David Foster Wallace Breaks Down Five Common Word Usage Mistakes in English


What advan­tage, I recent­ly asked a trilin­gual writer, could you pos­si­bly find in using such an impro­vised, con­fus­ing, irreg­u­lar patch­work of a lan­guage as Eng­lish? She replied that this very impro­vi­sa­tion, irreg­u­lar­i­ty, and even con­fu­sion comes from the vast free­dom of expres­sion (and of inven­tion of new expres­sions) that Eng­lish offers over oth­er Euro­pean tongues. This goes even more so for Amer­i­can Eng­lish, the vari­ant with whose com­bi­na­tion of care­ful­ly shad­ed nuances and smash­ing col­lo­qui­alisms David Fos­ter Wal­lace so daz­zled his read­ers. Like many writ­ers, Wal­lace also taught writ­ing, but those of us not lucky enough to receive his direct instruc­tion can still behold his teach­ing mate­ri­als, archived online at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Austin’s Har­ry Ran­som Cen­ter.

See, for instance, Wal­lace’s hand­out on five com­mon usage mis­takes, from his Fall 2002 sec­tion of Eng­lish 183A at Pomona Col­lege (an advanced fic­tion writ­ing class, taught last Spring by Jonathan Lethem). “The prepo­si­tion towards is British usage; the US spelling is toward.” Fair enough. “And is a con­junc­tion; so is so,” he con­tin­ues. “Except in dia­logue between par­tic­u­lar kinds of char­ac­ters, you nev­er need both con­junc­tions.” Handy to know! Then, things get more tech­ni­cal: “For a com­pound sen­tence to require a com­ma plus a con­junc­tion, both its con­stituent claus­es must be inde­pen­dent.” As Wal­lace goes deep­er, I feel even more sym­pa­thy for those who learn Eng­lish as a sec­ond lan­guage, as I did when I read “Tense Present,” his Harper’s review of Bryan A. Gar­ner’s A Dic­tio­nary of Mod­ern Amer­i­can Usage. If the hard­core gram­mar talk tires you, feel free to peruse the Ran­som Cen­ter’s oth­er arti­facts of Wal­lace’s time in the class­room—which we cov­ered in a post last week—such as his syl­labus for Eng­lish 102: Lit­er­ary Analy­sis, his guide­lines for papers, and the mar­gin­a­lia in his copy of Car­rie.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

30 Free Essays & Sto­ries by David Fos­ter Wal­lace on the Web

David Fos­ter Wal­lace: The Big, Uncut Inter­view (2003)

David Fos­ter Wal­lace’s 1994 Syl­labus

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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Comments (11)
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  • Steve Reilly says:

    I like how he thinks “back­wards” and “after­wards” are prepo­si­tions. Some gram­mar genius he was. And any­one who was bam­boo­zled by his ridicu­lous Harper’s piece should read this: http://www.languagehat.com/archives/000510.php

  • Linda Wilson says:

    I love this DFW piece but you can’t read the orig­i­nal, or print or down­load in read­able form, unless you pur­chase a dig­i­tal copy from the Har­ry Ran­som Cen­ter at The Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas. The copy you have post­ed is not real­ly leg­i­ble, right. I have want­ed to share this with my writer’s group. Archival Col­lec­tions are like this, mak­ing a busi­ness of their stew­ard­ship of orig­i­nal mate­ri­als like Wal­lace’s work.

  • Vlad says:

    No need to feel pity for those for who Eng­lish is a sec­ond language,we’re in most cas­es a lot bet­ter acquaint­ed with the Eng­lish gram­mar than most of the native speakers.For example,none of the things list­ed above in DFW’s hand­out are a sur­prise to me,but they would def­i­nite­ly be for 99% of my native speak­er col­leagues here in Aus­tralia

  • Christy Wells says:

    Depend­ing upon their place­ment, Steve, after­ward and back­ward are prepo­si­tions.

  • Alexov says:

    The eng­lish lan­guage as spo­ken by the experts: get that cake off of the shelf.

    The pianist no longer per­formed or played live: he/she con­cer­tized. I have read and heard this last week­end.

    And the oth­er recent clas­sic: two full stops, one on top of the oth­er, are not a full colon, they are two full stops, so the next word starts with a cap­i­tal let­ter, even if it isn’t a Name.

    There are many errors in oth­er­wise lit­er­ate web­sites because peo­ple either don’t proof­read before hit­ting “Enter” or they put too much faith in spellcheck types of soft­ware that don’t draw atten­tion to mis­spellings that result in legit­i­mate words.

  • Robert Stoskopf says:

    To Lin­da Wil­son: If you click on the image of the page, it will bring up a larg­er copy. Still not leg­i­ble enough? Ctrl+A/Copy, then paste into a Word doc­u­ment which you can then resize to make it quite leg­i­ble. Try it, you’ll like it!

  • eslteacher says:

    Like this arti­cle! But I quib­ble with the state­ment that “this very impro­vi­sa­tion, irreg­u­lar­i­ty, and even con­fu­sion comes from the vast free­dom of expres­sion (and of inven­tion of new expres­sions) that Eng­lish offers over oth­er Euro­pean tongues.” I would say it the oth­er way round: the vast free­dom of expres­sion that Eng­lish offers is in fact great­ly fos­tered by this very “impro­vi­sa­tion, irreg­u­lar­i­ty, and even con­fu­sion” of mod­ern Eng­lish.

  • Gin Twice says:

    “Fac­toid” means a false fact, a non-fact mas­querad­ing as a fact, as an android is a human-look­ing non-human. It’s rarely used cor­rect­ly (unfor­tu­nate since the world is full of fac­toids) but dis­ap­point­ing that DFW also mis­used this, and it’s pret­ty amus­ing for him to com­mit such a mid­dle-brow mis­take while preach­ing good lan­guage use.

  • Corrado Russo says:

    DFW’s com­ment about punc­tu­a­tion in com­pound sen­tences is con­fused: a com­pound sen­tence always con­sists of two inde­pen­dent claus­es, by def­i­n­i­tion.

  • Bruce William Plenderleith says:

    Amer­i­can spelling is incor­rect

  • Jason says:

    Only a non-native speak­er would pro­duce such a train­wreck as ‘No need to feel pit for those for who [sic] Eng­lish is a sec­ond lan­guage’. But go on. Please tell us how supe­ri­or you are to the native speak­ers of Aus­tralia…

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