Saying What You Mean: A Commonsense Guide to American Usage by Robert Claiborne (Norton: $16.95)
This is one of the few books of which it can be said that much of the substance is in the introduction and that an important clue to its nature and thrust is in the acknowledgments.
One acknowledgment: "Special thanks are due to Jim Quinn whose 'American Tongue and Cheek' . . . directly inspired me to write this book."
Now, this isn't quite fair. Claiborne's book is a great improvement on Quinn's slapdash and almost thoughtless approach to the language; Claiborne recognizes that there is such a thing as Standard American English and that it behooves those who are trying to make themselves understood to follow its generally accepted rules. This is an important point.
The body of the book is an alphabetical usage guide that does not differ greatly from those of Roy Copperud, Theodore Bernstein, Bill Bryson or many others. But the introduction is a useful and significant examination of some aspects of the history of the language.
There is a long-overdue tribute to the linguistic influence of printing pioneer William Caxton that may make some of us reconsider the work of educator and author Marshall McLuhan. And there are a number of fascinating glances at those who sought to freeze our language at whatever point it was in the generation before them.
For instance, Jonathan Swift, author of "Gulliver's Travels," could "see no absolute necessity why any language should be perpetually changing," and Claiborne reminds us that Swift, in the 18th Century, looked back to the language of dramatist Ben Jonson with nostalgia and that Jonson, in the 17th Century, looked back with similar yearning to that of poet Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th Century.
In like vein, Claiborne points out that Bishop Reginald Pecock in the 15th Century proposed to "purify" the language by eliminating all words derived from French or Latin; likewise, he quotes Sir John Cheke in the 16th Century as being "of the opinione that our own tong sholde be written cleane and pure, unmixt and unmangled with borrowing of other tongs." But it was already too late: Opiniones, pure, mixt and mangled were such "borrowings."
The same phenomenon is at work today, Claiborne tells us, citing New York magazine's John Simon's apparent belief "that the English he learned in the 1930s was better than any (of the rest) and much better than that of the 1970s."
This is a useful and worthwhile point: The reluctance of "word experts" to recognize or accept change, and the book is valuable for that reason alone.
But the dictionary guide is helpful, too, though perhaps not very different from others. However, it is good to find a useful entry on the sequence of tenses; to be reminded that seven out seven entries in the Oxford English Dictionary show a plural pronoun referring back to the pronoun everybody, and to be assured of the difference between lengthy and long.
Of course, there are weaknesses: points, that is, on which I disagree. The attribution of the origin of "the reason why" to Alfred Lord Tennyson's "Charge of the Light Brigade" is an example of a writer's failure to do his homework, and I think that Claiborne has overlooked the simon-pure, original "Tom Swiftie":
Let's hurry, Tom said Swiftly.