Monday, December 7, 2009

DFW on Split Infinitives and Wedgies

Thanks to Amy McDaniel over at HTMLGiant for linking to this new-to-me David Foster Wallace essay on English usage (originally published in Harper's in 2001 and later collected in Consider the Lobster). It's much more entertaining than I would've thought possible given the subject, even at 37 printed pages (at least on my printer). Wallace being Wallace, almost a third of that length is taken up with end notes, through which he weaves, Pale Fire-like, strands of autobiography. Strange as it sounds, this essay, in large part a review of Bryan A. Garner's Modern American Usage, would be a must-read for any biographer researching Wallace's childhood (in which he apparently received countless wedgies for being an insufferable language nerd, or "SNOOT", his family's self-description of the type) or his experiences as a teacher.

Many of the positions and arguments Wallace describes in re: "the Usage Wars" are reiterated by McDaniel's commenters (here are the related posts, 1, 2 & 3, that began with a Wallace-inspired "Grammar Challenge"). If the comments don't quite prove that DFW is capable of directing blog comment threads from beyond the grave, then they certainly show that he Put His Finger On the Hot-Button Issues (or Had His Finger On The Pulse - just the sort of language Wallace highlights/mocks in the found-language poem/assemblage that begins his essay) in the field of English usage.

When will we see a nice, fat Collected (or Selected) Non-Fiction of David Foster Wallace? I realize that many of the uncollected pieces are available online and the existing collections are still in print, but this is a body of work that deserves the tome treatment.

[DFW-inspired Confession: I spent far more time writing this post than previous ones of roughly equivalent length. The reason for this, the influence of Wallace's essay, is obvious. This note is intended both as a warning of the contagious obsessiveness of Wallace on Usage and as an expression of my fear that the extra time spent has not resulted in a better, more readable post. Not at all.]

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