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One Writer's Ravings:
A Logophile's Blog
for Language Lovers

Mark Twain: Prescriptivist Writer

Mark Twain was born in 1835, a year in which Halley's comet appeared after its customary 75-year absence. Shortly before his death in 1910, Twain said that because he came in with the comet he might as well go out with it. And that's just what he did, departing this earth at age 75, the day after the comet made its closest approach to the earth. Any Twain aficionado has to wonder whether the great writer's soul ascended to that wandering celestial body or to the Christian heaven that he mocked so irreverently and hilariously in Letters from the Earth: "From youth to middle age all men and all women prize copulation above all other pleasures combined, yet . . . it is not in their heaven; prayer takes its place."

We tend to think of Twain as a skilled renderer of dialectal and vernacular speech, and indeed he was. But when he wrote in his natural voice his grammar was unimpeachable and his diction was cultivated, never stilted. That's because he knew, instinctively, that good writing requires both a keen awareness of how language is properly and improperly used, and a close, even obsessive attention to the appropriateness of one's choice of words.

As this centennial of Mark Twain's death comes to a close, I'd like to share with you a few quotations from Twain's writing that show his deep respect for propriety in language and his exasperation with the erroneous usage of the educated.

"A powerful agent is the right word: it lights the reader's way and makes it plain. . . . Whenever we come upon one of these intensely right words in a book or a newspaper, the resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and electrically prompt. It tingles exquisitely around through the walls of the mouth and tastes as tart and crisp and good as the autumn butter that creams the sumac berry."

From A Tramp Abroad: "Harris said that if the best writer in the world once got the slovenly habit of doubling up his 'have's' he could never get rid of it while he lived. That is to say, if a man gets the habit of saying 'I should have liked to have known more about it' instead of saying simply and sensibly, 'I should have liked to know more about it,' that man's disease is incurable." In The Accidents of Style, I included an example of this "slovenly habit" from the celebrated writer Gore Vidal, as quoted in The New York Times: "I would have liked to have been president, but I never had the money." Make that I would have liked to be president or I wish I had been (or could have been) president.

From Twain's speeches: "I do not say 'an' historical side, because I am speaking the American language. I do not see why our cousins [the English] should continue to say 'an' hospital, 'an' historical fact, 'an' horse. . . . It comes of habit, which accounts for many things."

From Life on the Mississippi: "The country gentleman who told me these things had been reared in ease and comfort . . . and was college bred. His loose grammar was the fruit of careless habit, not ignorance. This habit among educated men in the West is not universal, but it is prevalent . . . and to a degree which one cannot help noticing and marvelling at. I heard a Westerner who would be accounted a highly educated man in any country, say 'never mind, it don't make no difference, anyway.' A life-long resident who was present heard it, but it made no impression upon her. She was able to recall the fact afterward, when reminded of it; but she confessed that the words had not grated upon her ear at the time—a confession which suggests that if educated people can hear such blasphemous grammar, from such a source, and be unconscious of the deed, the crime must be tolerably common—so common that the general ear has become dulled by familiarity with it, and is no longer alert, no longer sensitive to such affronts.

"No one in the world speaks blemishless grammar; no one has ever written it. . . . Therefore it would not be fair to exact grammatical perfection from the peoples of the Valley; but they and all other peoples may justly be required to refrain from knowingly and purposely debauching their grammar."
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