Ever since writing Kory Stamper Lightens Hair! I have been getting a lot of visitors searching for information about Ms. Stamper’s collegue, Emily Brewster. And the searches are not as neutral as one would expect; I’m getting a surprising number of visitors to the site who are searching for things like “Emily Brewster is hot.” This is disturbing, of course. And to Ms. Brewster, it must be publicly embarrassing, even if it is privately just a little flattering. A grammarian, especially one of the female persuasion, must find such foci on her looks and fantasized sexual attributes to be problematic. It is hard enough for a woman to be taken seriously in the workplace. But…
The First Issue We Get To
I must discuss two aspects of Ms. Brewster’s newest video. First the important matter: ending sentences with prepositions. I not only like ending sentences with prepositions, I enjoy annoying grammar snobs (who, almost without exception, know less about grammar than I) who believe everything their ignorant grammar school teachers ever told them. As I pointed out when discussing Janis Bell’s delightful, Clean, Well-Lighted Sentences, there is nothing wrong with ending a sentence with a preposition. Emily Brewster waded into these contentious waters over at Merriam-Webster Online. And of course she is on the side of Truth and Justice (that is, my side).
In this video, Ending a Sentence with a Preposition, Emily Brewster discusses the history of the admonition against, well, ending a sentence with a preposition. It turns out that this notion stems back to John Dryden and his belief that we shouldn’t do in English what is not acceptable in Latin. According to Brewster, Dryden—primarily a literary critic—criticized even Ben Jonson—a writer I like no more than that bard, but who was probably the best English-language writer of his day (certainly better than that bard). Dryden was particularly upset about Jonson’s clause (not phrase—does no one care about the difference between a phrase and a clause any more?), “The bodies that those souls were frightened from.” What was he supposed to write? “The bodies from which those souls were frightened”? I will admit that Jonson’s “from” does sound a little awkward when spoken, but as iambic pentameter, Johnson’s clause is far better. Dryden was the worst of what you think of when you think of “literary critic.” (Actually, Dryden was not as bad as I make him sound—at least not in his younger days. You can read a brief biography of him at Imagi-Nation. [Note: link http://www.cosimobooks.com/cosimo/classics_author.php?author=4386 removed because site appears to be infected. You can check it out, but be careful. -FM])
Emily Brewster’s video is a good one—undoubtedly her best, but it does seem that the Merriam-Webster staff are getting a little starved for ideas for their videos. The last one, by Peter Sokoloski, was about when to use “who” and when to use “whom.” In general, Sokoloski’s videos deal with issues related to what words people are looking up. The fact that he made a video about such a trivial issue has me concerned. I, for one, don’t want my Merriam-Webster editors teaching me basic grammar. But probably the videos are not really made for me; they are made for smart people, but not grammar nuts. Brewster’s first video was on the difference between “effect” and “affect”—there’s one I would have yawned at in the seventh grade. But I can’t complain—and I don’t mean to. It seems that Sokoloski covers the sociology of words, Stamper the etymology of words and phrases, and Brewster common grammar errors. And as far as this goes, Emily Brewster hit a home run on her most recent video.
The Second Issue We Get To
When I first wrote about Kory Stamper lightening her hair, I thought (and I’m sorry to say so) that Emily Brewster was too thin—that she could stand to gain a few pounds. As a man who for forty-five years never managed to break the 120 pound barrier and who just two years ago was tipping the scales at 99 pounds, I know that being painfully skinny can be as embarrassing as being obese. So I wrote nothing, but I was thinking it. I was thinking, “Emily, you need to come to dinner at my place a few days a week. I’m an excellent cook and in the last two years I’ve managed to put on 40 pounds of good old-fashioned intellectual flab. Yes, I have joined the ranks of Paul Krugman and you can too.” But I only thought it. And lucky I was, because just look at what has happened to Emily Brewster:
From the smart girl next door (left) to, “Oh là là!” (right), Emily Brewster has changed her look. It makes me want to say, “Ms. Brewster! You’re beautiful!”—or something similar from a 1940s feature when an obviously drop-dead gorgeous actress lets down her hair and takes off her glasses. The fact is, all that this suddenly glamorous (Okay: a slight exaggeration) grammarian seems to have done is put on a little makeup and changed her glasses. (Thank God she hasn’t gotten contact lenses!) You can’t blame an actor in a video the use of a little makeup, right? But what a difference it makes! It gets rid of those sunken cheeks that were often apparent and it brings out the fullness of her lips. This could all make me very depressed if it weren’t for the fact that the content of her new video is the best yet. She is playing to the medium, but unlike most video actors, for Ms. Brewster, the medium is not the message.
 One of the many trivial things that bug me is the incorrect use of words like “data.” The word “data” is plural; “datum” is singular. So even though it might sound just fine to your ear, I cringe whenever I hear something like, “This data is very interesting!” Although there is nothing technically wrong with this sentence (except “data” should be “datum”), the speaker is almost certainly not saying what she thinks she’s saying, which is that a single piece of data (a “data point”) is interesting. What she probably means to say is, “These data are really interesting!”
As a result, I was being a grammatical brat above when I used the word “foci” (pronounced “foe-sigh”) for the plural of “focus.” Truthfully, it would have been far more clear and nice if I had just used the word “focuses.” It turns out that Kory Stamper made an excellent video about how to make such words plural, and she makes a persusive case that the plural of words like “focus” should be “focuses.” However, Merriam-Webster Online lists only “foci” as the plural of “focus.” Fowler states that either form is okay. In general, you will find me using “focuses” except when discussing mathematics or just showing off.
 I am a grammar nut. That does not mean I am particularly good at grammar. In fact, it is largely because I struggle so much with it that I find it so fascinating. The subjects I am best at (for example, Aristotelian deductive reasoning), I find far less interesting.
On the other hand, because I do love grammar—because I commonly curl up with Fowler’s Modern English Usage—I am a much greater grammarian than the average American who thinks that the only ones who care about grammar are old people and intellectual snobs. It is when I compare myself to, say, the worst graduate student who Geoffrey Nunberg ever had that I find myself extremely wanting. I would have loved to have become a linguist, but enthusiasm for a subject will only take you so far. So I set my sites lower to being someone like William Safire—at least in terms of his childlike love of a language that he was in no way a master of (and knew it).
 Take, for example, Dorothy Malone as the Acme Bookstore clerk who spends an enjoyable off-screen hour with Philip Marlowe in The Big Sleep. To this day, I find that scene offensive with Marlowe asking her to take her glasses off and put her hair down. Now, it is true that I’ve always had a thing for women with glasses, but please: any man who doesn’t find Malone sexy with hair up and glasses on is either gay or blind. For those interested, Malone was not just another pretty face; she won the Acadamy Award for Best Supporting Actress in Written on the Wind. Here she is in all her intelligent plainness:
More Stamper! More Brewster!
Want to know more about Kory Stamper, Emily Brewster, and the whole Merriam-Webster crowd? Then you are in luck (and in need of a proper life). Here are some other articles that may interest you.