English as She's Not Taught

Scholar, author, and teacher, JACQUES BARZUN was born and schooled in France, came to this country in 1919, was naturalized in 1933, and has been teaching history at Columbia University for more than two decades. A writer for the periodical press since the age of seventeen, he has published a dozen volumes of scholarship and social comment. His latest work, to appear in early spring, is God’s Country and Mine, which he calls “a declaration of love spiced with a few harsh words.”


AT an educational conference held in Vancouver last summer, leaders of the Canadian school system generally agreed that from half to three quarters of their students in the first year of college were incompetent in grammar, syntax, and analysis of thought. What was notable in the discussion was that nearly every participant used the English language with uncommon force and precision. Any looseness or jargon heard there came from the three American guests, of whom I was one. Most of our hosts — Canadian teachers, principals, supervisors, and university instructors — had obviously gone through the mill of a classical education; the chairman made a mild pun involving Latin and was rewarded with an immediate laugh. Yet they declared themselves unable to pass on their linguistic accomplishment to the present school generation, and they wanted to know why.

In the United States the same complaint and inquiry has been endemic, commonplace, for quite a while. You come across it in the papers. You hear parents, school people, editors and publishers, lawyers and ministers, men of science and of business, lamenting the fact that their charges or their offspring or their employees can neither spell nor write “decent English.” The deplorers blame the modern progressive school or the comics or TV; they feel that in school and outside, something which they call discipline is lacking, and they vaguely connect this lack with a supposed decline in morality, an upsurge of “crisis.” Like everything else, bad English is attributed to our bad times, and the past (which came to an end with the speaker’s graduation from college) is credited with one more virtue, that of literary elegance.

The facts seem to me quite different, the causes much more tangled, and the explanation of our linguistic state at once more complex and less vague. For many years now I have been concerned with the art of writing and kept busy at the invidious task of improving other people’s utterance, and I cannot see that performance has deteriorated. The level is low but it has not fallen. As a reader of history I am steadily reminded that the writing of any language has always been a hit-and-miss affair. Here is Amos Barrett, our chief source on the battles of Concord and Lexington: “It wont long before their was other minit Compneys ... We marched Down about a mild or a mild half and we see them acomming . . .” and so on. An illiterate New England farmer? Not so, since he could write; he had been taught and in some way represents “the past.” The question he poses is, how do people write who are not professionals or accomplished amateurs? The answer is: badly, at all times.

Writing is at the very least a knack, like drawing or being facile on the piano. Because everybody can speak and form letters, we mistakenly suppose that good, plain, simple writing is within everybody’s power. Would we say this of good, straightforward, accurate drawing? Would we say it of melodic sense and correct, fluent harmonizing at the keyboard? Surely not. We say these are “gifts.” Well, so is writing, even the writing of a bread-andbutter note or a simple public notice; and this last suggests that something has happened within the last hundred years to change the relation of the written word to daily life.

Copyright 1953, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.

Whether it is the records we have to keep in every business and profession or the ceaseless communicating at a distance which modern transport and industry require, the world’s work is now unmanageable, unthinkable, without literature. Just see how many steps you can take without being confronted with something written or with the necessity of writing something yourself. Having been away for a couple of weeks during the summer, I find a bill from the window washer, who luckily came on a day when the cleaning woman was in the apartment. He has therefore scribbled below the date: “The windows have been cleaned Wed. 12:30 P.M. Your maid was their to veryfey the statement ”—perfectly clear and adequate. One can even appreciate the change of tenses as his mind went from the job just finished to the future when I would be reading this message from the past.

Call this bad writing if you like, it remains perfectly harmless. The danger to the language, if any, does not come from such trifles. It comes rather from the college-bred millions who regularly write and who in the course of their daily work circulate the prevailing mixture of jargon, cant, vogue words, and loose syntax that passes for prose. And the greater part of this verbiage is published, circulated, presumably read. A committee won’t sit if its drivelings are not destined for print. Even an interoffice memo goes out in sixteen copies and the schoolchildren’s compositions appear verbatim in a mimeographed magazine. Multiply these cultural facts by the huge number of activities which (it would seem) exist only to bombard us with paper, and you have found the source of the belief in a “decline” in writing ability —no decline at all, simply the infinite duplication of dufferism. This it is which leads us into false comparisons and gloomy thoughts.


THE apparent deterioration of language is a general phenomenon which is denounced throughout Western Europe. One had only to read the Catalogue of the British Exhibition of 1951 to see the common symptoms in England. Sir Ernest Gowers’s excellent little book of a few years earlier, Plain Words, was an attempt to cure the universal disease in one congested spot, the Civil Service, which is presumably the most highly educated professional group in Britain.

In France, the newspapers, the reports of Parliamentary debates, and the literary reviews show to what extent ignorance of forms and insensitivity to usage can successfully compete against a training obsessively aimed at verbal competence. And by way of confirmation, M. Jean Delorme, a native observer of the language in French Canada, recently declared the classic speech “infected” on this side of the Atlantic too. As for Germany, a foreign colleague and correspondent of mine, a person of catholic tastes and broad judgment, volunteers the opinion that “people who cultivate good pure German are nowadays generally unpopular, especially among the devotees of newspaper fiction and articles. The universal barbarism of language has already gone well into the grotesque.”

So much for the democratic reality. But great; as has been the effect of enlarged “literacy,” it does not alone account for what is now seen as linguistic decadence. The educated, in fact the leaders of modern thought, have done as much if not more to confuse the judgment. For what is meant by the misnomer “pure speech” is simply a habit of respect toward usage, which insures a certain fixity in vocabulary, forms, and syntax. Language cannot stand still, but it can change more or less rapidly and violently. During the last hundred years, nearly every intellectual force has worked, in all innocence, against language. The strongest, science and technology, did two damaging things: they poured quantities of awkward new words into the language and this in turn persuaded everybody that each new thing must have a name, preferably “scientific.” These new words, technical or commercial, were fashioned to impress, an air of profundity being imparted by the particularly scientific letters k, x, and o = Kodak, Kleenex, Sapolio. The new technological words that came in were sinful hybrids like “electrocute” and “triphibian,” or misunderstood phrases like “personal equation,” “nth degree,” or “psychological moment” — brain addlers of the greatest potency.

The passion for jargon was soon at its height, from which it shows no sign of descending. Every real or pseudo science poured new verbiage into the street, every separate school or -ism did likewise, without shame or restraint. We can gauge the result from the disappearance of the Dictionary properly so called. Consult the most recent and in many ways the best of them, Webster’s New World Dictionary, and what you find is a miniature encyclopedia filled with the explanation of initials, proper names, and entries like “macrosporangium” or “abhenry,” which are not and never will be words of the English language.

Under the spate of awe-inspiring vocables, the layman naturally felt that he too must dignify his doings and not be left behind in the race for prestige. Common acts must suggest a technical process. Thus we get “contact” and “funnel” as workaday verbs—and “process” itself: “we’ll process your application” — as if it were necessary to name the steps or choices of daily life with scientific generality. I know a young businessman who makes jottings of his business thoughts; when he has enough on one topic he folderizes them.

What is wrong with all this is not merely that it is new, heedless, vulgar, and unnecessary (all signs of harmful vice in a language) but that jargon swamps thought. The habit of talking through cant words destroys the power of seeing things plain. “I’ll contact you to finalize the agreement.” What does it mean? The drift is plain enough, but compare: “I’ll call at your office to sign the contract,” The former raises no clear image or expectation, the latter does. Moreover, the former smells of inflated ego, it fills the mouth in a silly bumptious way.

But who cares? Why fuss? —good questions both. Nobody cares much because — we all think — it’s the deed (or the thing) that counts, not the words. This conviction, too, is a product of modern technology, and its effect is great though unremarked. The power of words over nature, which has played such a role in human history, is now an exploded belief, a dead emotion. Far from words controlling things, it is now things that dictate words. As soon as science was able to chop up the physical world and recombine it in new forms, language followed suit; and this not only among scientists making up new vocables, but among the supposed guardians of the language, the poets and men of letters. It is highly significant that around 1860 writers deliberately began to defy usage and turn syntax upside down. Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear made good fun with it; “obscure” poets such as Rimbaud sought new depths of meaning. There was in this a strong impulse to destroy all convention, for Victorian moralism had made the idea of conventionality at once suspect and hateful. The revolt succeeded and its spirit is still alive; noveltyhunting is now a linguistic virtue, or to express it differently, a common influence is at work in Jabberwocky and James Joyce, in the scientist’s lingo and in the advertiser’s “Dynaflow,” “Hydramatic,” or “Frigidaire”—which end by becoming household words. In short, modern man is feeling his oats as the manipulator of objects and he shows it in his manhandling of words.

This helps to explain why the predominant fault of the bad English encountered today is not the crude vulgarism of the untaught but the blithe irresponsibility of the taught. The language is no longer regarded as a common treasure to be hoarded and protected as far as possible. Rather, it is loot from the enemy to be played with, squandered, plastered on for one’s adornment. Literary words imperfectly grasped, meanings assumed from bare inspection, monsters spawned for a trivial cause — these are but a few of the signs of squandering. To give examples: the hotel clerk giving me a good room feels bound to mention the well-known person whom “we last hospitalized in that room.” Not to lag behind Joyce, the advertiser bids you “slip your feet into these easy-going leisuals and breathe a sigh of real comfort.”

Undoubtedly these strange desires are often born of the need to ram an idea down unwilling throats. We all fear our neighbor’s wandering attention and try to keep him awake by little shocks of singularity, or again by an overdose of meaning. Unfortunately, novelty-hunting proceeds from the known to the unknown by a leap of faith. “It was pleasant,” writes the author of very workmanlike detective stories, “to watch her face and find his resentment vitiate as he made excuses for her.”


THE notable fact is that all this occurs in printed books, written by writers, published (usually) by first-rate firms that employ editors. In speech, the same blunders and distortions come from educated people. It is all very well to say, as one expert has confidently done, that “what certain words really mean is moving toward what they seem to mean,” the implication being that after a while everything will be in place. Actually, this leaves meaning nowhere, if only because we’re not all moving in step. The New Yorker spotted a movie theater sign on which “adultery” was used to mean “adulthood.” From an English periodical I learn that some new houses “affront the opposite side of the street.” If Mrs. Malaprop is going to become the patron saint of English, what is going to prevent “contention” from meaning the same thing as “contentment.” or the maker of woodcuts from being called a woodcutter?

There is no getting around it: meaning implies convention, and the discovery that meanings change does not alter the fact that when convention is broken misunderstanding and chaos are close at hand. Mr. Churchill has told how Allied leaders nearly came to blows because of the single word “table,” a verb which to the Americans meant dismiss from the discussion, whereas to the English, on the contrary, it meant put on the agenda. This is an extraordinary instance, and the vagaries of those who pervert good words to careless misuse may be thought more often ludicrous than harmful. This would be true if language, like a great maw, could digest anything and dispose of it in time. But language is not a kind of ostrich. Language is alive only by a metaphor drawn from the life of its users. Hence every defect in the language is a defect in somebody.

For language is either the incarnation of our thoughts and feelings or a cloak for their absence. When the ordinary man who has prepared a report on sales up to June 30 rumbles on about “the frame of reference in which the coördination campaign was conceived,” he is filling the air with noises, not thoughts.

For self-protection, no doubt, the contemporary mind is opposed to all this quibbling. It speaks with the backing of popular approval when it says: “Stop it! You understand perfectly well what all these people mean. Don’t be a dirty purist looking under the surface and meddling with democratic self-expression.” To haggle over language is quibbling, of course. All precision is quibbling, whether about decimals in mathematics or grains of drugs in prescriptions — fairly important quibbles. The question is whether in language the results justify the quibble. Well, the public is here the best judge, and it is evident that as a consumer of the written word, the public is always complaining that it cannot understand what it is asked to read: the government blanks, the instructions on the bottle or gadget, the gobbledygook of every trade, the highbrow jargon of the educators, psychiatrists, and social workers, and — one must also add — the prose of literary critics. The great cry today is for improved communication, mass communication, the arts of communication, and yet under the pretext of being free and easy and above quibbling, those who do the most talking and writing indulge themselves in the very obscurities and ambiguities that cause the outcry.

They are abetted, moreover, by another offspring of the scientific spirit, the professional student of language. In his modern embodiment, the linguist takes the view that whatever occurs in anybody’s speech is a fact of language and must not be tampered with, but only caught in flight and pinned on a card. This is “scientific detachment,” and it has gone so far that under its influence in many schools all the categories of grammar, syntax, and rhetoric have been discarded. The modern way to learn English or a foreign language is to absorb a phrase-by-phrase enumeration of all that might conceivably be said in ordinary talk — a directory instead of a grammar.

This brings us back to our first difficulty, how to teach the millions the use of their mother tongue in composition. We have made nearly everybody literate in the sense of able to read and write words. But that is not writing. Even those who profess disdain for the literary art and the literary quibbles respond automatically to good writing, which they find unexpectedly easy to read and retain, mysteriously “pleasant” as compared with their neighbors’ matted prose. The linguists themselves pay lip service to “effective” speech, approving the end while forbidding discrimination among the means.

Now many thousands of people in the United States today exercise this discrimination; there is amid the garbage a steady supply of good writing, modestly done and published — in every newspaper and magazine, over TV and radio, in millions of ads and public notices, in railroad timetables, travel booklets, and printed instructions on objects of daily use. Good writing is good writing wherever it occurs, and some of the impugned comics which are supposed to defile the native well of English in our young are far better than acceptable.

It is therefore idle and erroneous to condemn “the newspapers” or “the radio" en masse. Here too one must discriminate, and the failure to do so is one cause of the trouble — the strange cultural trait whose origin I have sketched and which makes us at once indifferent to our language, full of complaints about it, and irresponsible about mangling it still more. In these conditions people who write well learn to do so by virtue of a strong desire, developed usually under necessity: their job requires lucidity, precision, brevity. If they write advertising copy they must not only make it fit the space but make the words yield the tone.

Tone — that is the starting point of any teaching in composition. What effect are you producing and at what cost of words? The fewer the words, and the more transparent they are, the easier they will be to understand. The closer the ideas they stand for and the more natural their linkage, the more easily will the meaning be retained. Simple in appearance, this formula is yet extremely difficult to apply, and even more arduous to teach. You cannot work on more than one pupil at a time and you must be willing to observe and enter into his mind. On his part, the discipline calls for a thorough immersion in the medium, He must form the habit of attending to words, constructions, accents, and etymologies in everything he reads or hears —just as the painter unceasingly notes line and color and the musician tones. The would-be writer has the harder task because words are entangled with the business of life and he must stand off from it to look at them, hearing at the same time their harmonies and discords. It is an endless duty, which finally becomes automatic. The ideal writer would mentally recast, his own death sentence as he was reading it — if it was a bad sentence.


NOW such a discipline cannot be imposed from without, and not everybody needs it in full. But its principle, which suffices for ordinary purposes, should be made clear to every beginner, child or adult. Unfortunately, the school system, even when progressive, makes writing an irrational chore approached in the mood of rebellion. The school does this in two ways: by requiring length and by concentrating on correctness. I know very well that correctness was supposedly given up long ago. The modern teacher does not mention it. But if the teacher marks spelling and grammatical errors and speaks of little else, what is a child to think? He gets a mark with the comment “imaginative” or “not imaginative enough” and most often: “too short,” and he is left with no more idea of composition than a cow in a field has of landscape painting. How does one judge the right length and get it out of a reluctant brain? Nobody answers, except perhaps with the word “creative,” which has brought unmerited gloom to many a cheerful child. Who can be creative on demand, by next Tuesday, and in the requisite amount? In all but a few chatterboxes, mental frostbite is the only result.

Meanwhile the things that are teachable, the ways of translating the flashes of thought into consecutive sentences, are neglected. They have been, most often, neglected in the teachers themselves. How do they write or speak, what do they read? If they read and write educational literature, as they often must for advancement, are they fit to teach composition? And what of the teachers of other subjects, whose professional jargon also infects their speech, what is their countervailing effect on a child to whom a good English teacher has just imparted a notion of the writer’s craft? Suppose the teacher of a course on family life has just been reading Social Casework and his mind is irradiated with this: “Familial societality is already a settled question biologically, structured in our inherited bodies and physiology, but the answer to those other questions are not yet safely and irrevocably anatomized.” Unless this is immediately thrown up like the nux vomica it is, it will contaminate everybody it touches from pupil to public — in fact the whole blooming familial societality.

The cure is harsh and likely to be unpopular, for it must start with self-denial. It can be initiated by the school but it must not stop there. As many of us as possible must work out of our system, first, all the vogue words that almost always mean nothing but temporary vacancy of mind — such words as “basic,” “major,” “over-all,” “personal,” “values,” “exciting” (everything from a new handbag to a new baby); then all the wormy expressions indicative of bad conscience, false modesty, and genteelism, as in: “Frankly, I don’t know too much about it” — a typical formula which tries through candor and whining to minimize ignorance while claiming a kind of merit for it; finally, all the tribal adornments which being cast off may disclose the plain man we would like to be: no frames of reference, field theories, or apperception protocols; no texture, prior to, or in terms of; and the least amount of coördination, dynamics, and concepts.

After the vocabulary has been cleansed, the patient is ready for what our Canadian friends at the Vancouver conference deplored the lack of in the modern undergraduate: analysis of thought. To show what is meant and let criticism begin at home, I choose an example from a New York City report of 1952 entitled “The English Language Arts.” It begins: “Because language arts or English is so—” Stop right there! What are language arts? — A perfectly unnecessary phrase of the pseudo-scientific kind which tries to “cover,” Besides, “language arts or English” is nonsense: ever hear of another language? Moreover, “language arts . . . is" doesn’t sound like a happy opening for a report by and to English teachers. Let us go on: English is so what ? Well, “language arts or English is so intimately connected with all knowledge and all living, it is the subject which most often bursts the dikes separating it from others.” What do you mean, language is connected with living? And how does English connect with all knowledge and all living? Is the practical knowledge of the Russian engineer intimately connected with English? Do the amoebas speak English? And if this intimacy does exist, then what are these dikes that separate English from other subjects? Are these subjects not part of “all knowledge” with which English is connected — or rather, of which it too is a part?

Cruel work, but necessary if anything akin to thought is to arise from the written word. The Neanderthal glimmer from which the quoted sentence sprang is irrecoverable but its developed form should run something like this: “English, being a medium of communication, cannot be confined within set limits like other subjects; to the peoples whose speech it is, all theoretical knowledge, and indeed most of life, is inseparable from its use.”

And this is so true that it justifies the operation just performed on the specimen of non-thought. For although it is possible to think without words and to communicate by signs, our civilization depends, as I said before, on the written word. Writing is embodied thought, and the thought is clear or muddy, graspable or fugitive, according to the purity of the medium. Communication means one thought held in common. What could be more practical than to try making that thought unmistakable?

As for the receiver, the reader, his pleasure or grief is in direct proportion to the pains taken by the writer; to which one can add that the taking of pains brings its special pleasure. I do not mean the satisfaction of vanity, for after a bout of careful writing one is too tired to care; I mean the new perceptions— sensuous or intellectual or comic—to be had all day long in one’s encounters with language. Imagine the fun people miss who find nothing remarkable in the sentence (from Sax Rohmer): “The woman’s emotions were too tropical for analysis”; or who, trusting too far my disallowance of “contact” as a verb, miss the chance of using it at the hottest, stickiest time of year: “On a day like this, I wouldn’t contact anybody for the world.”