1. Education
Richard Nordquist

In Defense of Dehortatio: A Review of Mardy Grothe's Neverisms

By May 13, 2011

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Exhortation gets a bum rap these days. "Don't preach to me," we say. "Spare me your advice." And, for crying out loud, "Never tell me what to do!"

Yet a visit to the self-help section of any bookstore proves that hortatory discourse is as popular as ever. Most people, it seems, really do want to be told what to do (in classical rhetorical terms, diatyposis) and what not to do (dehortatio).

If you need further proof, pick up a copy of Dr. Mardy Grothe's new book, Neverisms: A Quotation Lover's Guide to Things You Should Never Do, Never Say, or Never Forget (HarperCollins). There you'll find nearly 2,000 quotations that begin with the word never--and much else besides.

Readers familiar with any of Grothe's previous five books will recognize the plan of each chapter: "a few foundation-laying pages" followed by "a wide variety of quotations, alphabetically arranged by author." This scheme allows him to mingle familiar lines (such as Churchill's injunction to the boys of Harrow School to "Never give in--never, never, never, never") with more delightfully obscure quotations (like Richard Moran's "Never sit in the dunk tank at the company picnic").

At a time when most online quotation sites freely reproduce inaccuracies and rarely provide full citations, Grothe's attention to detail is commendable. Throughout the book he determinedly tracks down sources and corrects dozens of common misattributions. His healthy mistrust of "orphan quotations" (that is, "anonymously authored observations that are attached to famous people") means that Lincoln, Wilde, and Churchill don't get unearned credit for all the best lines.

Reading Grothe's book, I was reminded of how much I miss the weekly columns of Dave Barry, who said, "Never trust anything you read in a travel article." And how I wish that Fran Lebowitz would quit pretending she's writing a novel and get back to composing witty essays. "Never allow your child to call you by your first name," she advised. "He hasn't known you long enough."

On the other hand, the quotations in Neverisms failed to convince me that Donatella Versace is wise, that Mark Russell is funny, or that Dr. Johnson was mistaken when he said that Lord Chesterfield's letters "teach the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master."

In his final chapter, "The Literary Life," Grothe draws a connection between some advice on diction offered in 1867 by Oliver Wendell Holmes ("I would never use a long word, even, where a short one would answer the purpose") and George Orwell's Rules for Writers (from "Politics and the English Language," 1946). It's also worth mentioning that Orwell's famous neverisms appear to have been adapted from the five-part dictum spelled out by the Fowler brothers in The King's English (1906):

  • Prefer the familiar word to the far-fetched.
  • Prefer the concrete word to the abstract.
  • Prefer the single word to the circumlocution.
  • Prefer the short word to the long.
  • Prefer the Saxon word to the Romance.
But admittedly, preferisms don't have quite the same rhetorical oomph as neverisms.

As Grothe notes in his introduction, Neverisms "is not just an anthology of quotations; it is an anthology about quotations as well--and the often fascinating stories of the people who authored them." To learn more about Neverisms and Mardy Grothe's other engaging books for logophiles, visit his website at drmardy.com.

Reviews of Other Books by Dr. Mardy Grothe:

Image: Neverisms: A Quotation Lover's Guide to Things You Should Never Do, Never Say, or Never Forget by Dr. Mardy Grothe (HarperCollins, 2011)

Comments

May 13, 2011 at 8:07 am
(1) Irfan says:

Couple of thoughts, or observations, with the hope that they would not evoke the “keep it to yourself” reaction.

1. People buying self help books, or consuming hortatory discourse, most probably want to evaluate their conduct concerning the subject matter instead of being told what to do, and let’s not shy away from the fact that most interested in verbal commentary are rarely, if ever, able to address the issue in a reasonable and convincing manner.

2. If every author were to start putting into practice those preferences, or neverisms in case of Grothe, then would the written works not become trite, as if pages full of same words over and over again promoting mediocrity instead of curiosity.

May 19, 2011 at 11:09 am
(2) Mardy Grothe says:

Thank you Richard, I appreciate your comments about my new book. In fact, it stimulates this dehortation: “Never ignore the advice of a good grammer guide.”

Mardy

May 22, 2011 at 8:20 am
(3) Mardy Grothe says:

OOOPS! I can’t believe I let that typo slip by in my comment. Let me fix that and rephrase:

“Never ignore the advice of a great grammar and composition guide.”

May 23, 2011 at 6:21 am
(4) grammar says:

I’ll share the blame, Mardy. Any grammar guide worth his salt should have caught the typo and silently corrected it.

In any case, thank you for another fine book.

Richard

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