GOOD etiquette is a convention, and so is good grammar. That being so, senior editor Barbara Wallraff reasoned, why not write a column about language that shares the firm but friendly attitude of a column about etiquette? Thus was born Word Court, which since 1995 has appeared in every other issue of The Atlantic Monthly, on the last page. Wallraff presides over the column in the persona of Ms. Grammar, a tartly judicious magistrate whose reverence for rules is leavened by common sense. Readers can file suit by letter or e-mail.
This month Ms. Grammar's work will come to the attention of an additional audience, when Harcourt Brace publishes the book. This is no mere collection of old columns (although many columns have a presence) but a discursive romp amid grammatical pitfalls and semantic minefields. The subject matter of the book is as wide-ranging and unpredictable as that of the column itself. "What I love most about Word Court," Wallraff says, "is that people ask such a range of things. How long does someone have to be dead before you stop calling him 'the late'? Is it offensive to refer to electrical connectors as 'male' and 'female'?"
Barbara Wallraff came to The Atlantic in 1983. Since then she has reviewed the text of every article, short story, and poem we have printed, keeping a lookout for grammatical errors and infelicities. Writers and editors have come to appreciate Wallraff's relentlessly fastidious work, though it can be as relaxing as a dental probe. (Anthony Burgess once said of her, "Who is that woman?")
Beyond her job at the magazine, Wallraff teaches every summer at the Radcliffe Publishing Course. For the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, National Public Radio's Morning Edition commissioned her to copyedit the Constitution. She had a bone to pick with the phrase "more perfect union" -- who says there are degrees of perfection? (James Madison, meet Anthony Burgess.)
Like doctors and lawyers, Wallraff gets asked a lot of professional questions at parties. She doesn't mind. "It's been obvious to me for years," she says, "that interest in language issues is absolutely rife. There's a common lament that nobody cares about using proper grammar or correct spelling anymore, but people who say that should see my mailbag."
- THE EDITORS
Illustration by Melinda Beck.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 2000; 77 North Washington Street - 00.01; Volume 285, No. 1; page 4.