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Birney Imes: Words, plain and fancy

 

Birney Imes

 

As a rule, I try to get going on this column by Friday night. I can sleep easier knowing it''s at least underway. This past Friday, though, I succumbed to the siren call of a rented movie and went to bed without having written a word. 

 

I had two ideas ginning: yard work and something about newspapers and how they are really a collaboration between the paper''s staff and the community it serves. The newspaper idea came from a series of e-mail exchanges last week with a letter writer.  

 

Then I went to the farmers'' market Saturday morning. 

 

"Birney, I really like The Dispatch ..." a woman began. We were standing in front of a card table covered with homemade bread baked by a fair-haired and pregnant Mennonite girl from Brooksville. 

 

"... but the grammar. You don''t say, ''I''m going for a coffee.'' It''s, ''I''m going for a cup of coffee'' or a coffee bean, or a coffee house, but don''t say you''re going to get ''a coffee,'' or ''get a water.''" 

 

I gently disagreed, knowing she had probably read both in something I''d written. The English language is an evolving, living thing, I said. It''s less cumbersome to say it that way, I told her. And, for me a cup of coffee evokes cups and saucers and sitting at a booth in Steve''s Cafe, a restaurant or a kitchen table. "A coffee" is something you go get and drink, at least in part, in a car on the way back to the office.  

 

"Another thing I don''t get," she continued, "is the term ''went missing'' or in the obits when you see someone is predeceased. He was predeceased. You don''t use is when they''re already dead." 

 

Agreed. 

 

"But, a coffee," she said, emphasizing the a. "Miss Southerland would have a fit," she said invoking the memory of a beloved eighth grade English teacher we had both endured. 

 

"I love words," my good-natured antagonist confessed. This provided an opening to mention two books: "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser and "Bryson''s Dictionary of Troublesome Words," by Bill Bryson. 

 

In what is perhaps the best known book on the craft of writing, Zinsser extolls the simplicity and power of the language in Lincoln''s speeches, Thoreau''s "Walden" and The King James version of the Bible.  

 

"Clutter is the disease of American writing," Zinsser writes. "We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon. 

 

"Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn''t think of saying it may rain. The sentence is too simple ..." 

 

Bryson''s book offers the lover of words many hours of happy grazing, though he offers no resolution to the coffee conundrum. 

 

Maybe he does elsewhere. In his 1998 "Lost Continent: Travels in Small Town America," Bryson happens upon, of all places, Columbus and this newspaper. 

 

"Columbus came as a welcome surprise," Bryson writes. "It was a splendid little city, hometown of Tennessee Williams ... but the real jewel was its downtown which hardly seemed to have changed since 1955. ... The people looked prosperous. The first person I saw was an obviously well-educated black man in a three-piece suit carrying a Wall Street Journal." 

 

Bryson writes of going for a cup of coffee -- not merely a coffee -- at a Main Street hotel (The Gilmer Motel?) where he bought a copy of The Dispatch, then touted as "Mississippi''s Most Progressive Newspaper." 

 

"All the stories inside suggested a city ruled by calmness and compassion," Bryson writes. "I read the police blotter. ''During the past 24 hours,'' it said, ''the Columbus Police Department had a total of 34 activities.'' What a wonderful place -- the police here didn''t deal with crimes, they had activities." 

 

Saturday afternoon one of the participants -- there were several -- in the morning''s farmers'' market grammar confab e-mailed an excerpt from an article in this month''s Atlantic titled "Daredevil" about the late William Buckley.  

 

"Bill was considered an elitist because he loved to use big words. But he did it not from hauteur but from impishness. This was part of his playfulness. He liked to play games in general, and word games were especially appealing to him. He used the big words for their own sake, even when he was not secure in their meaning."  

 

It gives odd comfort knowing the likes of William Buckley was challenged by the language we struggle with daily. 

 

And the bit at the beginning about a newspaper being a collaboration between staff and the reading public. See what I mean? 

 

 

 

 

 

Write or phone Birney Imes at The Commercial Dispatch, 516 Main St., Columbus, MS 39701, 328-2424, or e-mail him at birney@cdispatch.com.

 

Birney Imes III is the Editor and Publisher of The Dispatch.

 

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