Book Review Barbara Wallraff Word Court

Word Court: Wherein Verbal Virtue Is Rewarded, Crimes Against the Language Are Punished, and Poetic Justice Is Done
By Barbara Wallraff

Review by Andrea M. Chester

Barbara Wallraff’s Word Court: Wherein Verbal Virtue Is Rewarded, Crimes Against the Language Are Punished, and Poetic Justice Is Done reminds me of my favorite English professor, and her charming way of correcting us. She taught her pupils to love the flow of a well-written piece, whether it was penned by Shakespeare, or Kipling, or Mark Twain. She made using good English seem relevant to our everyday lives, fun and flexible, and useful.

The author, Barbara Wallraff, is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly, a benchmark of correct usage to many readers. Ms. Wallraff reassures her readers that they already know a lot more about good use of language than they think they do. She also wields a deft stick-pin, ready to puncture the over-inflated ego of those who think they’re the only ones who ever speak well. She’s funny, knowledgeable, and approachable.

The book is an amusing compilation of her columns, reflecting questions her readers have written her over the years. Some of them seem priggish. (As my teenage daughter would say, “Like, who cares?”) Others pick on some of my own peculiar notions about the way we speak, or should speak. Yet, for all its authoritative judgments on what’s standard and what’s preferred, this book is entertaining, rather than stuffy. It’s useful, rather than just another rulebook to collect dust on the shelf of the English Department at the community college.

More and more, new words, or old phrases with new meanings, crop up in our language. English is one of the most “wordy” languages in the world. With so many words, we can be more precise than most other languages allow, but we can also get into more trouble with those words. (For instance, would you rather someone said you were “a sight” or “a vision?” The words mean the same . . . or do they?)

People who wish merely to speak with each other may not be concerned with whether their choice of words carries the full flavor of their ideas. After all, in the time it takes to read 100 words, most of us can hear and process more than 400. We can talk ourselves into and out of misunderstandings, given just a bit of time and a person willing to listen. Written language, however, must capture and hold readers more quickly. To the writer, words matter very much, and precision is paramount. Our words influence readers to take us seriously, to trust our knowledge and integrity, or to consider us buffoons.

Those who write letters to each other or occasional letters to the editors of our newspapers might seldom use the wisdom in this book. For others—those who craft articles, or construct technical brochures, or devise business communications—Wallraff’s Word Court could be quite valuable. Whether you read it to become more accurate or to amuse yourself, you’re in for a good laugh from time to time, and perhaps a lesson or two about clear communication.

A compact handbook of preferred English usage, Wallraff’s Word Court is a fine addition to any working library. It can double as a college-level text, and makes a wonderful gift to anyone interested in being correct without being a pain in the lower back. In fact, if I can just track down my old professor, I intend to send her a copy!

Andrea and her husband Charles live in the mountains of western North Carolina, with three cats and a shaggy black dog. She’s a freelance writer and a community educator for a domestic violence agency.