Safire’s Rules for Writers

From Robert D. McFadden’s obituary on William Safire, the Nixon-Agnew speechwriter, conservative columnist, and usage maven:

“… And there were Safire ‘rules for writers’: Remember to never split an infinitive. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors. Proofread carefully to see if you words out. Avoid cliches like the plague. And don’t overuse exclamation marks!!”

Did I like the guy’s politics? No–not that it matters. But you have to love a guy so precisely but unfussily focused on the language and how we use it.

[Update: In his “On Language” column for October 7, 1979, Safire included a query to his readers:

“I am compiling “Ten Perverse Rules of English Grammar.” Thanks to Philip Henderson of Lawrence, Kan., I have three. They are: (1) Remember to never split an infinitive. (2) A preposition is something never to end a sentence with. (3) The passive voice should never be used.

“Any others along these lines?”

Four weeks later, Safire published, “The Fumblerules of Grammar,” which contained the first three dicta and 33 more (ending with “last but not least, avoid clichés like the plague; seek viable alternatives.”) Here’s the complete set of 36 rules (along with some research disclosing that another writer published a similar list earlier in 1979). In 1990, Safire reprinted the list (and added 18 more “rules”) in “Fumblerules: A Lighthearted Guide to Grammar and Good Usage.”]

Circle of Friends

A former colleague of mine who went into freelance writing a few years ago has scored a significant career success: he has a new semi-weekly column in the Sunday New York Times business section. The general topic is technology and innovation. I admit to a twinge of envy: what a great gig. That’s small of me. My former colleague (MFC) has worked very hard to move from doing niche technology stuff and writing about things he didn’t have a lot of interest in to establish himself and then move beyond it to where he is now. Maybe I should just say “way to go” and shut up.

But that is not my way. Here’s something that MFC does in connection with his column that sort of annoys me: He spams me and I don’t know how many more of his acquaintances with an alert to each new column. The messages are more than, “Hey, everyone, check out my new article.” They’re written with a bit of a hook; this week’s, for instance, has the subject line, “My new NYT column is about … You.” Yeah, I’m vain enough that I looked just in case he had found some aspect of my life or career scary enough to serve as a cautionary tale for his readers. But no: That was just a come-on, and it ended with a nudge to spread the word about his column to others.

If this is a sin, it’s venial, not mortal. What bugs me, though, is that one, I didn’t choose to join this email list; two, getting off of the list requires me to do something that feels rude: “Hey, there, great to hear about your column, but please don’t send me any more email about it” (is writing a post about it less rude?); and three, MFC acts as though his circle of acquaintances is just another group of marketing targets.

Yes, sure: When I recently had my little Las Vegas article published, I broadcast that fact in a blog post and offered a link to the piece. I think the difference is that visiting this site and partaking of its sublime smorgasbord of observation and wit is a voluntary act; I’m not pushing anything out to anyone, and the only people subjected to my profundities are those who come looking for them.

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