Writing vs Good Writing

From what might seem an unlikely place — the Journal of the American Bar Association — a lawyer friend (TY, Barry!) shares a recent essay on style in language by Bryan Garner. Its title: "Writing vs. Good Writing: Make the languorous doldrums of reading disappear". Among the examples of powerful prose that Garner offers and analyzes are two letters by Alexander Woollcott (1887-1943, critic and New Yorker staffer). The first, addressed to his recently-married niece to whom Woollcott had lent some money, is a graceful display of loving-kindness and magnanimity:

Dear Mrs. J.:

I hope that you like your marriage and that I, when our paths cross, shall like your husband.

Let us dispose, for the time being, of your debt to me, which, properly enough, is more on your mind than on mine. I should like to have you pay it back under one of two circumstances: (a) that you do it when, if ever, money is flowing freely in your direction and you can make the repayment without a wrench, or (b) that I myself am in difficulties, in which case I should let out a squawk. If, as seems not unlikely, I should be gathered unto my fathers before either of these contingencies arises, I hope you will regard it as a bequest to you. And if there is any order in your life I wish you would file this letter away as evidence of these testamentary intentions. To this contingent request there is attached not a condition but a suggestion. If I should hurry to my grave before you settle our account, I think you might keep it in mind that I would like to have you make your repayment take the form of putting some other youngster through college someday.


... and the second is pure hilarity, offended-grammarian quibbling over Ira Gershwin's use of the word "disinterested" to mean "bored" rather than "impartial":

Ira Gershwin:

Listen, you contumacious rat, don't throw your dreary tomes at me. I'll give you an elegant dinner at a restaurant of your own choosing and sing to you between courses if you can produce one writer or speaker, with an ear for the English language that you genuinely respect, who uses disinterested in the sense you are now trying to bolster up. I did look it up in my own vast Oxford dictionary a few years ago only to be told that it had been obsolete since the 17th century. I haven't looked up the indices in your letter because, after all, my own word in such matters is final. Indeed, current use of the word in the 17th-century sense is a ghetto barbarism I had previously thought confined to the vocabularies of Ben Hecht and Jed Harris. Surely, my child, you must see that if disinterested is, in our time, intended to convey a special shade of the word "unselfish" it is a clumsy business to try to make it also serve another meaning. That would be like the nitwit who uses a razor to sharpen a pencil. The point of the pencil may emerge, but the razor is never good again for its particular purpose.

Hoping you fry in hell, I remain

Yours affectionately,


... so delightful! — and by sheer example, a call for others to awaken and write more vivid and precise words.

(cf. Heart of the Order (2002-07-03), Ralph Waldo Emerson (2003-08-05), Dream Songs (2004-02-12), Specificity (2009-05-31), ...) - ^z - 2018-01-21