William Zinsser has been on the American Heritage® Dictionary Usage Panel since its inception in the mid-1960s, and now, at age 90, he wears the mantle of oldest usage panelist. Zinsser started out working as a journalist at the New York Herald Tribune in 1946. Later he taught at Yale University and wrote many freelance articles and books, among them the bestseller On Writing Well, a guide to nonfiction writing. He lives in New York City, where he is still teaching and writing.
As part of a project to give selected panelists the opportunity to tell us more about their ideas and practices concerning language, we sent Zinsser a special questionnaire, which he returned with a letter offering to talk with us further about his views. Recently, I had the pleasure of chatting with him on the phone.
Zinsser has strong opinions about language, but he hasn’t been throwing punches in the usage battles over hopefully or less versus fewer. On the questionnaire, he wrote, “Many words like hopefully, which are grammatically ‘wrong,’ are such a sensible solution to the problem that, although I don’t use them myself, I no longer flinch when I hear them.” Zinsser’s chief targets are not solecisms but rather pomposity and euphemism. Be direct, say what you mean, and don’t try to dress up or hide your meaning with fancy or vacuous words.
One phrase that particularly annoys him is “going forward.” He first heard the phrase from a businessman, he told me, but then he started to hear it everywhere—even from his own son. I asked why he disliked it. “First of all, I don’t like it because it’s jargony,” he said. “Second of all, you don’t need it. We’re always going forward. Babies are going forward.” He explained further in the questionnaire: “ ‘Going forward’ is now automatically used by corporate types and other people doing any kind of organizational planning. They speak the phrase with gravity, feeling proud of its push into the future… . This is typical corporate pomposity, just as everyone says ‘currently’ instead of ‘now.’ ”
“And another thing,” he continued on the phone. “I hate the word share.” Share? What could be wrong with such a harmless word? Zinsser doesn’t hate the concept of sharing, though, or the word itself—what he hates is the way people use it to camouflage something ugly. “ ‘Share’ has come to mean ‘dump on.’ It has a conniving feel that this is secret information. I think it is an injurious word. I first heard it when I taught at Yale. Student counselors would come to me with a gleeful, furtive look: ‘May I share with you what Joe Smith did last night?’ they would say, and then they would tell me about how Joe Smith got drunk. I really dreaded it. They would take a certain pleasure in it. There was a certain meretriciousness. It’s always rung a bad bell with me.”
The first part of our conversation finished with a discussion of one more euphemism. “No one ever dies anymore!” exclaimed Zinsser. “They pass away.” “Pass away,” he noted, is “the language of genteel euphemism.” That’s not a style that Zinsser uses himself or approves of others using. “I hope that when I die,” he added, ”people won’t say ‘he passed away.’ ”
Zinsser is not opposed to language change if a new usage is precise and fills a need. On the questionnaire, he wrote that he believes his role as a Usage Panelist is “to maintain a high level of precision in the written language, bearing in mind that language is a changing fabric and that today’s ‘correct’ English will change over the decades.” We’re thankful that Zinsser has been with us for so many decades, casting his votes for clarity and against obfuscation.
Check back next month for Part 2: On Making the Transition from Print to Digital Publishing.
—Louise E. Robbins, Editor
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