DFW Excerpt: “These are tense linguistic times”

My Freshman Composition course just wrapped up a lively discussion of DFW’s “Authority and American Usage” (originally published in Harper’s as “Tense Present”), and though I think I probably wanna do some different stuff w/ it next time . . . here’s a lovely excerpt:

The insecurities that drive [Politically Correct English], [Academic English], and vocab-tape ads are far from groundless, though. These are tense linguistic times. Blame it on Heisenbergian uncertainty or postmodern relativism or Image Over Substance or the ubiquity of advertising or PR or the rise of Identity Politics or whatever you will–we live in an era of terrible preoccupation with presentation and interpretation, one in which the relations between who someone is and what he believes and how he “expresses himself” [DFW’s fn.: (Notice the idiom’s syntax–it’s never “expresses his beliefs” or “expresses his ideas.”)] have been thrown into big-time flux. In rhetorical terms, certain long-held distinctions between the Ethical Appeal, Logical Appeal ( = an argument’s plausibility or soundness, from logos), and Pathetic Appeal ( = an argument’s emotional impact, from pathos) have now pretty much collapsed–or rather the different sorts of Appeals now affect and are affected by one another in ways that make it nearly impossible to advance an argument on “reason” alone. (David Foster Wallace, “Authority and American Usage,” in Consider the Lobster and Other Essays [New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2006], 116, my emphases.)

DFW Usage

I will be teaching all of Strunk & White followed by DFW’s “Authority and American Usage” to a freshman Composition course in a few weeks, and will probably be becoming a bit of a usage weenie during that time, so this little find from MetaFilter, that provides a .pdf of DFW’s “Word Notes” (among others) from the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus was a particularly good find today. (I guess this is especially popping up on Mac OS X’s native Dictionary app.)

all of: Other than as an ironic idiom for “no more than” (e.g., Sex with Edgar lasts all of twenty seconds), does all of have any legit uses? The answer is a qualified, complicated, and personally embarrassed yes. Here’s the story. An irksome habit of many student writers is to just automatically stick an of between all and any noun that follows— All of the firemen posed for the calendar; She gave the disease to all of her friends—and I have spent nearly a decade telling undergrads to abjure this habit, for two reasons. The first is that an excess of of’s is one of the surest signs of flabby or maladroit writing, and the second is that the usage is often wrong. Over and over, in conference and class, I have promulgated the following rule: Except for the ironic-idiom case, the only time it’s correct to use all of is when the adjective phrase is followed by a pronoun— All of them got pink-eye; I wanted Edgar to have all of me—unless, however, the relevant pronoun is possessive, in which case you must again omit the of, as in All my relatives despise Edgar. Only a few weeks ago, however, I learned (from a bright student who had gotten annoyed enough at my constant hectoring to start poring over usage guides in the hope of finding something I’d been wrong about that she could raise her hand at just the right moment in class and embarrass me with… which she did, and I was, and deserved it—there’s nothing worse than a pedant who’s wrong) that there’s actually one more complication to the first part of the rule. With all plus a noun, it turns out that a medial of is required if the noun is possessive, as in All of Edgar’s problems stem from his childhood or All of Dave’s bombast came back to haunt him that day. I doubt now I’ll ever forget this. DFW