The Stylish Stylist

In 1926, Henry Watson Fowler published A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, a book that has remained in print ever since. (The first edition and the second edition use Fowler’s sentences; the third edition, which was published in 1996, is a substantial rewriting of the classic and uses the Fowler name as a form of brand.) Fowler’s book is not a dictionary of definitions, like Johnson’s or Webster’s, it is a usage dictionary, an instructional manual for better using this beautiful tool we have devised called the English language.

Its entries give instructions on pronunciation, offer the pros and cons of employing a variety of idiomatic expressions, and argue again and again for simplicity in expression. Many style guides have followed—the MLA, the AP, the Chicago Manual—and each one is more useful in answering day-to-day questions about one’s writing than Fowler’s guide is, but none is as entertaining as his. His fight was a fight against cliché, obfuscation, and empty rhetoric. He fought for style, for clarity.

He fought against pointless rules. One might think from the description of his work that he is the reason for the commonplace rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. The opposite is true. In a two-page essay on the topic (two pages!), titled, “Preposition at end,” he writes:
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An Ideal Reader

(First, a note on the photo: I have attempted to set up photo shoots with Ángel, el gato de amor, my girlfriend’s cat, that feature her with my glasses and a book. Because hilarious. Ángel has made it clear—by pushing the glasses off the bed slowly, very slowly, super slowly, threateningly slowly—that if I could get away with this, the price would be very steep. I would be getting away with my life and it would be a cheap life from that day on. Thus the photo of the unknown cat above. Because hilarious.)

This first appeared in “Message in a Bottle.”

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Everyone who writes has an imaginary friend.

There is an ideal reader in my imagination, a figure who finds even my shopping lists and notes in the margins of books interesting. I have not yet actually met anyone who fits this description, but I keep writing, just in case.
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Message in a Bottle

Everyone who writes has an imaginary friend.

There is an ideal reader in my imagination, a figure who finds even my shopping lists and notes in the margins of books interesting. I have not yet actually met anyone who fits this description, but I keep writing, just in case.

Rarely have I written something while in the presence of the person I was writing to. The only exceptions to this would be times I have sent a note or a text to the person sitting next to me, but these were done for one of two reasons: 1. We needed to be silent, or 2. I wanted to elicit an ironic smirk when we needed to be silent.

So everyone who writes has a figure, real or imagined, who is supposed to be the reader of the message. For me, this person has changed over time, and even changes from piece to piece.

In the 1990s, when I wrote for a weekly newspaper, I rarely learned which articles or columns were actually read.

I covered school sports, which has a couple of rules: Cram in the names of every participant on the field and even every benchsitter, without mentioning the bench. (Unless the bench was locally made and recently delivered, in which case it was a good idea to include the names of the lumberyard and the furniture maker along with a quote about its bench-y comfort from someone sitting on it.) When both schools are local, simultaneously downplay and up-play the final score. Describe good performances from both sides. Cram in a few more names: the coaches, the refs, some of those in attendance.

A compliment from a reader of one of those articles was a thank you from a parent purchasing an extra copy to send to the grandparents–if I ran into them at the grocery store while they were purchasing that extra copy.

I also had a humor column (guess its name) and I once wrote something controversial in it. Now, this was done out of an idiotic frustration that I felt from my perceived lack of feedback. “How do I know what people think?” I said to no one out loud, and so I put on my explorer costume and ventured forth without leaving my desk to find out. If I had said it out loud, my editor probably would have dissuaded me.

My column was on page 4, and on page 3 was a column written by an elderly man who had spent a lifetime in newspapers, local newspapers; his entire four-decade-long career had been spent in the same county we were covering. It is possible that he had written something about every single building in the county and more than a few open fields. Not one piece of mail had come into the newspaper office about my column, even when I had requested feedback from readers, but there was a letter every single week about the old man’s column. “He should retire already” or “May he never quit” were the only two themes, but one of these arrived every week!

(He passed away about 15 years ago and the newspaper, which I had by then left, continued to run his columns as a weekly “Best of …” tribute; I am certain the paper still received the “He should retire” and “May he never quit” letters every week.)

But I was the target of no such letters and I envied the old man his passionate readership. The one time that I wrote something controversial, controversy followed: Our music columnist used his weekly space to rebut my column and publicly declare that not only had he not ever read me but he was going to continue to not read me, which seemed a neat trick. He did not send a letter to the editor; instead he wasted his own column inches to disagree with me. I told him, in person, in my job as assistant editor, that we still needed his music review that week and we would run the complaint in the letters section, which needed a letter as we had received not even one that week. He insisted on using his space to not review music in that issue, though.

Times are different now, says everyone who has lived long enough to learn to talk, and this blog, which is almost a year old now, has readers who are also writers and who like to give feedback. “The Gad About Town” has a small readership, so far, but a feedback-y sort of readership, for which I am grateful. I do not need to generate controversy just to do so. I also do not need to cram in the names of a lumberyard and furniture store.

Everything we write is a message in a bottle, and I no longer attempt to steer the currents to shore for my messages.

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The WordPress Daily Prompt for October 22 asks, “Many of us had imaginary friends as young children. If your imaginary friend grew up alongside you, what would his/her/its life be like today? (Didn’t have one? write about a non-imaginary friend you haven’t seen since childhood.)”

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