“I think it as honorable to the government neither to know nor notice its sycophants or censors, as it would be undignified and criminal to pamper the former and persecute the latter.”
New York Times columnist William Safire died Sunday at age 79.
I admired Safire, not for his conservative commentary, but because he belonged to an increasingly rare breed: those who know (and care) that “begs the question” and “raises the question” are not interchangeable phrases. For three decades, Safire used his Sunday column, “On Language,” to examine thousands of quirks, misuses, and perversions of American English.
The columns, many collected in books, made him an unofficial arbiter of usage and one of the most widely read writers on language. It also tapped into the lighter side of the dour-looking Mr. Safire: a Pickwickian quibbler who gleefully pounced on gaffes, inexactitudes, neologisms, misnomers, solecisms and perversely peccant puns, like “the president’s populism” and “the first lady’s momulism,” written during the Carter presidency.
There were columns on blogosphere blargon, tarnation-heck euphemisms, dastardly subjunctives and even Barack and Michelle Obama’s fist bumps. And there were Safire “rules for writers”: Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid clichés like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!
Safire was often a stickler in what he called “a world of toleration and permissiveness.” I’m not quite the prescriptivist Safire was, but I appreciated his use of wit and mnemonics to nudge people toward the proper spelling of “bated breath” and the appropriate usage of the word “penultimate.” His columns were a pleasant respite from the lazy grammar and kewl txtspk rampant on the Internet.
Reasons to read The New York Times are evaporating rapidly.