William Safire, Nixon speechwriter, conservative pundit, and author of the long-running On Language column at the New York Times magazine, died this past weekend at the age of 79. Just google “William Safire death” and you’ll find that information and more.

 

Of course, what I remember is William Safire the wordsmith and self-appointed grammarian. As the Times obit noted, his Rules for Writers included “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!!”

 

How Not to Write

 

 

Back in the 1980s, I read On Language much more often than in later years. It seems to me that his older columns were more prescriptive, more concerned with pointing out the elements of grammar in popular writing that offended his finely tuned sensibilities. But later, as the 1990s wore on, as Language Log put it, “Despite his occasional prescriptivist predilections, [Safire] showed a willingness to heed the work of descriptive linguists.”

 

That meant that Safire took a lot of interest in how the language was being used and how it was developing in the hands of those who delighted in English as much as he did. Safire had a very solid sense of his own authority, but he was no stuffy red-pencil copy editor, quick to note any deviation from style. Instead, as he once told NPR, his rhetoric sought to produce “word pictures.”


“For example, when somebody ‘leaves under a cloud.’ That’s been used so often that it lost its punch,” Safire said. “But when you say someone ‘leaves in a hail of dead cats,’ all of a sudden, that’ll wake somebody up.”

No Uncertain Terms  

 

Ben Zimmer, who filled in for Safire on occasion as Safire’s health began to fail, has a lovely remembrance at his Visual Thesaurus site.

 

And at the end, as a fellow Latinist, I must fall in with Mark Liberman, who noted on Language Log:

 

“We should remember that William Safire gave a 1994 collection of On Language columns the memorable title In Love with Norma Loquendi, referring to Horace’s explanation that language changes “si volet usus / quem penes arbitrium est et ius et norma loquendi” (‘if it be the will of custom, in the power of whose judgment is the law and the standard of language’).”

 

Although our political stands were miles apart -- and I did not always agree with his conclusions in On Language -- I, along with all those fascinated by the standard of language and the will of custom, will miss Norma’s champion, William Safire.

0 Kudos
About Unabashedly Bookish: The BN Community Blog
Unabashedly Bookish features new articles every day from the Book Clubs staff, guest authors, and friends on hot topics in the world of books, language, writing, and publishing. From trends in the publishing business to updates on genre fiction fan communities, from fun lessons on grammar to reflections on literature in our personal lives, this blog is the best source for your daily dose of all things bookish.

Advertisement

Since 1997, you’ve been coming to BarnesandNoble.com to discuss everything from Stephen King to writing to Harry Potter. You’ve made our site more than a place to discover your next book: you’ve made it a community. But like all things internet, BN.com is growing and changing. We've said goodbye to our community message boards—but that doesn’t mean we won’t still be a place for adventurous readers to connect and discover.

Now, you can explore the most exciting new titles (and remember the classics) at the Barnes & Noble Book Blog. Check out conversations with authors like Jeff VanderMeer and Gary Shteyngart at the B&N Review, and browse write-ups of the best in literary fiction. Come to our Facebook page to weigh in on what it means to be a book nerd. Browse digital deals on the NOOK blog, tweet about books with us,or self-publish your latest novella with NOOK Press. And for those of you looking for support for your NOOK, the NOOK Support Forums will still be here.

We will continue to provide you with books that make you turn pages well past midnight, discover new worlds, and reunite with old friends. And we hope that you’ll continue to tell us how you’re doing, what you’re reading, and what books mean to you.

Categories