that “Normalcy and normality stand side by side in AmE [American English] as legitimate alternatives.”  This sort of unsourced claim is exactly why everyone’s always up in arms about the passive voice.  This is “mistakes were made” territory.

Most of the book consists of these unjustified ipse dixit proclamations. I can see why; when Fiske does offer justifications, he often contradicts himself. Here’s a line from page 284: “Preventive is preferable to preventative because it has one fewer syllable.” Hey, look, I’m fine with that. Speaking as a light dyslexic, I am all too willing to accept shorter words; there’s less for me to transpose. But a mere 12 pages earlier in the book, Fiske talks about perquisite, which he sneers is “commonly called a perk by the ever-monosyllabic, ever-hasty everyman”. So is conciseness the sign of an efficient mind or a hasty mind?  We are left to wonder.

And then he does the same thing again when talking about one of the only: “Only does not mean two or more; it means one, sole, alone. One of the only then is altogether nonsensical—and further evidence that people scarcely know what their words mean.” This is quite incorrect, and there are so many ways to show it — in fact, I did so in a previous post. One could cite the 20-odd pre-1800 usages of the phrase “one of the only” in Google Books, or perhaps the 634 pre-1800 usages of the phrase “the only two“, which surely would be ruled out if only could not possibly refer to two or more objects. One could even go back a bit farther and point out the Oxford English Dictionary’s citation of a plural usage of only in Pecock’s Repressor, printed around 1450. Yes, yes, all of these would be well and good, and would serve to illustrate that there is no historical injunction against only modifying a plural noun. But the particular usages I choose to cite in defense of one of the only are a bit more modern:

(1) “We have words aplenty that mean to annoy; the only other words that mean to aggravate are worsen and exacerbate.”
(2) “[…] the only people inclined to use & in place of and […]” [Italics author’s, boldface mine.]

These usages are from pages 30 and 43 of The Dictionary of Disagreeable English, by Robert Hartwell Fiske. Clearly, Fiske himself scarcely knows what only means, since his stated definition doesn’t match his observed usage of plural only.  So if (1) and (2) are fine, why would Fiske object to saying that “worsen is one of the only words that mean to aggravate,” or that “the new copywriter is one of the only people inclined to use &”? It’s beyond me.

All right, enough of that. So Fiske occasionally contradicts himself. Who doesn’t?  So Fiske sometimes doesn’t support his beliefs. Is it fair to excoriate someone for that? In most cases I’d say no. But Fiske is a bully, one who launches vicious ad hominem attacks against the intelligence of other writers. For instance, when Burt Sugar, a boxing writer for the Los Angeles Times decided to get a bit cute, writing of an out-of-shape boxer that he “has gone north–as in north of 250 pounds,” Fiske responded that “Mr. Sugar, like some of the boxers he writes about, has apparently had his ear deformed, his brains addled.” After all, he’s used north of, which Fiske describes as “[i]diotic for more than.” Never mind that I found this usage to actually be rather clever, with its implication that the boxer had metaphorically gone on vacation. Fiske clearly did not, and that makes Sugar an idiot.

Another example: Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review, is apparently a fool. After all, he used the wrong tense in this sentence: “If I would have been a publishing house, I would’ve eagerly taken David’s book.” Yeah, it’s not right, but it doesn’t reveal any glaring intellectual deficit, right? Wrong! Fiske writes “Mr. Lowry’s use of would have exposes an inability to reason well—as does his imagining he might conceivably have been a publishing house.” Yep, I’m sure that Lowry was really imagining that.

So if I may be excused for the well-worn phrase, Fiske is really a pot calling a kettle black.  If these writers have addled brains and an inability to reason, then one can scarcely imagine what Fiske has.

One last point, and perhaps the most frustrating one, is that on rare occasions Fiske shows admirable lucidity. For instance, he admonishes one questioner that “[p]erhaps you have trouble understanding why fixing to is improper because—dislike it though you may—it is not improper; it is, as you say, Southern.” Oh, if only that reasonable Robert Hartwell Fiske could sit down and talk to the Fiske who spazzes over Sugar’s north of, or the one who baldly asserts that normalcy is to be avoided.  Maybe then we would have been spared Fiske’s disagreeable complaints.  But instead, we are treated to the vitriol of a crank who views any error, whether large or small, as incontrovertible evidence of the end of English.

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