Safire on Sunday

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That's what I called my own piece on William Safire, which runs today on "Fresh Air" and is online here. I cover some of the same ground that Ben does in his pitch-perfect Times magazine piece, mentioning his generosity to his critics and his willingness to acknowledge his mistakes. A very different tenor from his weekday columns — I think his Sunday readers got the best of him. I also pay tribute to his disinclination to engage in the rhetorical high jinks of other popular grammarians:

He was no snob. You can't imagine him comparing a poet who confused between and among with someone picking his nose at a party, the way John Simon once did. And he wasn't susceptible to the grammatical vapors that affect writers like Lynne Truss — the people who like to describe lapses of grammar as setting their teeth on edge, making their skin crawl, or leaving them gasping for breath, as if they'd spent all their lives up till now closeted with Elizabeth and Darcy in the morning room at Pemberley. 

Above all, there was his ability to convey his pleasure in ruminating on language: "It wasn't just that he loved words — who doesn't? But he really, really liked them."

Other things on Safire worth looking at include Jan Freeman's piece in the Boston Globe (if I had read this before I wrote mine I probably wouldn't have bothered) and Todd Gitlin's in the New Republic, as well as a Newsweek reminiscence by Aaron Britt, who served as Safire's assistant for a while. (The New Republic also posted part of a 1987 review of one of Safire's language books by Louis Menand.) For a more unforgiving take, see David Bromwich's "Wars Made Out Of Words." Feel free to add links to other pieces in the comments.


  1. Ron said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

    One more piece, Rik Hertzberg's at the New Yorker blog this morning:

  2. Isabeau said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

    As brilliant as Jane Austen was, sometimes her writing irritated me – did not they you?

  3. Isabeau said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 12:51 pm

    Okay: did not IT you. Revision on the fly does not always work.

  4. Mr Punch said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

    Safire was genuinely interested in words and phrases, but he was above all a pragmatist — a working journalist and speechwriter concerned with effective communication. The question of whether or not he was a prescriptivist simply misses the point (and this also applies to some other prominent writers on language). He wasn't making moral judgments, but assessing how well particular terms or structures succeeded in conveying a message (or evading an issue, if that was the intent).

  5. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 2:57 pm

    There have also been Safire-related pieces by (LLer) John McWhorter on and (Friend of LL) Mark Peters on GOOD.

    Besides the linguablog posts I already mentioned here, see Wendalyn Nichols @ Copyediting and Nancy Friedman @ Fritinancy.

  6. dr pepper said,

    October 6, 2009 @ 3:37 pm

    Perhaps the best memorial for Safire would be an expanded edition of his columns, with notes and commentary from his peers.

  7. Rosina Lippi said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 9:39 pm

    Regarding this bit: "You can't imagine him comparing a poet who confused between and among with someone picking his nose at a party, the way John Simon once did. "

    Could you possibly provide a citation? I'm searching for examples of malicious prescriptivism, and this looks like a winner.

  8. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    October 7, 2009 @ 10:02 pm

    Don't know about the poet, but the relevant line from Paradigms Lost (1980, p. 111) is: "Bad grammar is rather like bad manners: someone picking his nose at a party will still be recognized as a minimal human being and not a literal four-footed pig; but there are cases where the minimal is not enough."

  9. Rosina Lippi said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 1:46 am

    Benjamin — many thanks, just what I needed.

  10. Geoff Nunberg said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 2:12 am

    Simon goes on in the paragraph following the line Ben quotes:

    … it is astounding to see the usually fastidious Joyce Carol Oates, a poet as well as a fiction writer, perpetrate the following in the New York Times Book Review of April 3, 1977: 'Nor do the parallels between the two women become aggressively pointed.' Parallels are lines that run side-by-side; in no sense can they be pointed. Alas, where there is careless imagery, there is usually inadequate grammar. In her very next sentence, Miss Oates refers to a conversation 'between' three people. Now I realize that in our sadly permissive dictionaries 'between' is becoming acceptable as a synonym for 'among.' But do not buy this, good people; the 'tween' comes from the Anglo-Saxon 'twa,' meaning 'two,' and if we start meddling with such palpably etymological sense… we become barbarous or trendy.

    I originally assumed that the bit about the nose-picker was epiphoric for the following reference to Oates' bad grammar, though I'm not sure now whether I was right to read the passage as implying a strict comparison as opposed simply to a syllogistic connection (i.e., "bad grammar = nose-picking," "Oates uses bad grammar," ergo…).

  11. Rosina Lippi said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

    I just bought a used copy of Paradigms Lost so I can dig around in this guy's warped psyche when the masochistic urge takes me. From my armchair I can only hypothesize that Simon's vitriol originates in the fact that he wallows neck deep in linguistic insecurity, as he has never been able to lose his own accent. His criticism of Raul Julia's accent strikes me as frustrated and overwrought:

    [Raul Julia's] heavy Hispanic accent plays havoc with both his Italian and his English […] at times my companion and I had to cover our ears.
    John Simon on Theater 1974-2003 p 251

    Thus Raul Julia does Prospero with his usual inappropriate and comic-sounding Hispanic accent (to say nothing of the dumb facial expressions accompanying it)… (ibid p 244)

    I got a used copy of this book, too. If a book is in print, I always buy a new copy out of common sense and solidarity. In this case, I made an exception.

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