William Safire's former copy editor Jaimie Epstein, now a "freelance writer," took over his On Language column for this week's New York Times magazine and she is a big heap of "I rolled around in Daphne Merkin's hairshirt" nuts! It's like a mirage imagined by Lawrence Summers—lady takes over an oh-so-manly column and writes about her relationships and her feeeelings! See? I bet she can't do math either because she is all concerned with the affairs of the heart. She'll never win all of us a Nobel Prize. Unless there was a Nobel for emoting and journaling about dating in the modern age.

Jaimie's complaint is that she's sensitive to language and that makes it hard to date, which takes us back to J. Courtney Sullivan who couldn't find a man because she was a feminist and she just had to relax and then she got a man. Standards are not for these modern times!

But Jaimie gets torn apart by at least one language blogger. Wishydig says:

Epstein laments that there is no "12-step program for usage addicts." So she's addicted to usage? Well who isn't. I find I can't get through a single conversation without using a usage. My speech is full of usages.

Yes yes I know what she means. She's addicted to complaining about usage. She herself admits that her language isn't "perfect." I agree with her that a lot of writing such as the copy on a résumé deserves extra attention. But she lumps in spelling errors with the difference between who and whom and the importance of using media as a plural noun. These are all very different issues whose uses depend on varying norms and registers.

Spelling and prescriptivism are bodies of information that must be taught. Nobody asks about what are you talking? because of a language-sensitivity gene or because of an ear that is fine tuned to correct usage (Epstein refers to herself as "someone whose ear is as tuned to the pitch of language as a cellist's is to music"). That construction comes from attention to the schoolmarm. It comes from attention to some claims about language. Investigating the music metaphor I'd say it's more like a cellist who insists on playing everything in one key.


Also Jaimie has a sub-point to her sub-points: She was excited to find a man who liked Ian McEwan because that meant that he read something other than Gawker (but she was all put out because this fellow misspelled the name). Well here, sister:

Mentions of Ian McEwan on Gawker: Five.
Mentions of Ewan McGregor on Gawker: Two.

See? We're pretty and smart too, ya slag! I call false analogy or whatever!

Finally, we have no idea how this column made it past the Times copy desk. ("It's not like, whoops, I mean as if (see!), I'm perfect, as if I have, after all these years, mastered the subtlety of who/whom, as if I never use 'media' in the singular or accidentally type 'their' when I mean 'there,' as if I ever get the comma or not before 'too' 100 percent right.") Wow, that makes me seem like Raymond Carver. But we assume that since she's a former One Of Them that her trip past the copy desk was an madly placid sail. You work what you got.

Sentence Sensibility [NYT]