No Uncertain Terms

A slow but enjoyable read.

In No Uncertain TermsI’m currently wading through William Safire’s book, No Uncertain Terms: More Writing from the Popular On Language Column in The New York Times Magazine. The odd thing is, I’ve been reading it for over a month.

William Safire writes the “On Language” column in the New York Times Magazine. That’s the magazine that comes with Sunday’s New York Times. When we lived in New York and New Jersey, we were occasional subscribers and I’d read the column whenever I got my hands on the magazine.

“On Language” points out recent word or phrase usage in the press, usually quotes by politicians and other oft-quoted people. (I had to look up oft-quoted just to make sure it was a correct usage; it wouldn’t do to make a mistake in usage in this particular entry.) Mr. Safire basically tears the victim word or phrase apart, discussing its development throughout the years and pointing out first recorded usages for each meaning that applies. It’s like reading an entry of the Oxford English Dictionary, but it’s full of puns and things to make you smile — if you catch them. And, of course, it points out whether the word was correctly or incorrectly used and why.

I’ve been reading the book at bedtime and I must admit that I can’t read more than four or five pages before my eyelids grow heavy and I have to put the book down. This isn’t because it’s boring. I think it’s because it’s forcing me to read slowly and carefully and think about almost every word.

This isn’t an exercise I’m accustomed to. When I read novels, I breeze through them so quickly that I just don’t get my money’s worth when I buy the darn things. But this book, which was a “bargain book” on (and was part of my Christmas list so I didn’t actually pay for it anyway) is definitely worth the money. It’s helped keep me entertained and enlighted — and made it easier to fall asleep — for the past month! That certainly says something.

It’s also taught me a lot about words that I use and other words that I’ll probably never use. It’s made me realize that the English language is even richer than I thought. And although I’m a writer — a real one who actually writes for a living — my knowledge of vocabulary is not nearly what I think it should be.

Perhaps that’s why I often pause while writing these entries, trying to find the right word to say what I mean. (And in most cases failing.)

But then again, it’s hard to build a strong vocabulary when you spend most of your time writing sentences like: “The Save dialog appears. Enter a name for the file in the Name box and click Save.”

Sheesh. I think that sentence appears in every single book I’ve written.

Anyway, I think this book is helping me to build my vocabulary and understanding of word usage. If you’re a word lover, I think you might like it, too.

What do you think?