Word watching

Extremes meet: Never before has so much documented sloppiness about the use of the English language been matched by so much public interest in good usage. While verbal scores on standardized exams continue to go down, and jargon and bad grammar proliferate, bookshelves and newspaper columns overflow with corrective advice. It's not just dictionaries that are selling like hotcakes, it's wordbooks that reflect all kinds of word watching - collections that explain the origin of expressions such as ''selling like hotcakes'' and handbooks that comment on the grammatical principles behind constructions such as ''it's books.''

People who ordinarily would never study composition are watching verbs and idioms as never before: buying books, writing to wordsmiths in the papers, subscribing to consulting services on grammar. Some experts might be alarmed, seeing the public's fascination with words as just another fad. The word-watching craze, however, is a reflection of this fact: Most schools do not teach or stimulate a sustaining interest in language.

What is significant about the unprecedented public interest in correctness and style is that it is a fad - an extracurricular indulgence. And therein lies its value. The popular grammarians are playing one of the oldest games in town. They are making the general public comfortable enough to buy grammar books, follow weekly columns on words, and use call-in services. Grammar hot lines, Scrabble, crossword puzzles, anagrams (and special wordbooks that go with them) are big business.

The popular grammarians say to a self-conscious public - you are not alone. The popular grammarians are not only helpful with problems people really have (as opposed to those contrived for the grammar books), they tend to be permissive within bounds about The Rules. Language changes, they point out, formal does not mean stiff, and journalism is replacing belles lettres as the only literature many people read.

The easing of distinctions between oral and written discourse in a communication culture that reflects (and even encourages) impatience with print has confused both those who want to speak and write properly and those trained to teach them. Unlike some other countries, America has never had an Academy to rule on use and usage. From its beginning, American democracy has been receptive to linguistic pluralism, to imports and to neologisms that reflect industrial and political change (is ''o-n-l-i-n-e'' going to wind up one word or two or hyphenated?). A country dedicated to educate everyone, with a record of anti-intellectualism in its literary history, America is a nation reverencing plain speaking but practicing nervous, wordy affectation.

Even the experts suffer from jargon and inaccuracy. Indeed, as I write this, I take time out to read a piece on writing by an English teacher who ''refers back'' to a previous remark. A healthy sign on the word-watching scene, however, is the questioning by professionals of themselves. Another is the ''fad.''

If word watching is dilettantism by dilettantes, then so be it: Having ''delight'' with language is what is most discernible in the language fad. Welcome dilettante and ''amateur,'' lover of the game.

Yes, it is important to write and speak well: jobs are at stake, careers, appearance, even civilization. One must speak and write correctly. Good grammar is no laughing matter. Why not?

A good deal of today's language fad suggests that people will allow themselves to be taught if they are made to feel curious instead of anxious, encouraged to appreciate the pleasures of education along with the necessities, if they have fun with words. Learning about words leads to learning more about words. Writing well does take time; it is the cultivation of a habit intimately related to reading, but it is also, like any habit, hastened by conviction of worth or by feelings of pleasure. If word watching as a fad promotes a sense of language as a game, then subtly but surely the hook is in, and the dilettante is on the way to deeper appreciation of the defining characteristic of man as a rational and, as Aristotle reminds us, a risible animal: Therein lies hope.

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