David Foster Wallace's Views on Rhetorical Strategies Employed in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage

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In his essay Tense Present, David Foster Wallace carefully examines and unsparingly praises the rhetorical strategies employed in Bryan A. Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage (ADMAU). In doing so, he exhaustively rebuts the logical basis of descriptivist ideology (“namely, the sixties-era rejections of traditional authority and traditional inequality”) and emphasizes the importance as well as the practicality of Standard Written English (54). However, while Wallace seems to support the ideology of prescriptivism—a conviction that certain usages of language are better than others and thus should be promoted as a standard language—he decorates his essay with a cornucopia of unconventional words and informal expressions, which could be seen as the endorsement of descriptivism that supports the relativity of language usage (45). Moreover, while Wallace seems to admire Garner’s self-effacing rhetoric which does not deploy “irony” or “scorn,” he boldly manifests his authorial voice and deploys several ironies and scorns throughout the essay (57).

In other words, the essay shows the ostensible inconsistency among its content and rhetoric that may confuse the audience. Indeed, at first glance, Wallace seems to present himself as a passionate advocate of prescriptivism. In his short anecdote with certain black students, Wallace accentuates the practicality as well as the utility of Standard Written English in American culture so as to encourage the students to use it in his class: “anybody of any race, ethnicity, religion, or gender who wants to succeed in American culture has got to be able to use SWE” (54). Moreover, he stresses that even if it is true that the important rules of language (namely, “Universal Grammar”) are already “hardwired” in our neocortex, some of prescriptive rules do assist people to communicate more precisely (and thus effectively) with others (48). Additionally, in his last part of the essay, Article’s Crux: Why Bryan .A. Garner Is A Genius, Though of A Rather Particular Kind, Wallace ungrudgingly commends the dictionary: “it’s really, really good—and not just lexicographically but rhetorically, politically” (57).

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Considering that Garner clearly indicates that he is a prescriptive lexicographer in the excerpt of ADMAU’s preface inserted in Wallace’s essay: “I don’t shy away from making judgements,” it is possible that Wallace is cognizant of this fact while praising the dictionary (43). Putting these remarks together, Wallace’s act of praising the dictionary written by allegedly prescriptivist and supporting the importance of prescriptive rules certainly makes him to seem to favor the ideology of prescriptivism. Moreover, Wallace refutes the logical basis of structural (or descriptive) linguists. He asserts that one of the main assumptions of methodological descriptivists that “linguistic meanings could exist objectively” (46) is invalid because “language behavior” is “human;” that is, as the language behavior is inherently subjective, it is all but impossible to “avoid or transcend ideology” (47). Furthermore, he claims that another assumption of methodological descriptivists that “all usage is relative” (45) is unsound because language behavior is “fundamentally normative:” it was implemented to achieve “certain purposes” (47). He claims that as human behaviors—the cornerstones of the language behaviors—are often “moronic,” and as one of the main purposes of the language is to effectively communicate with others, certain usages of language are “better” than others vis-à-vis the purpose of the community (47). Indeed, the examples given above certainly show that the essay has a myriad of elements that reinforces him to appear as a fervent defender of prescriptivism, which could mislead the audience to misunderstand the real stance of the essay.

In order to appreciate the real stance of Wallace in the essay more precisely and thoroughly and prevent the possibility of misreading, it is necessary to first delve into one of the distinct layers of his arguments. In the second part of the essay, Thesis Statement for Whole Article, Wallace declares that the issues which concern the political conflict between descriptivist and prescriptivist can be addressed only in terms of “Democratic Spirit” (41). For Wallace, being “democratic” is being humble, caring, non-elitist, and non-dogmatic (42). In fact, he juxtaposed “Democratic Spirit” and the temptation “to fall in with some established dogmatic camp” in one paragraph, which emphasizes the contrast between the two and suggests that the “Democratic Spirit” is not congruent with neither dogmatic descriptivist nor dogmatic prescriptivist (42). By bearing this juxtaposition in mind, and by carefully dissecting the statements that Wallace makes in his essay, the audience could eliminate the possible confusion regarding the stance of the essay.

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David Foster Wallace’s Views on Rhetorical Strategies Employed in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. (2022, August 12). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 17, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/david-foster-wallaces-views-on-rhetorical-strategies-employed-in-a-dictionary-of-modern-american-usage/
“David Foster Wallace’s Views on Rhetorical Strategies Employed in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage.” Edubirdie, 12 Aug. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/david-foster-wallaces-views-on-rhetorical-strategies-employed-in-a-dictionary-of-modern-american-usage/
David Foster Wallace’s Views on Rhetorical Strategies Employed in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/david-foster-wallaces-views-on-rhetorical-strategies-employed-in-a-dictionary-of-modern-american-usage/> [Accessed 17 Apr. 2024].
David Foster Wallace’s Views on Rhetorical Strategies Employed in A Dictionary of Modern American Usage [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Aug 12 [cited 2024 Apr 17]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/david-foster-wallaces-views-on-rhetorical-strategies-employed-in-a-dictionary-of-modern-american-usage/
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