Eye on the Quads

Secret Society

James Fallows teaches about right, wrong, and shades of gray in grammar.

Halfway through spring quarter, James Fallows, the Robert Vare Nonfiction Writer-in-Residence, promises to initiate a small group of undergraduates into a very exclusive club. To the chosen few in his Art of Nonfiction course, he will “reveal the secrets of usage and grammar.”

“There's no one secret,” says Fallows, longtime correspondent for the Atlantic and author of numerous books, including Blind into Baghdad: America's War in Iraq (2006) and Postcards from Tomorrow Square: Reports from China (2009). “But an accumulation of these details marks a sophisticated versus an unsophisticated command of the English language.”

Of course the idea of correct grammar has its critics, Fallows says, including his own wife, who insists—as linguists do—that there is no such thing as proper usage. But there are “gradations of usage,” he says, and editors at publications such as the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books are highly attuned to them. “The more of these you're aware of,” Fallows says, “the more grace notes there will be in your writing.”

One rule outranks all the others. “Who here speaks German?” he asks. A few students do. “I'm told that Schlimmbesserung means an improvement that makes things worse.” It does. “If there's a violation of a rule,” says Fallows, “and fixing it makes it ugly, start from scratch.”

It soon becomes obvious that the secret-revealing session is necessary. When Fallows throws out questions such as, “What's the difference between persuade and convince?” just a few students know the answer (you persuade someone to act, you convince someone to believe). No one knows the difference between nauseated and nauseous (if you're nauseated, you're sick; if you're nauseous, you're making other people sick).

During the lecture, a copy of Please Let's Don't, a hardbound collection of marginalia by former Atlantic editor William Whitworth, makes it way around the room. “Shame on [writer],” reads one comment. “Please let's don't quote this lie/lay error and therefore contribute to the national epidemic of this yokel usage.” About another writer, who had the temerity to call himself “Jeff” in his byline, Whitworth observes, “Ernie Hemingway, Bob Penn Warren, Bill Faulkner, and Jim Joyce all advise against this.” About yet another: “He's no writer. Let's help as much as possible.”

Meanwhile, Fallows is quizzing students on uncommon words that are often confused with common ones, such as enormity. “This does not have to do with size,” says Fallows, but means monstrous, horrible, evil. “‘The enormity of Obama's achievement’ would be a Tea Party sentiment.” Fulsome is another example. “This has nothing to do with fullness. It means wretched, nauseating excess, as in ‘fulsome praise.’”

Problematic is problematic, he says. Another often misused word, it simply means “creating problems.”

“How about problematize?” someone wants to know.

Problematize?” Fallows says. “I've never heard that one,” an admission that provokes a guffaw from this class of humanities majors. “I'm from out of town,” Fallows explains, somewhat apologetically, then adds, “I'm sure the Atlantic has never used the term.” —Carrie Golus, AB'91, AM'93