The Bears and the Bugs


James Bowman is a good writer, and he wrote a very good article about the recent British elections for the June issue of The New Criterion, which is a good magazine. In that article there are a number of memorable observations, such as the idea that politics is usually and traditionally a matter of “the orderly management of the hatred between social factions.” I’m not sure that’s strictly true, but it’s certainly relevant to the current state of American political affairs. It’s also well phrased. I like reading Bowman’s stuff.

So it’s a sad indication of the state of our language that even such a good writer as James Bowman should refer, in the same article, to “the problem that eventually sunk the [British] Labour campaign.” Sunk? The past tense of “sink” is “sank.” “Sunk” is the past participle. Bowman doesn’t know that?

But oh, what a small thing! Why pick on that?

I’ll tell you why. Look at it this way. You go to a picnic, and just when everyone is having fun, a troop of bears comes out of the woods and eats ten of the children. It may be the first time it ever happened, but it shows that you have a bear problem. Neglecting all caution, you turn up at the next picnic, and there are no bears. But the mosquitoes drive everybody crazy. That shows you have a mosquito problem. It’s not as bad as a bear problem, but it’s bad nonetheless.

If you have kids, ask them whether they’ve ever learned the verb forms in school. You’ll find that they haven’t — and neither have the professional writers.

This column is usually occupied with bear problems. This time, let’s think for a moment about mosquito problems, such as the difficulty that many professional writers of English have in getting nouns to agree with verbs. It generally doesn’t keep you from understanding what they mean, but it’s . . . annoying. And unnecessary. Thus, on August 19, CNN finally raised its eyebrows about Mrs. Clinton and reported, “There have been a constant stream of stories about Clinton's emails for the better part of five months.” I’m glad CNN isn’t ignoring those stories (provided by other news organizations), but can’t it make its subjects and verbs agree? “There have been a stream”? There have also been blunders.

Another mosquito problem is the one I started out with — the inability of English speakers to remember what strong verbs are like. A strong verb is any that does not create its past and perfect forms with an -ed ending. Originally, Indo-European verbs were strong. Then the –ed form became influential (“productive,” as the linguists say), partly to assimilate borrowings of verbs from foreign languages. It was easier to use, so it spread to other verbs. But strong verbs still sound, well, stronger, and they are very useful in poetic and generally emotive language. It sounds better to say, “She strove to succeed” than “She strived to succeed.” It would have sounded still better if Tammy Bruce, one of America’s most cogent spokesmen for liberty, hadn’t told Fox News (August 15), “Carly Fiorina has weaved that fact into her presentations . . .” Tammy! I love you! But haven’t you heard of that word woven?

The hitch is, you have to know what you’re doing. Imagine that! You actually have to know that a person not only strove to succeed, but having striven, he sang his heart out. These days, however, he will have strived, and it’s an even chance that he sung his heart out, while the hearts of his enemies sunk. It’s more than an even chance that he had fit himself for his role. Here is an opposite, though not an insuperable, problem. Fit is a normal weak verb; it’s fit-fitted-fitted. Strange but true. This doesn’t mean that last week somebody (in San Francisco, it would be hundreds of people) shit on the doorstep. Shit is still a strong verb; somebody shat on the doorstep last week — and isn’t that a more forceful way of describing it? People spat in the subway, too.

Experience has convinced me that at least seven of the Muses have left the university, and the other two have been beaten into nescience.

Why can’t people keep this in mind? Why can’t professional writers (distinguishing them, for the moment, from actual people) figure it out? Well, if you have kids, ask them whether they’ve ever learned the verb forms in school. You’ll find that they haven’t — and neither have the professional writers. If your kids are troublemakers, get them to ask the English teacher what the past tense of fit may be. Or shit. Then they can ask the teacher whether he has ever read the King James Bible. And if he hasn’t, they can ask him how he ever got to be an English teacher. Should be interesting.

Moving on from the inevitable after-school detention, oft visited on the overly articulate . . . You can tell that people aren’t reading anything, let alone the King James Bible, when their spelling reproduces what they hear, or think they hear, not what they’ve read. Witness the non-word alright. This has been with us for quite a while (which doesn’t make it good — remember the Dutch Elm Disease). It’s the product of people who have never seen all right in print, or if they have seen it, have never wondered whether those two mysterious words could possibly have the same meaning as the things you see on post-it notes: “Henderson party: parking in Alley alright tonite.” In this never-saw-that, never-noticed-that category you can also file all those people who write things like, “Invitees can signin for the conference now” and “To hookup/test software, turnoff browsers, then turnon.” I’m quoting the kind of communications I get in my academic email. Experience has convinced me that at least seven of the Muses have left the university, and the other two have been beaten into nescience.

Of course, reading is no longer a prerequisite for writing of any kind, even professional writing about professional writing. Consider an article in The Wrap (April 6) about the aftermath of (or “fallout” over) Rolling Stone’s smear story on a University of Virginia fraternity. The article cited an observation by Fox News personality Greta Van Susteren (whose own English is pretty good):

The Fox anchor invoked a former president’s infamous phrase to tie a bow on Rolling Stone’s missteps: “As Ronald Reagan said, ‘Trust but verify,’” she told TheWrap.

If you read books, and you notice what you read, you know that infamous does not mean famous — no, not at all. And if you enjoy reading books, you usually have some interest in noticing how authors get their effects. A person rattling along in conversation may say, “Our first idea went flat, but that’s all water over the dam,” and this may have some effect. But it won’t work in print, because people who read actually have to take a moment to look at what they’re reading. If they’re conscious (which admittedly, many “readers” are not), and they see the word missteps, they probably picture steps, going the wrong way. They won’t worry about the picture of a magazine making missteps; they’ll accept that as a little imagistic oomph. But when you ask them to picture somebody tying a bow on missteps, they won’t do it, because they can’t do it. It isn’t colorful; it’s stupid. The best audience, the audience most likely to appreciate an effective use of language, will move on from trying to picture the bow to the easier task of picturing the author, smiling with self-satisfaction after having, shall we say, tied that metaphoricbow on his misstep.

Anyone familiar with letters written by average Americans a hundred and fifty years ago knows that they tied a lot of those bows. They also wrote alright, very frequently, and worse things, much worse things, all the time. And anyone who has read a typical sermon or political address from the same period can see how many lofty phrases could be expended on practically nothing. The difference between that period and ours is that back then, nobody mistook average, unmeditated English for anything you’d want to use when you really got serious. People expected serious writing to be literate. Literacy was something they not only appreciated but enjoyed. Perhaps they even overenjoyed it.

In 1850, President Zachary Taylor was held in contempt by other politicians for his lapses from standard grammar. Compare President Obama, who is lauded by the political class as a great public speaker, despite his refusal to master the like-as distinction, his success at filling sentences with uhs and ums (sometimes 30 to the minute), and his constant attempt to reach the sublime by talking about folks and dropping his final g’s.

It’s hard to say whether this year’s presidential candidates are better or worse with language than he is: are rotten apples worse than rotten oranges? Some are more literate, but is there one of them, any one of them, whose speeches you want to hear, as opposed to reading the one- or two-sentence news summary? Trump, I suppose — but that’s because it’s fun to hear him abusing the other candidates. The format of his speeches, if you want to call it that, is exactly the same as the others’: he makes a series of 50-word declarations, apparently unconnected with one another, “highlighting” the positions — or, more accurately, the slogans — he wants you to remember. In this sense, there’s not much difference between Trump and those two yammering old coots, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton (who are just as abusive, but stupefyingly dull at it).

Compare President Obama, who is lauded by the political class as a great public speaker, despite his constant attempt to reach the sublime by talking about "folks" and dropping his final g’s.

Nor is this merely a problem of politics. When Clinton and her surrogates claim that Republicans are trying to block healthcare and are waging war on women’s health, when Sanders and his gang of Post Office retirees announce that, because the government takes no action, women are paid only 78% of what men are paid, there’s also a problem of language. If you saw that in a book, you’d be shouting at the page: “What do these words mean? Are Republican mobs blockading hospitals? Are all the statisticians lying? Are women paid $78,000 for the same jobs for which men are paid $100,000?” If the author didn’t explain his statements, you would dismiss the book as incomprehensible. You wouldn’t think, “Ah, that’s interesting — here’s the slogan these people are pushing today. Must be because of that poll about women going Republican.” You wouldn’t think, “Good move! Sanders is playing to the welfare crowd. He’s prying them away from Hillary.” You’d think, “This is a bad book,” and that would be the end of it.

This defines the difference between normal readers and members of the political class. One group is jealous of its intellectual health and safety; the other doesn’t mind going to a picnic and being bitten by mosquitoes or gnawed by bears. In fact, it prefers that kind of picnic.

On March 7, 1850, Daniel Webster gave a speech in the United States Senate. It was about an issue of great importance: the attempt to reach a compromise between Northern and Southern claims to power. But although people could have read a summary in the paper next day, and it was at least 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the Senate chamber, the place was packed. Ladies stood for three hours to hear Webster’s remarks — because that was the length of his speech: three hours and 11 minutes. Webster closely reviewed the long history of legal provisions and political negotiations regarding the status of slavery. He analyzed the geography of the western United States, assessing the possibility that slavery might become a paying proposition there. He reviewed his own history of opposition to slavery. He then considered what would happen — indeed, what did happen — in the event of a Southern secession.

Secession! Peaceable secession! Sir, your eyes and mine are never destined to see that miracle. The dismemberment of this vast country without convulsion! The breaking up of the fountains of the great deep without ruffing the surface! Who is so foolish, I beg every body's pardon, as to expect to see any such thing? Sir, he who sees these States, now revolving in harmony around a common centre, and expects to see them quit their places and fly off without convulsion, may look the next hour to see heavenly bodies rush from their spheres, and jostle against each other in the realms of space, without causing the wreck of the universe. There can be no such thing as peaceable secession. Peaceable secession is an utter impossibility. Is the great Constitution under which we live, covering this whole country, is it to be thawed and melted away by secession, as the snows on the mountain melt under the influence of a vernal sun, disappear almost unobserved, and run off? No, Sir! No, Sir! I will not state what might produce the disruption of the Union; but, Sir, I see as plainly as I see the sun in heaven what that disruption itself must produce; I see that it must produce war, and such a war as I will not describe . . .

Many people hated Webster’s speech. It earned him the scorn of powerful voters in his own state, agitators against compromise. Yet its words were continuously informative. They were continuously interesting. They were continuously entertaining. They were, by the end, exciting. They weren’t talking points. They weren’t spin. And they weren’t three hours and 11 minutes of subliterary, unorganized sounds.

The ability to give literary interest to political words wasn’t confined to the greatest orators. Even Warren Harding, who is, perhaps unfairly, regarded as a mere politician, a nothing among statesmen, had that ability. On May 14, 1920, Harding outlined his political program:

America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate; not experiment, but equipoise; not submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality. . . .

Out of the supreme tragedy [of the Great War] must come a new order and a higher order, and I gladly acclaim it. But war has not abolished work, has not established the processes of seizure or the rule of physical might. Nor has it provided a governmental panacea for human ills, or the magic touch that makes failure a success. Indeed, it has revealed no new reward for idleness, no substitute for the sweat of a man’s face in the contest for subsistence and acquirement.

For the past 95 years, Harding’s reference to “normalcy” has been panned by the intellectuals. A few dispute his use of that word instead of the normal “normality.” More, alas, sneer at his idea that war, revolution, and the ambitions of the progressive state should not be regarded as normal parts of the American condition. You can judge between Harding and his foes. My point is that Harding, known as one of the weakest of presidents, could deliver a speech that has approximately 100,000 times the word power of any contemporary political communication. He knew that big things come of small — that “dispassionate” is a valuable word, although you see it only in serious books, and that it presents an interesting contrast to “dramatic”; he knew that a sentence containing not one but eight sharp but serious conceptual distinctions can be a contribution to thought and argument, and certainly to literary interest.

You want a good meal? Here it is. Bacon, lettuce, tomato, avocado. Ketchup and mustard on the side. Fries, fruit, cottage cheese . . . right there at the end of the table. Rather have the roast beef? We’ve brought that too. This is survival food. No bugs, no bears.

So, how do I get to that picnic? Easy — all you have to do is read.

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Scott Robinson

Dear Stephen,

Very intriguing. It makes me wonder about saying that, "Their backyard stunk." Is this improper English, and should be "stank" instead of "stunk"? Or is stink an adjective, not a verb? When you mentioned the politician's talk I usually hear on TV whether it comes for anchors or the politicians, is, in my judgement, hollow. This is probably why I often say that they should simplify what they say because it's a pile of five or six comments (shit), and just one piece of the pile conveys the message clearly without irritatingly clogging my ears. I know, it is figuratively my ears and actually my mind. I think that the irritation is analogous to the pile taking up many bytes of my hard drive.
An example I'm aware of people writing a word in print as it sounds phonetically is, "you're". I often see that written as "your". If you think about it, the statement, "I hope your all right", is confusing. What is an all? I didn't know I had one. Of course people would often miswrite the last two words with alright. I do see that the spell correct is citing me on the "miswrite" word, but the person improperly writing their sentence is not misspeaking. Is miswrite an example of me creating a word for my own liking? Also, I was wondering, is the proper spelling for lead or read in this sentence, "I lead (past tense) the students to the conference hall.", actually "led", and for the other verb, "red"?

Best Wishes,


Professor Cox's pontifications about words often prompt me to consult a dictionary or two to see if lexicographers agree with his pronouncements. They often don't. Some examples:

Sink. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary ( reports two equal variants for the past tense of sink: sank or sunk. Webster's Third New International Dictionary also reports two equal variants for the past participle: sunk or sunken.

Weave. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary reports two equal variants for the past tense: wove or weaved, and the past participle: woven or weaved.

Strive. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary reports a secondary variant for the past tense: strove also strived, and an equal variant for the past participle: striven or strived.

Fit. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary reports two equal variants for the past tense: fitted or fit, and Webster's Third New International Dictionary reports the same two equal variants for the past participle.

Alright. The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary provides a usage discussion: "Although the spelling alright is nearly as old as all right, some critics have insisted alright is all wrong. Nevertheless it has its defenders and its users, who perhaps have been influenced by analogy with altogether and already. It is less frequent than all right but remains common especially in informal writing. It is quite common in fictional dialogue and is sometimes found in more formal writing."

Perhaps someone should publish a book called Stephen Cox's Idiosyncratic Dictionary of American English, so his students don't foolishly believe that other dictionaries are authoritative.

Stephen Cox

I'm glad that someone still has a dictionary. Nevertheless . . .

Every teacher feels a lump in the throat, but not a sentimental one, when he or she sees at the beginning of an essay on "democracy": "Webster's Dictionary defines democracy as" such and such. If you've read anything much about democracy, or thought much about it, you don't go to the dictionary for your ultimate definition. You think about the ways in which good writers use the word, how they qualify it, what variant interpretations they include or exclude. If you're curious about cats, how to treat them and how to appreciate them, you don't satisfy your curiosity by looking up "cat" in Webster's. There's a lot more to cats than the dictionary definition, negotiated by a committee.

The standard of usage in English, or any other language, is the way in which good writers use its vocabulary and syntax, not the few dictionary lines (written by college professors, by the way--great authorities that all of us are) conceding to popular usage or waffling around with expressions like "it has its defenders." Good writing is an art, not a set of deductions from a dictionary.

Scott Robinson

Good illustration of your point (interesting word choice that came to me). To convey a message, one should carefully consider what they are writing. This is similar to how one could draw a picture that conveys the general message, but fine art requires the careful consideration of many factors in the painting of the picture, conveying a deeper message. I guess this means that adding the adjective, fine, is a simple word which conveys a difficult undertaking.


Jacques Delacroix

Several things:

Thank you for making clear the difference between capturing spoken words on the fly and understanding signs on the one hand, and reading, on the other.

Before the end of her first week in first grade, my granddaughter came home saying things such as, "I should have did it." Never happened before, not once. May be it's an effect of otherwise desirable social class mixing in public schools. I want to believe the teacher is innocent.

I have looked at two books of collections of letters from the front written by ordinary French soldiers fighting in WWI. Their language was dazzling in its clarity. The author of one book assured me he had not selected letters on that basis. I wonder what happened since then. I don't know.

I am grateful for the reminder on shit and shat. I already knew that though because for two years, the overseer of detention in my French high school forced us to copy three forms of all English irregular verbs. Bless his soul! (You should read my book. Oops, you did.)


Dear Prof. Cox,

Thanks for taking the time to reply to my comment. Everyone with internet access still has a dictionary. There are lots of them, though many people don't bother to consult them.

A dictionary is not an encyclopedia or usage guide and does not purport to be one. It performs only a few limited functions. One of those functions is to provide an accurate report of the principal parts of verbs and their variants in common usage.

The tone of your article is encapsulated in its second paragraph, where you assert: "The past tense of 'sink' is 'sank'." That assertion is incorrect. "Sank" is not the past tense, but one of two equal variants. An English teacher doesn't know that? Your article provides not a hint that you do. You seem to believe that your choice of variant is the only acceptable one. It becomes a scholar to cite authorities other than himself to support an assertion.

If I were choosing between the variants I cited in my comment, I would choose the same ones you chose, but I would not claim that those who would choose the alternative are ignoramuses.

"Good writing," like "beauty," is in the eye of the beholder. (De gustibus, &c.) You seem to believe that you are the ultimate authority in such matters, but I know that's not true, because I am (and I ain't no scholar).

Best regards,

Jacques Delacroix

Geezer: I appreciate your stand for liberty of expression and of malexpression ( I just made this word up; it's necessary). I have a comment and a question. First, you seem to assert by implication that there are no rules when it comes to language. There have to be some rules for the same reason that there is a rule in every country to drive on a given (and arbitrary) side of the road. Absent such a rule on the road, we would have chaos and we would waste time unnecessarily going anywhere. Absent any rules in language, we would soon reach mutual unitelligiblity. We could call every thing either a "Humphr" or a "Raagh", and soon, only one of the two. Oops, been there, done that, maybe about 150,000 years ago!

The question is this: Suppose we conduct an experiment on a piece of writing you like. Suppose furthermore that we begin re-writing the piece by relaxing or eliminating one rule of English at a time. How much re-writing of this kind would it take for you beg to for mercy?


M. Delacroix: I seem to have done a poor job expressing myself, because you have misunderstood me.

Not only am I very much in favor of rules concerning the use of words, I am also in favor of codifying those rules into readily accessible rule books. The most elementary rule book for that purpose is called a dictionary.

When a dictionary reports variants in spelling, pronunciation, or inflection of a word, what rule do I apply to choose between or among them? Where might such a rule be found? Saying "the one I prefer" is not a rule, but an arbitrary choice.

The suggestion in my initial comment that someone should publish a book called Stephen Cox's Idiosyncratic Dictionary of American English was only half in jest, because some of the rules he follows seem to be known only to himself.

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