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James Kilpatrick on the Writer's Art

"Writers ought to be allowed a little wiggle room"

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James Kilpatrick on the Writer's Art

James J. Kilpatrick (1920-2010)

In his final newspaper column, published a year and a half before his death on August 15, 2010, veteran journalist James J. Kilpatrick wrote about the common misplacement of the word only--a pet peeve that he revisited with enthusiasm every year for three decades.

Despite such persnicketiness, the old newsman played the role of language maven with an uncommon degree of tolerance and good humor. Kilpatrick understood that language laws are mutable. And most rules, he would admit, can be bent and even broken in the interest of euphony and good sense.

Here, in tribute to Judge Kilpatrick, are a few of the decisions that he handed down over the years in his weekly "Court of Peeves, Crotchets and Irks."

  • The Music of Language
    The court often cites Professor Will Strunk: "Use no unnecessary words." It is sound advice. But writers should keep in mind the music of language. Trills and turns and grace notes are not always redundant. They may be as necessary to a concerto as the bang of a cymbal at the end.
    (July 1999)


  • Absolute Adjectives
    My own thought is that writers ought to be allowed a little wiggle room. At least in informal or colloquial usage, there's nothing wrong with observing that a woman is "very pregnant" or a man is "rather soused." On the other hand, "virginal" means "virginal," and we had better stick with it. . . .

    But just as our literate Founding Fathers formed a "more perfect" union, we can tolerably abide with neighbors who are "absolutely impossible." Some arguments may be only "rather indefensible." We know with George Orwell that, in our society, some persons are indeed "more equal" than others. But, I beg you, let us keep "unique" in its pristine form. When you're tempted to say that something is "very unique," try "very unusual" instead. Or simply, "rare."
    (March 2004)


  • Items in a Series
    The Wall Street Journal just launched a monthly magazine. Its editor in chief, Tina Gaudoin, addressed an appeal to "you, the reader." She buttered us up: "You are smart, well-read, discerning about what you consume, opinionated and generous." Right on! The sentence calls to mind one of the maxims of my first editor nearly 70 years ago. This was the editor/historian Douglas Southall Freeman. He gave us this instruction:

    "In any unenumerated series, place the longest element last."

    Under Dr. Freeman's rule, the appeal would have been to you prospects who are "smart, well-read, opinionated, generous, and discerning about what you consume." It's a little dog trick, easily mastered--and in this instance it would have gained some pizzazz by ending on an accented syllable. Try it. You might like it!
    (September 2008)


  • Expired Words
    Lar Hothem of Lancaster, Ohio, asks the court to rule on a question that has puzzled lexicographers for many years: When does a word wear out its original meaning? His example is a familiar one: to decimate. Once upon a time, 20 centuries ago, decimation was a punishment reserved for disobedient Roman legions: Every 10th member, by lot, was put to death. These days "decimation" conveys only a sense of massive destruction, e.g., "Ian decimated his breakfast." (Ian is the court's newest great-grandson.)

    The court knows of no rule of thumb on the obsolescence of language. Some words are like some machines: They wear out sooner than others. Everybody used to have an "icebox." Grandmother sat in the "tonneau." One's sister once played a "uke." A widow was a "relict." Definitions are like magazine subscriptions. Usually we renew, but look at Look and Ladies' Home Companion. Sometimes they just expire.
    (September 2006)


  • Antecedents
    Kenneth Gottlieb of Tucson, Ariz., wonders if the old rules of antecedal usage have gone to the bow-wows. He cites a letter from Martin Luther King III to Sen. John Edwards. "We need a leader with knowledge of injustice in the forefront of their minds." In another Horrid Example, he quotes election officials in Arizona. They remind mail-in voters that "if you cannot sign, have the person assisting you fill in their name."

    Careful writers will hold firmly to the old ways, i.e., "we need leaders with knowledge of injustice in the forefront of THEIR minds," or less diplomatically, "a leader with knowledge ... in HIS mind." Similarly, those voting instructions in Arizona could be usefully recast in a plural construction--persons who fill in their names.

    But I wobble in the company of that melancholy Dane. My native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er by a pale cast of doubt: Have we reached a point, grammatically speaking, when referent pronouns have lost their old character? Has a new wave come ashore?
    (November 2008)


  • And . . .
    Ellie Peterson of Stafford, Va., moves for a restraining order in the matter of beginning a sentence with "and." She offers in evidence a passage from her daughter's high school history book: "With an astrolabe, captains could use the stars to find their ships' location. And with a quadrant, they could use the sun or the stars to figure out their position on a map."

    A restraining order, not a permanent injunction, will nicely suffice. The cited passage would have been better off without the threshold "and." This time it was mere clutter, but now and then the construction works. The court condones its sparing use. And on that note stands in recess.
    (July 11, 1999)

Although Kilpatrick's books on writing have been out of print for a number of years, you may want to keep an eye out for second-hand copies of The Writer's Art (1984) and Fine Print: Reflections on the Writing Art (1993).

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