William Safire 'On Language' - my hero among logophiles

William Safire 'On Language' - my hero among logophiles
Source: Reusableart.com

When my fellow blogger Marianne Goss offered some editing books, as I mentioned in a previous post, one of them I brought home was “On Language” by William Safire (New York, TIMES BOOKS, 1980). I recognized quickly that this book, a collection of definitions (and letters from readers) culled from his New York Times language column, could be a source of a series of posts. I sat down with some sticky notes to mark my favorites.

Good news, sticky-note makers: I just counted 22 notes stuck to the book.

So here comes another series, probably intermittent, considering the present circumstances.

Thanks to the internet, one of the more famous excerpts from Safire’s column is “Fumblerules,” listed in this book as “fumblerules of grammar.”  They are the rules that include the mistakes they warn against, such as

“Avoid run-on sentences they are are hard to read.

“Don’t use no double negatives

“Don’t use contractions in formal writing”


“Last but not least, avoid cliches like the plague, seek viable alternatives.”
You may have seen those, but missed Safire’s “”Fumblerules Follow-up.” Here’s some of it:

“Never use a long word when a diminutive one will do.

“If a dependent clause precedes an independent clause put a comma after the dependent clause.

“One will not have needed the future perfect in one’s entire life.

“Unqualified superlatives are the worst of all.”

“De-accession euphemisms.”

“Avoid colloquial stuff.”


So come on along, fellow word mavens, as I share some of the funny lessons from the master.

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Filed under: Expressions, Writing

Tags: Safire On Language


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  • I can throw in another currently abused by newscasters: is dies ever a proper present tense verb, such as "funeral held after police officer dies of corona virus?" Especially, where here, the word "after" was used.

    One may either be in the process of dying or died.

  • In reply to jack:

    That sort of headline gets to me, Jack -- I certainly hope that the funeral was held AFTER the death. .I would shorten it to "Funeral held for police officer who died of virus."

  • Another poor usage frequently found in the news, this one being typical: "Boy, 16, shot in West Rogers Park

    He was shot in the foot"

    I suppose he was shot in both, but I bet his West Rogers Park is suffering pain.

  • In reply to jack:

    Yes, that is poor usage -- thanks for putting the reminder out there.

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