Archive for the ‘commas’ Category


June 6, 2011

I am a snoot. I didn’t mean to be a snoot when I started out and I’m not sure how it happened or even when. But I am one, one of “The Few, the Proud, the More or Less Constantly Appalled at Everyone Else.


David Foster Wallace

No need to wander off in search of a dictionary, it’s a new usage and comes from the writer David Foster Wallace who, in the fifth footnote to an article he wrote about grammar, described SNOOTS: “A SNOOT can be defined as somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn’t mind letting you know it.”

And to prove I am a snoot I will now let you know that dysphemism means using an intentionally harsh word instead of a polite one. Think of it as the opposite of a euphemism. A common euphemism for dying is “passed away.” Dysphemisms for dying include, “assumed room temperature”,“kicked the bucket” or ”took a dirt nap”. A truly serious dysphemism, rising to the level of an actual insult would be calling a snoot a pedant.

In short, a snoot is somebody who cares about the English language, uses it correctly, and knows what a sublime tool it is.

Snoots know, according to Wallace, when and how to hyphenate phrasal adjectives and to keep participles from dangling, and we know that we know, and we know how very few other Americans know this stuff or even care, and we judge them accordingly.” And we who revere the language are more than “appalled”, we are apoplectic when we hear a putative political leader say about Paul Revere,

“He who warned the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms by ringing those bells, and makin’ sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be sure and we were going to be free, and we were going to be armed.”


One of the Homes of the English Language (Oxford, 1890)

Nor are we pleased when we read in the United States Constitution – the Constitution! – :

No State shall, without the Consent of the Congress, lay any Imposts or Duties on Imports or Exports, except what may be absolutely necessary for executing it’s inspection Laws. [emphasis added]

And speaking of the Constitution, that reminds me that I find myself in the company of Justice Scalia, also a self-described snoot. He has a good working definition too:

But there are people who care a lot about words, about precise use of words, and there are people who don’t. And snoots are those who are nitpickers for the mot juste, for using a word precisely the way it should be used.

I’m troubled by being in the company of Justice Scalia just like I’m troubled when I come upon a federal judge fly-fishing or engaging in some other harmless activity: It’s jarring. But, there you have it. And while I am compelled, by virtue of his exalted station in American life, to care about what Justice Scalia thinks, it is a good bet he cares not a farthing for anything I think. But facts are facts and we’re both snoots. And how can anybody disagree with this Scalian sentiment, “To write well is to communicate well. To write poorly is to communicate poorly.”

Stradivarius in Berlin -Photo courtesy of Hay Kranen

Because he coined the term, I leave the last word to Wallace who opined that hearing adults misuse the language is akin to watching someone pound nails with a Stradivarius.



Chicken Latin

April 25, 2008

In order to show off their great learning in the law, some lawyers and judges sometimes resort to hoary Latin maxims. Reminding himself -and us- of his own great learning in the Law, Justice Scalia got a laugh this week in the last of this year’s oral arguments at the Court by using his Latin.

Latin Maxim

An employer can’t fire or otherwise mistreat an old person simply because that person is old. That would be age discrimination which is outlawed by a federal statute. The employer has to have a better reason than that. The federal statute lists three possible excuses that the employer can raise to defend itself. All three are in the same sentence separated only by commas. Two of the three are what the law calls “affirmative defenses” which means that the employer bears the burden of proving them to be true. The second excuse, sandwiched by commas between the other two, may or may not be such an “affirmative defense.” That is the issue the Court will decide and about which it heard argument this week. Justice Kennedy wanted some legal authority for the proposition that the second excuse is an affirmative defense instead of something else.

Justice Scalia jumped in at that point:

JUSTICE SCALIA: I suppose you could appeal to the maxim noscitur ex sociis, couldn’t you?


JUSTICE SCALIA: — and say if it’s in with two other chickens, it’s probably a chicken?

MR. JOSEFFER: Exactly. I mean, words are generally known by the company they keep.

Noscitur ex sociis means, “It is known from its associates.”