Safire On Language

Years and years ago, when my friend Mary moved to New York City, she couldn’t use e-mail, Twitter or Facebook to stay connected with her friends back in Minnesota—they had yet to be invented. So she sent letters.

I was one of the lucky recipients of her regular missives, packed with hilarious reports of her life in Manhattan, commentary of issues of the day and clippings from The New Yorker and The New York Times. I still have her letters and all of the enclosed cartoons, columns and interesting articles.

Among my favorite Mary enclosures were the “On Language” columns by William Safire from the NY Times Magazine. I had only known of Safire as a speechwriter for Richard Nixon, so his works were not ones I would have sought out. But Mary’s introduction to his columns forced me to put aside politics and admit that he was a talented, clever and extremely funny writer. (I would discover later that he had won a Pulitzer…no surprise in that prize.)

Safire’s “On Langauge” columns explored words and their meaning, both in print and spoken. He was forever pointing out the intricacies, foibles and howling errors that are part and parcel of the English language. And he did it with a style that was both engaging and illuminating.

While digging through some old boxes (in search of something else that was never found), I happened upon those Mary-clipped columns. One in particular caught my eye, as I recently began coaching a group of up-and-coming business leaders on the art of communicating in print.

It was called “Fumblerules”, Safire’s collection of witty guidelines for writing. Some were his, some he credited to others (perhaps his vast pool of correspondents, whom he called the “Lexicographic Irregulars”).

Here are a few of my favorites:

  • A preposition is something never to end a sentence with.
  • Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.
  • If you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing.
  • And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
  • Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixed metaphors.
  • If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, resist hyperbole.

Thanks, Mr. Safire. You are missed. And thanks Mary, for reminding me of the power of letters and friendship.

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