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Word Police by Barbara Wallraff
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From the January, 2000, Atlantic Monthly:

Word Court
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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 Word Court, 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."

* * *

Here's what some other people have had to say about Word Court:

Steven Pinker, the author of The Language Instinct and Words and Rules, says, "Word Court passes my test for a great book on style and usage: one can read it for pleasure as well as for advice. Ms. Grammar is unfailingly warm, witty, and wise, and her book reminds us of the precision and grace that our language is capable of."

Roy Blount Jr., the author of Be Sweet, says, "If I were a word, I would want Judge Wallraff: fair, firm, clear, tolerant within reason, and a lot of fun to be in court with."

Francine Prose, the author of Guided Tours of Hell and Blue Angel, says, "At times, her rare combination of expertise, patience, bemusement, and wit is oddly reminiscent of Click and Clack, NPR's Car Talk brothers -- in my view, two of the great educators in America."

Robert D. Kaplan, the author of Balkan Ghosts and The Coming Anarchy, says, "As someone regularly humbled by Barbara Wallraff's editing, I have learned from her that grammar is philosophy, and occasionally Talmudic philosophy at that."

Tracy Kidder, the author of The Soul of a New Machine and Home Town, says, "This is a charming and sensible book about language, by a person who clearly loves language. It ought to be required reading in every American newsroom."

Ian Frazier, the author of Great Plains and On the Rez, says, "Barbara Wallraff's wit, clarity, and cheerful good sense make her disquisitions on English grammar a delight to read. The language is lucky to have her, and so are we."

James Fallows, the author of Breaking the News, says, "Ms. Grammar is funny, and she's also alarmingly smart. But mainly she is useful. Short of having her perch on your desk, available to give snappy answers to the sorts of grammar stumpers that seem to come up every thirty minutes or so, the next-best solution is to keep a copy of Word Court handy."

From Kirkus Reviews: "For people who care about words -- and judging from Wallraff's mail, they are legion -- an up-to-date guide to usage that can be both pleasurably browsed and quickly consulted. For Wallraff, a long-time editor at the Atlantic Monthly, where her column, 'Word Court,' first featured many of the exchanges collected here, words are not just a stock-in-trade but clearly a passion. Here, her thoughts about words are organized into an essay on changing fashions in words, a unpedantic discussion of some of the elements and niceties of grammar, an alphabetically arranged primer on word usage, and a melange of topics that interest her but don't fit elsewhere, such as definitions of words that don't exist, pronunciations, and particular expressions and usages about which she has something instructive to say. Throughout, she uses the mail she has received at MsGrammar@theatlantic.com and the queries and comments from readers of her 'Word Court' column to introduce the issues she deftly resolves here. While her correspondents are often piqued by what they perceive as outrages against the language, and sometimes commit a few themselves in their angry letters, Wallraff's replies are civil, pithy, and invariably helpful. No dull schoolmarm she. Referring to the use of a comma to join the two parts of the compound sentence, 'It's not a comet, it's a meteor,' she comments, 'Punctuating this sentence with a semicolon would be like using a C-clamp to hold a sandwich together.' Especially valuable is her section on language-reference books. By describing her own reference shelf, she offers useful recommendations on dictionaries, usage guides, style manuals, thesauri, and other works, old and new, on the English language. According to Wallraff, we can demand of our words that they be 'judicious, lively, sympathetic, wise.' These same adjectives can be aptly applied to her own writing." -- Copyright © 1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Word Court is available at brick-and-mortar and virtual bookstores nationwide.

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