Orn’ry Usage

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , Voice , critique

Everyone who cares about language has a list of personal offenses. Among mine are irregardless for regardless, lay for lie, like for as, criteria for criterion, less for fewer, plus words or phrases that are superfluous because we already have adequate ways of saying the same thing. Expertness, for example, was always a perfectly good expression. Expertise adds nothing more but a suffix with pretentious roots. At this point in time is no improvement on now, but sounds more precise and scholarly; perhaps it originally entered the language as a way of distinguishing time from space.

Between you and I makes me cringe, suspecting that the speaker learned (or thought she learned) from a grade school English teacher that I is right and me wrong, and has ever since felt secure only by avoiding me whenever possible.

Rules are not really made to be broken; however, they are designed to be breakable. Many of us have our favorite violations. Steve Heller, the dean of design writers, refuses to stop using irregardless, even though he knows there is no such word, “because I like the irrrrrr sound.” As for me, I happily give poetry a pass. One of my favorite hymns is the so-called “white spiritual” “I Wonder as I Wander,” with lyrics that ask plaintively:

Why did the Lord Jesus come down for to die
For poor orn’ry sinners like you and like I?

That doesn’t make me cringe, but it would if corrected. The solecism, forced by rhyme, is beautiful there. Allegiance to grammar would ruin it. So I have to remind myself not only that rules can be broken, but that language, being alive, changes. But while we know that language changes, we don’t always know when it’s happening. An exception—a change occurring before our very ears—is the tendency to use a singular verb in a contraction, even when the noun is plural.

“There’s three preferred typefaces.” That’s not a genuine quote, because I don’t know that anyone has said it. But if someone had, it wouldn’t have bothered us much. On the other hand, people have said: “There’s three reporters on every story”; “There’s a great many things for Obama to consider”; “There’s several problems with nuclear energy”; “There’s two bills on the table”; “There’s a few ways of looking at this”; “There’s too many things going on right now.”

That doesn’t trouble us either, and I guarantee you’ll hear the locution today if you listen to the radio, watch TV, attend a meeting, or talk to a neighbor. The speakers you will hear it from are not illiterate. They would never say, “There is too many things going on.” But verbs in those ungrammatical examples are all contractions, making the breach of grammar acceptable. Why? Maybe because, when speaking, it is easy to forget how a sentence began. I think it more likely, though, that it represents the present tendency to relax formal standards in language, whether written or spoken.

Should any of this concern designers? At first it may not seem so. But, after all, graphic designers devised standards manuals to keep corporations from violating the structure created for them. Long before that, usage manuals for writers were created for somewhat comparable reasons. Because language changes, the manuals do too, becoming updated almost as soon as they are printed, raising the question of why they should be printed at all. (They may not be for much longer.)

The best-known and most popular contemporary usage manual is The Elements of Style, E. B. White’s revision of the textbook written by his college English professor William Strunk. The book’s popularity stems from White’s highly reasoned updating and his loving description of encounters with the book and author. I love reading it, and when asked by students to recommend a manual, I encourage them to buy Strunk and White’s book in the 2007 edition enhanced by Maira Kalman’s splendid, wayward art, because it is a book they will love and should own. But I suggest that they use whatever manual is used by the school they attend or the company they work for, which is likely to be either the manual of the University of Chicago or The New York Times, and to turn to the internet for anything more recent.

In a talk to SVA students recently, Michael Bierut pointed out that design has moved from an exclusive concern with the appearance of type on a page, to participation in content. Certainly the design community is richly loaded with designers whose writing matches the standard of their graphics—Bierut himself, Milton Glaser, Bill Drenttel, Paula Scher, Maira Kalman, Ellen Lupton, Abbot Miller, Lorraine Wild, Brad Holland, many others.

While standards are less rigid than they once were, even in an age of texting and tweeting they are still essential to designers of communication. Because words express content, certain principles of construction are necessary to frame their delivery. At the very least we need an armature to support ideas until they are stable enough to make sense on their own. Even if it must in the end be discarded. Like the goldsmith’s wax, rules may not just be broken, but lost.

Otherwise we’re condemned to a world of poor orn’ry sinners like you and like me.

About the Author:

Ralph Caplan is the author of Cracking the Whip: Essays on Design and Its Side Effects and By Design. Caplan is the former editor of I.D. magazine, and has been a columnist for both I.D. and Print. He lectures widely, teaches in the graduate Design Criticism program at the School of Visual Arts, was awarded the 2010 “Design Mind” National Design Award by the Cooper-Hewitt and is the recipient of the 2011 AIGA Medal.