Bill Safire’s Usage Legacy

On September 27 my old friend and Bronx High School of Science classmate Bill Safire died. The loss to me of an old friend will be of little concern to anyone else, and this essay is neither a eulogy nor an obituary. What I want to speak of here is the effect his death has on the language usage debate, and in bringing to an apparent end a daring experiment by the editors of The New York Times, that of allowing a regular voice to the school of thought called prescriptivism. I restrict myself to this topic because I knew only one side of the many-sided Safire, and perhaps there were others who knew even that side of him better than I did. But I can report on that side with some authority; our exchanges spanned some 15 years and touched on many topics within the broad field of language usage. In particular, I want to consider the role his weekly language column played in presenting usage issues to the general public, and what its termination means for the future of that program.

I suppose that the Times’ editors allowed Bill to express his linguistic prescriptivism (his was so mild and unaggressive a prescriptivism that he usually referred to himself as a “linguistic activist” rather than prescriptivist — but he was a prescriptivist) not because they felt much sympathy with it, even as mild as it was, but because they calculated that many of their readers would find it just sufficiently provocative to get their juices flowing — a little edginess, like a little pepper on the salad, can’t hurt — while showing them, the editors, to be open-minded and tolerant of at least the more harmless human foibles. (Bill’s mildness made him the descriptivist’s favorite prescriptivist, as another Times columnist, David Brooks, has been called the liberal’s favorite conservative.1) And I suppose further that with Bill’s departure, we will see an end to that experiment, if only because there is no one around who quite fills his shoes. If this is so, then among the consequences of Bill’s death will be a further retreat from and misunderstanding of prescriptivism, which makes it, among other things, a sad day for good usage.

The beginning of my mostly epistolary relationship with Bill was an out-of-the-blue phone call from him, early in 1995, congratulating me on my essay “Why Linguists Are Not to be Trusted on Language Usage”. It was characteristic of him, with his energy, directness, and generosity, to make a spontaneous transcontinental call to someone who was for practical purposes a stranger (we hadn’t been in touch since high school) in order to express his admiration of something that stranger had written. Later he gave me some warm words of encouragement after seeing an early draft of the book I was writing, Language and Human Nature, along with a couple of what he called “ring-a-ding” blurbs to use when it was published; and he helped again by plugging the book in his column for June 18, 2006.

Many of our exchanges reflected our common taste for and in puns, particularly multilingual ones: I have a card from him dated March 5, 2001, reading “Dear Mark — I fervently agree with your American Scholar piece [“The End of Linguistics”], and thanks for the plug. But how can you be Saussure?” To keep the ball rolling, I wrote back “You ask how I can be Saussure. When scolded once with ‘Don’t be so dogmatic, Mark; there are two sides to everything,’ I replied ‘Möbius, maybe no.’”2

But he sometimes stepped down from the Punmeister’s pedestal to the more pedestrian task of keeping on his readers a steady, gentle pressure in favor of intelligent guidance of the language (that is, prescriptivism) instead of letting it be guided unintelligently (guided, that is, by political operatives, gangbangers, and Internet spammers). That pressure was so mild and unaggressive that occasionally fellow prescriptivists, like Jacques Barzun and me, would get impatient with him, and charge him with letting down the side. The Times, however, liked to think it had a prescriptive tiger in its tank; an inset summary in its obituary of him reads “A pugnacious contrarian with an alliterative wit” — both of whose key words are as wrong as can be: Bill was in matters of usage as permissive as one can be while still being a prescriptivist, and, far from being a contrarian, was always ready to see the rationale behind a usage he was examining, even if he went on to discourage it.

Now that Bill is gone, the Times is presumably deciding what to do, if anything, to fill the gap he leaves in their corps of expert-columnists. While deciding, they have invited guest columnists to fill in on a week-by-week basis, among them Ammon Shea and Ben Zimmer, and the columns these two have contributed may suggest what the future will bring. Both Shea and Zimmer are concerned to tone down Bill’s already soft prescriptivism to a yet tamer variety, or even to abandon it altogether and go descriptivist. Shea’s first column (October 4) is devoted to instructing readers on how to defend themselves against boors who correct the grammatical lapses of others publicly or in an otherwise offensive manner; his solution is what I’ve called the Fallacy of the OED, which has it that if our forebears — especially great dramatists and poets like Shakespeare — used a certain locution or construction, you can too! I refer interested readers to my Language and Human Nature for full details about what’s wrong with that argument; in the meantime, I suggest that you defend yourself against the obnoxious pedants that Shea describes by turning your back on them and walking away. What is wrong with such people is not that they’re necessarily mistaken about usage, but that they’re boors. What is remarkable about Shea’s column is that he thinks we are suffering from a plague of such people; that the readers of the “On Language” column need his advice on how to handle them; and that this behavioral problem, if it exists at all, is fundamentally one of language usage.

Shea’s second column (October 18) deals with the preference some have for older dictionaries over the latest ones; he opens by describing Nero Wolfe’s page-by-page destruction of a copy of Merriam-Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, reminds us that The New York Times itself issued an editorial edict against this edition, and instructed the staff to stick with the old, second edition. Shea does not trouble to present the issues involved; he simply takes it for granted that the resistance to the new was due to fuddy-duddyism, ignorance, and stubbornness. He refers to the “supposed linguistic permissiveness” of the third edition, and calls the attack on it “largely unjustified,” but offers no arguments or facts to support those remarks. We can infer from these two columns how respectfully the Safire heritage will be preserved if Shea becomes Bill’s successor as the “On Language” columnist.

Zimmer’s column (October 11) implies that Bill was never really a full-fledged prescriptivist anyway — “As battles raged between prescriptive grammarians and descriptive linguists and lexicographers, Safire more often than not played both sides against the middle.” No, he did not; he was a calm and intelligent prescriptivist who realized that a large part of the battle for prescriptivism consisted in turning his fellow prescriptivists into calm, intelligent ones like himself, correcting their errors and cooling off their passions so as to make them assets to prescriptivism rather than the liabilities they are when they speak without adequate knowledge or careful analysis.

The great reason why Safire seemed to many descriptivists to be an exception to the general rule about prescriptivists is that they, the descriptivists, are the ones who invented that general rule — and when a Safire just won’t fit, they call him an anomaly rather than question their own stereotype. Zimmer reports with satisfaction, and perhaps some surprise, that “He did not subscribe to the pessimism that typified American language pundits …,” as if an active prescriptivist must be a pessimist about language, when a real pessimist would just despair silently. Safire, on the contrary, “saw signs of life everywhere,” he says, and he quotes Bill in support: “I welcome new words, or old words used in new ways, provided the result is more precision, added color or greater expressiveness.” This statement he takes as a sign that Bill was either a highly exceptional prescriptivist or no prescriptivist at all; in fact, it constitutes a perfect short definition of prescriptivism. Here it is again, with the key passage emphasized for the benefit of descriptivists, who seem to have some trouble seeing such things:

I welcome new words, or old words used in new ways, provided the result is more precision, added color or greater expressiveness.

If you take the italicized part of his statement seriously, as you should, rather than as just some pro forma boilerplate, this formulation implies that he was against roughly nine out of ten such innovations. In short, Bill, like any calm and intelligent prescriptivist, was neither blindly in favor of change nor blindly against change; he discriminated — a practice that confuses descriptivists; because they themselves refuse to reject any change, they seem constrained to suppose that their adversaries must reject all of them. But the nicely symmetrical picture of descriptivists, who cannot oppose any change, versus prescriptivists, who oppose them all, is flawed: the descriptivists in this model really exist (indeed, only such descriptivists exist), but the antithetical prescriptivists do not; they are the figments of the embattled descriptivist mind — a mind on which this subtle ontological distinction seems lost3.

Another statement of Bill’s that Zimmer quotes but fails to understand: “At a certain point,” [Safire] conceded, “what people mean when they use a word becomes its meaning.” What Zimmer sees as a concession is really a tautology — of course if everyone uses a word to mean X, it means X — but that tautology is only the starting point, not the conclusion, of the argument about usage; it leaves unasked all the key questions. How did we arrive at agreement that the word means X? Who is allowed to have a voice in determining whether it does or not? Are errors, misunderstandings, ignorance, and attempts at deception to go unchallenged, even if shown to have influenced or even determined the decision that the word means X? Here too Zimmer senses that a remark of Bill’s is important, but fails to grasp it fully; he seems to have no idea that his opening words “At a certain point” showed that Bill took it for granted that his readers knew that it is almost always a long time between the first appearance of a new usage and the “certain point” at which “everyone” has adopted it, and that until that distant point is reached (if it ever is; most neologisms disappear soon after birth) we are all, even prescriptivists, entitled to speak up and try our luck at shaping usage.

Zimmer writes “Over the years he moved further away from rigid prescriptions and into the arms of his beloved Norma Loquendi…” Again, no; Bill was never in the grip of rigid prescriptions, he was from the very first, as he was at the end, a flexible and open-minded empiricist — I defy anyone to cite an occasion on which the early Bill Safire was in servitude to rigid prescriptions. And as for his affair with Norma, I inscribed his copy of my book: “Dear Bill — you’re in love with Norma Loquendi, I have a thing for Carmen Saeculare; maybe we should try double dating.”

My last letter to Bill, on June 21 of this year, was a strongly-worded complaint about his description of a thesaurus as a collection of synonyms, a misconception that I had discussed at some length in my book. (My message was “strongly-worded” in the way that old friends address each other with mock sternness, as when we “rebuke” a friend for failing to tell us of some award he’s won, or some trouble we might have helped him deal with.) And his reply was “Dear Mark: Your intemperate missive received. We disagree on this point but we’re still friends. Best, Bill.”

Not a bad way for a friendship to end, if friendships must end.

1. “Unlikely, but not implausible – David Brooks is one of the few columnists Obama is known to read with respect, making him a rare media figure the White House likes. Before he was president, Obama called the New York Times writer ‘one of my favorite conservatives’.” Abby Phillip, Matt Negrin & MJ Lee | 01/05/11 2:26 PM, Politico44 (

2.From time to time, in his role of Punmeister, he would invite readers to submit puns that were (at least) bilingual, such as these two (neither of them contrived, but actually conceived and uttered on the spur of the moment): (1) Husband, speaking on a Saturday: “What are we having for dinner tomorrow?” Wife: “Lamb stew.” Husband: “Oh good; Navarin Sunday!” and (2): Wife, on being served a wine called Vita Nuova: “What kind of wine is this?” Husband: “Dant Esque” (This last example is admittedly a bit esoteric, calling as it does for some familiarity with the works both of Dante and of Milt Gross, the once-celebrated author of Dunt Esk!)

3.And from Bill’s “Brother, Can You Spare A Question?” (November 16, 1986): “Common usage is wearing down beg the question, but common usage is not good usage when it loses a useful distinction.”