Monday, February 21, 2005

The Last Grammarian

In this week's New Yorker, David Remnick pays tribute to the late Eleanor Gould, who passed away last week, at the age of eighty-seven. For more than a half century, fifty-four years to be exact (it is only appropriate to be exacting in both language and grammar while writing about Ms. Gould), she was a copy editor at the magazine, and then it's first, last, and only grammarian.

In a time of crisis for journalism, a time during which, more than half of the profession said in a recent poll that they believed that ethics was falling by the wayside and standards for news reporting had become more lax, we should better appreciate those who aspired that every story have truth to it and a prose that shined.

I believe that in addition to giving order to so many writers' prose over a half century, Ms. Gould's greatest genius lay in her covertly using grammar to add cadence and pacing to writers who were never aware of the favor done them.

It is near impossible task to pay tribute to such a person-- a sign of hubris for anyone even to give it a shot-- but Remnick actually does accomplish the impossible, writing, in part:

"She shaped the language of the magazine, always striving for a kind of Euclidean clarity-- transparent, precise, muscular. It was an ideal that seemed to have not only syntactical but moral dimensions...

"Miss Gould occupied various offices over the years, including one that Thurber had redecorated by drawing on the walls. Her bookshelf held a row of favorite authorities, including a Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Fowler's Modern English Usage, and Theodore Bernstein's `Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins'...

"In her presence, modifiers dared not dangle. She could find a solecism in a Stop sign."

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