grammar lessons from david foster wallace: twenty-four word notes

As my favorite contemporary author DFW died more than four years ago, it’s difficult to find new pieces from his body of work that I have not yet read. So after reading his posthumously published collection of essays, Both Flesh and Not, I was surprised to find a few included essays that I had never seen before, and a couple more that I was happy to finally have in print rather than scanned a PDF of a 15-year-old magazine.

The most pleasing surprise was the inclusion of multiple essays that discussed writing: what it is like to be a fiction writer, the art of reviewing others’ works, and, my favorite, errors to avoid in writing. I often forget that he guaranteed his writing career by teaching for a number of years, and it is pleasing to see that his writing lessons for others are just as amusing and instructive as his fiction and non-fiction pieces.

The one that jumped out at me was the piece titled, “Twenty-Four Word Notes.” As these were notes that he wrote for inclusion in the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, they had never before been published as a stand-alone piece; even now, you can only pick his notes out of the Thesaurus (if they are still included), or by scanning through this PDF, which includes 85 pages of definitions and word notes from a variety of authors.

While I won’t include the entire text published in the book, I had to share the top four lessons I learned from his word notes.

  • The distinction between “if” and “whether.”
  • Most dictionaries’ usage notes for if are long and involved; it might be English’s hardest conjunction. From experience born of humiliation, I inform you that there are two main ways to mess up with if and make your writing look weak.

    The first is to use if for whether. They are not synonyms — if is used to express a conditional, whether to introduce alternative possibilities. True, abstract grammatical distinctions are hard to keep straight in the heat of composition, but in this case there’s a wonderfully simple test you can use: If you can coherently insert an “[or not]” after either the conjunction or the clause it introduces, you need whether. Examples: “He didn’t know whether [or not] it would rain”; “She asked me straight out whether I was a fetishist [or not]”; “We told him to call if [or not? no] he needed a ride [or not? no].”

    The second kind of snafu involves a basic rule for using commas with subordinating conjunctions (which are what if is one of). A subordinating conjunction signals the reader that the clause it’s part of is dependent — common sub. conjunctions include before, after, while, unless, if, as, and because. The relevant rule is easy and well worth remembering: Use a comma after the subordinating conjunction’s clause only if that clause comes before the independent clause that completes the thought; if the sub. conj.’s clause comes after the independent clause, there’s no comma. Example: “If I were you, I’d put down that hatchet” vs. “I’d put down that hatchet if I were you.”

  • “Myriad” can be used with “of” as a modifier when used as a noun. (I always thought only “plethora” could be used in this manner, in line with his authorities mentioned in the second paragraph.)
  • As an adj., myriad means (1) an indefinitely large number of something (“The Local Group comprises myriad galaxies”) or (2) made up of a great many diverse elements (“the myriad plant life of Amazonia”). As a noun, it’s used with an article and of to mean a large number (“The new CFO faced a myriad of cash-flow problems.”)

    What’s odd is that some authorities consider only the adjective usage correct — there’s about a 50-50 chance that a given copyeditor will query a myriad of — even though the noun usage has a much longer history. It was only in nineteenth-century poetry that myriad started being used as an adj. So it’s a bit of a stumper. It’s tempting to recommend avoiding the noun usage so that no readers will be bugged, but at the same time it’s true that any reader who’s bugged by a myriad of is both persnickety and wrong — and you can usually rebut snooty teachers, copyeditors, et al. by directing them to Coleridge’s “Myriad myriads of lives teemed forth.”

  • The incorrectness of the phrase “all of.”
  • Other than as an ironic idiom for “no more than” (e.g., “Sex with Edgar lasted all of a minute”), does all of have any legit uses? The answer is both complicated and personally humbling. An irksome habit of many student writers is automatically to stick an of between the adjective all and any noun that follows — “All of the firemen slid down the pole,” “She sent cards to all of her friends” — and I have spent a decade telling undergrads to abjure this habit, for two reasons. The first is that an excess of of‘s is one of the surest signs of flabby or maladroit writing, and the second is that the usage is often wrong.

    I have promulgated the following rule: Except for the ironic-idiom case, the only time it’s correct to use all of is when the adj. phrase is followed by a pronoun — “All of them got cards”; “I wanted Edgar to have all of me” — unless, however, the relevant pronoun is possessive, in which case you must again omit the of, as in “All my friends despise Edgar.”

    Only a few weeks ago did I learn (from a bright student who got annoyed enough at my hectoring to start poring over usage guides in the hopes of finding something I’d been wrong about that she could raise her hand at just the right moment in class and embarrass me with [which she did, and I was, and deserved it — there’s nothing more ridiculous than a pedant who’s wrong]), however, that there’s actually one more complication to the first part of the rule. With all plus a noun, it turns out that the medial of is required if that noun is possessive, as in “All of Edgar’s problems stem from his childhood,” All of Dave’s bombast came back to haunt him that day.” I doubt I will ever forget this.

  • There are endless variations on how to describe someone as hairy. (I already knew this, but the last definition that the editors placed in the piece was too good to not include.)
  • There are maybe more descriptors for various kinds of hair and hairiness than any other word-set in English, and some of them are extremely strange and fun. The more pedestrian terms like shaggy, unshorn, bushy, coiffed, and so on we’ll figure you already know.

    The adj. barbigerous is an extremely uptown synonym for bearded. Cirrose and cirrous, from the Latin cirrus meaning “curl” or “fringe” (as in cirrus clouds), can both be used to refer to somebody’s curly or tufty or wispy/feathery hair — Nicolas Cage’s hair in Adaptation is cirrose. Crinite means “hairy or possessed of a hair-like appendage,” though it’s mainly a botanical term and would be a bit eccentric applied to a person. Crinose, though, is a people-adj. that means “having a lot of hair,” especially in the sense of one’s hair being really long. The related noun crinosity is antiquated but not obsolete and can be used to refer to somebody’s hair in an amusingly donnish way, as in Madonna’s normally platinum crinosity is now a maternal brown.

    Glabrous, which is the loveliest of all hair-related adjectives, means having no hair (on a given part) at all. Please note that glabrous means more baby’s-bottom-hairless than bald or shaved, though if you wanted to describe a bald person in an ironically fancy way you could talk about his glabrous dome or something.

    Hirsute is probably the most familiar upmarket synonym for hairy, totally at home in any kind of formal writing. Like that of many hair-related adjectives, hirsute‘s original use was in botany (where it means “covered with coarse or bristly hairs”), but in regular usage its definition is much more general. Not so with the noun hirsutism, though, which is still semi-medical and means having a truly pathological amount of hair and/or hair that’s unusually or unevenly distributed — the point is that the noun’s not really a synonym for hairiness.

    Hispid means “covered with stiff or rough little hairs” and could apply to a military pate or unshaved jaw. Hispidulous is mainly just a puffed-up form of hispid and should be avoided. Lanate and lanated mean “having or being composed of woolly hairs.” A prettier and slightly more familiar way to describe woolly hair is with the adjective flocculent. (There’s also floccose, but this is used mainly of odd little hairy fruits like kiwi and quince.)

    Then there are the pil-based words, all derived from the Latin pilus (=hair). Pilose, another fairly common adj., means “covered with fine soft hair.” Deceptively similar-looking is pilous, which is a more hardcore-science adj. that the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “characterized by or abounding in hair, hairy,” citing as an example the following (unexplained, thus kind of troubling) sentence: It is covered with a rough pilous epidermis. Pilous‘s own similarity to pileous is not deceptive, since the latter, a medical adjective, means “consisting of or pertaining to hair”; e.g., certain hair-intensive cancerous growths are classified as pileous tumors. On the other hand, pileous tumors are sometimes also called piliferous tumors, wherein the latter adj. means “having or producing hair” (in botany, piliferous means “tipped with a hair,” as in certain weird leaves). There’s also piligerous, which means “covered or clothed in hair” and is used primarily of animals, and piliated, which comes from the plural of pilus and is used to describe certain kinds of hairy or fringe-intensive bacteria. Last but not least is the noun pilimiction, which names a hopefully very rare medical disorder “in which piliform or hair-like bodies are passed in the urine.” Outside of maybe describing some kind of terribly excruciated facial expression as pilimictive, however, it’s hard to imagine a mainstream use for pilimiction. (One pil-word N.B.: It so happens that the adjective pubescent literally means “covered with soft downy hairs,” so technically it qualifies as a synonym for pilose; but as of 2004 almost no reader will take pubescent this way, so I’d stick with pilose.

    Tomentose means “covered with dense little matted hairs” — baby chimps, hobbits’ feet, and Robin Williams are all tomentose. Ulotrichous, which is properly classed with lannate and flocculent, is an old and extremely fancy term for “crisply woolly hair.” Be advised that it is also, if not exactly a racist adj., certainly a racial one — A.C. Haddon’s Races of Man, from the early 1900s, famously classified races according to three basic hair types: leiotrichous (straight), cymotrichous (wavy), and ulotrichous.

    Now go and do the right thing.

    N.B. If you’re thinking of using any of the more esoteric adjectives here, you’d be well advised to keep an OED close at hand. This is not simply a gratuitous plus of another Oxford U. Press product. The fact is that some of these hair-related terms aren’t in other dictionaries; plus, the terms are often specialized enough that you’re going to want not just an abstract definition but a couple sample sentences so that you can see how the words are actually used. Only the OED has both defs. and in-context samples for just about every significant word in the language. Actually, why not screw appearances and just state the obvious: No really serious writer should be without an OED, whether it’s bought or stolen or hacked into the online version of or whatever you need to do. Nothing else comes close.

If you actually made it through all of this entry, and you’re intrigued by DFW’s writing and somehow have never read much of his writing, I would highly recommend skipping over to Amazon and buying any of his essay collections, especially A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again or Consider the Lobster. As he says above, nothing else comes close.