News & Politics

Times Puts Safire on Hiatus—Gives "On Language" to Philistine

When readers turned to page 24 in the October 4 New York Times Magazine, many read this line in the author’s note under the “On Language” column: “William Safire is on hiatus.”

Safire might have found fault with the choice of “hiatus.” Safire, author of “On Language” since 1979, died on September 27. The Times corrected its mistake in later editions.

If we define hiatus as a pause, Safire might be spending his time between events spinning in his grave. Ammon Shea, who penned the first “On Language” column since Safire’s passing, essentially spit on his grave.

Safire would have skewered me for resorting to cliches, but he would have taken umbrage at Shea’s equivocation on matters of linguistic precision. Safire was all about rules and proper usage of the English language; Shea wants to make us feel better about misusing the mother tongue.

“We can be annoyed by those people who insist on correcting our use of the English language,” Shea writes. Safire, by the way, was one of those. “My aim here, however, is not to illustrate how to be annoyed by those who insist on correcting your language (that will come naturally) but rather to provide a guide for how to make them go away.”

Safire brought me and millions of readers into his bemused investigations of how words came to be used—and misused. Safire hewed to strict grammar and admonished those who muddled the language. Safire liked rules. He called ’em right or wrong.

Judging from his first column, Shea favors free-form use of the language. His rule is simple: If someone, preferably a famous writer, has misused a word, feel free to repeat the mistake. If one of those “who have pet peeves about language” wags a finger, just say that Shakespeare used it that way.

Here’s a thought not unique to Shea.

“We have all heard admonitions at some point or other that the word unique cannot be modified–a thing is either unique or it’s not,” Shea writes. “This would be considerably more convincing if it were not so obviously untrue, as people modify unique quite frequently, and have done so for a long time.”

Thus, Shea might call the misuse of unique less unique.

Safire wanted readers to love language; in the service of self-awareness, Shea wants readers to love themselves, even if they mangle the language.

Perhaps he also eats shoots and leaves.

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