By Glenda Winders / SDUN Book Critic
Charles Harrington Elster admits he has an addiction: a terminal attraction to words.
“You start with a sense of feeling for words, a sense of enjoyment in hearing them, speaking them, writing them,” he said in an interview. “And it gradually grows into an obsession.”
That passion has led him to become a noted authority on grammar and language usage who has written articles in major papers, among them The Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times. He has been interviewed on PBS radio, where he also co-hosted “A Way With Words” with Richard Lederer for 5 1/2 years. His latest book, “The Accidents of Style: Good Advice on How Not to Write Badly,” has just been released by St. Martin’s Griffin.
“My mission is to eliminate the mental laziness that is manifested in poor writing,” he said. “I really think this book can benefit anyone who wants to write seriously and be taken seriously.”
The result of a list Elster had been keeping of errors he found in edited works, the book begins with a pre-test that challenges readers with common style mistakes. At the end, 125 incorrect sentences that have appeared in print allow them to flex their newfound verbal prowess. In between, Elster discusses the 350 most common or egregious items from his list, arranging them in order of increasing complexity.
“Some people will think the first part is easy,” he said, “but then they turn to the later entries and they’ll see things they didn’t know.”
Each of the sections is short and easy to digest with useful solutions to familiar problems–when to use “fewer” instead of “less,” whether to locate periods and commas inside or outside quotation marks, and why “fall between the cracks” makes no sense. More advanced issues include the difference between “compared to” and “compared with” and the appropriate uses of “who” and “whom.”
Elster says some of the topics covered are his own pet peeves, such as introducing an argument with “Let me see” and the use of what he calls “the cutesy well,” as in “The centerpiece of the ticketing company’s anti-scalping strategy is eliminating, well, the tickets.” The pages are punctuated with boxes containing “Amazing Gaffes” from the media–some of them local–along with lists of common redundancies, pretentious words and overused phrases.
Despite Elster’s erudition and expertise, his tone is conversational, positive and funny. He’s sometimes stern but never snarky.
“I like to think of myself as that sort of really seasoned, no-nonsense, you’d-better-measure-up teacher you had in high school who’s not going to let you get away with anything,” he said. “You hate him because he shows you where you’ve gone wrong, but you love him because as a result of the correction, you’re a better writer.”
Elster said one of his goals was to demonstrate that people shouldn’t write the way they speak.
“Writing is writing, speaking is speaking,” he said. “Too many writers think they are supposed to write the way they speak, and what happens is they come out sounding silly, lazy and full of accidents of style.”
Elster inherited his interest in language from parents who also loved reading and words. Both professional musicians (his father was the lead harpist with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra in New York for 38 years), they read to him often, encouraged him to read on his own and had lively dinner-table discussions that often sent them to the dictionary to settle disagreements about a word’s definition or pronunciation. Today Elster carries on the tradition with his own family, wife Myrna Zambrano (who is district director for Sen. Christine Kehoe) and daughters Carmen, 19, and Judith, 12.
This fascination led Elster to become an ortheopist–a pronunciation expert. He consulted with Bryan Garner on “Modern American Usage,” the bible of contemporary language, and again on Garner’s “Black’s Law Dictionary.” His own previous books include “There Is No Zoo in Zoology” and “The Big Book of Beastly Pronunciations,” and he’s now the pronunciation guru for www.wordnik.com.
The book-lined office where Elster works was originally a chicken coop in the days when his Kensington home was still part of a farm. Today it’s a paean to reading and writing, its floors covered with Asian rugs and the walls with awards and keepsakes. A massive oak desk from his grandfather’s Boston law office serves as a worktable.
Not surprisingly, his desk is surrounded by weighty unabridged dictionaries that, along with Webster’s and Random House, also include the Century Dictionary, published between 1889 and 1914; the Oxford English Dictionary; and a facsimile of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language.
“I like to keep the big boys as close to me as I can,” Elster said. He noted that Noah Webster was a graduate of Yale University, as he is.
His prize possession is the 1784 “Elements of Orthoephy,” which has an illustrious history. First housed in the British Library, it later became the property of Frank Vizetelly, the editor-in-chief at Funk and Wagnalls in the early 20th century. Elster received it as a gift from Bryan Garner.
Elster is currently at work on another book about language usage, but he’s keeping a new list and says he doesn’t rule out a second volume of “Accidents.”
“There is always something new to learn that will make you a more conscientious user of the language,” he said. “I’m trying to help people not to choose words willy-nilly and use them imprecisely but to choose words with care.”
“The Accidents of Style” is available at most bookstores. Upcoming events include book signings at the Mission Valley Borders bookstore on Oct. 2, the Kensington-Normal Library on Oct. 23, Warwick’s bookstore in La Jolla on Nov. 7, and back at the Kensington-Normal Library on Nov. 13. For details, visit www.charlesharringtonelster.com.