America’s most popular language maven preaches 50 zippy sermonettes on grammatical truisms so often misunderstood that even he seems to get them wrong.
“1. No sentence fragments,” begins Safire (No Uncertain Terms, 2003, etc.), establishing the self-contradictory pattern for each of the “fumblerules”—laws of highly variable authority set forth in terms that call attention to the lessons they teach by gleefully breaking them—he’s culled from readers of his weekly “On Language” column for the New York Times Magazine and his own copious and often cantankerous experience. Purists will be happy to learn that Safire takes a zero-tolerance approach to dangling participles (Rule 25); more permissive writers will be relieved to know that he allows split infinitives (Rule 41) and prepositions at the end of sentences (Rule 49) under the proper conditions; editors and schoolteachers will nod in weary sympathy at Rule 33: “Of all the statements about indefinite pronouns, none is useful.” Whether he’s inveighing against subject-verb disagreements (Rule 12) or urging, “Don’t use contractions in formal writing” (Rule 5), Safire is invariably shrewd, witty and provocative. The one constituency likely to be disappointed by his sparklingly matter-of-fact approach to the tired but important rules of writing is readers most in need of grammatical help, for Safire’s ready facetiousness throughout both his fumblerules and his glosses often obscures the difference between the rules he actually endorses (“11. Write all adverbial forms correct”) and mere circumlocutions or canards (“38. One will not have needed the future perfect tense in one’s entire life”). The target audience throughout is writers who already have a pretty good idea how to write and are looking for practical advice about how to mess up.
Anyone who already values grammar, arguments about rules or the checkered glories of verbal style, however, is in for a treat.