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


More than half the people I meet outside of my profession, when learning that I teach college English, confess, “I’ve always been bad at English.” For many people, English grammar is (or was) a nightmare. They might have had a junior high school teacher who was a real martinet and made them feel very stupid and inadequate for not being able, say, to diagram a sentence or identify a subject or a verb. It seems to me that in fact there is a widespread, an endemic, fear of English grammar.

I’d like to start helping to remedy this fear. I would like my book to help disabuse people of the ideas that English is impossible, that grammar is pointless and arcane, and that since only teachers or writers can speak or write correctly, it’s hopeless to even try. In short, in One Day in the Life of the English Language, I am attempting to make grammar accessible and even somewhat fun.

I know that’s a stretch, the “fun” part. But if people listened carefully to language, they would see that it has a lot of potential for fun. In my book I invoke what I call the “absurd universe” phenomenon: this occurs when people misuse English in such a way that they inadvertently invoke something ridiculous, as in “With a husband and five children, her washing machine was running all the time.” Does the washing machine have a husband and five children? Or today on the radio, I heard a researcher introduced as a person “studying the roots of AIDs and Patient O at Kansas State University.” Well, is the researcher only looking at the situation at Kansas State U? No. But ever so briefly, the expression invoked an absurd situation, and while most listeners understood that the researcher was at KSU, and he was studying the worldwide phenomenon of AIDs and Patient O, there was a short interval when another interpretation, a slightly absurd one, edged in.  In this interval, I argue, something is lost. I would like people to be more conscious of their language use, more aware that others can easily misinterpret one’s words, or can be momentarily bewildered, which fact impairs communicative efficiency.

In addition, I would like readers to strive toward complexity in their language use. I know that complex sentences have more potential for containing errors of various kinds, but that shouldn’t drive people into simplistic sentence patterns, what I call the “my puppy syndrome” (“My puppy is cute. He has a long tail. He wags it often. I love my puppy”). Many people, fearful of making mistakes, resort to such prose (I saw it recently in a letter of recommendation that a medical doctor wrote for a patient wanting to get into medical school). True, there are fewer mistakes in “my puppy” writing. But it isn’t sufficiently sophisticated or complex to use in most situations where one’s message “matters.” In fact, the message it sends by its very form is that the writer is either nervous about writing, is verbally/intellectually challenged—or has nothing to say.

Finally, too, I want journalists and magazine writers to read this book (many have expressed an interest in doing so, I note), and to recognize that their words matter. How they use language is significant because so many people will be reading what they wrote. In a recent review of this book that Mary Norris wrote in the Times Literary Supplement, Norris addressed head-on some of the problems and questions I had with sentences she had edited and which appeared in the December 29, 2008 New Yorker. While I think that she and I will have to “agree to disagree,” it seemed to me a good sign that she, an editor at a notable weekly magazine, would once again examine some of the sentence she edited, and attempt to offer an explanation for why they were printed as they were. Her answer to this, by the way, is summed up in her review’s title: “Whichcraft.”