Frank L. Cioffi

 

On his book One Day in the Life of the English Language: A Microcosmic Usage Handbook

Cover Interview of December 06, 2016

A close-up

Picking up a book in a bookstore, a lot of readers look at a book’s opening and closing pages. From these they can get a sense of the basic idea and where it ends up.

If I had to pick a place I’d like reader to open to, it would be pages 286-87, “A Microconclusion.” This starts with a quotation from Agnes Denes’s prose poem, “Human Dust”:

He was an artist. He died of a heart attack. He was born fifty years ago ... . He was unhappy and lonely more often than not, achieved 1/10,000 of his dreams, managed to get his opinions across 184 times and was misunderstood 3,800 times when it mattered.

This seems to me unutterably sad—but at the same time, rather typical. Most people are not routinely understood, “when it mattered.” In some ways, this is the tragedy of the contemporary world, or a big part of it.

What I want people to “get” from this book is that using language correctly will help them to be understood, especially when it matters. On page 287, I discuss the situation of an immigrant who killed thirteen people in Binghamton, NY. Apparently he “felt degraded because of his inability to speak English.” Admittedly, it would have made more sense to have attended ESL classes at the local university than murdering thirteen unfortunate souls, but there is some lesson here, I think, for the non-psychotic reader: try to get your language exact. Try to reach people. Using words in a certain manner will help smooth out the rough patches of life, will help make you feel good about yourself and your situation.

Just yesterday I was having a lunch with a friend, and I was complaining about my situation at the college. I said, “You know, I’ve been moved out of the English department, to another floor, and not very many faculty seek me out there.” He said he had had a similar experience at his job. Then he added, “But of course you are no longer the Director of Writing. You used to be a real big shot in the department; now you are just a professor, one among many.” What a wonderful distillation of the problem! Just finding the right words to express it, he made me feel a great deal better. He understood my situation, and he offered words that captured that situation and quelled my anxiety.

As Hillary Clinton said in her first debate, “Words matter.” I quite agree.