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The Times They Are A Changin’

November 2nd, 2007  |  Published in Uncategorized

I've read a lot of manuscripts in the last few years and I've started to notice certain words, phrases, and stylistic types that are quite fashionable right now. One that seems to turn up in virtually every unsolicited submission is "famously," as in "Lane famously shunned war yarns."

Surely you know which Lane we're talking about here, since he was famous for his stand on war books. No? Well the author was referring to Allan Lane. Many readers of this blog my recognize the name, but for those who don't Lane founded Penguin Books. Now Penguin Books, I'd say, is famous. But is Lane? He's influential, yes. Pioneering, yes. Prominent, yes. But truly famous? Not quite. So "famously" is inaccurately used in this context. In fact, it means nearly the opposite – it indicates a very specialized kind of knowledge that insiders know. If he were, in fact, famous, you wouldn't need to say it. No one ever writes, "George Washington, famously the first president of the United States…."

The people who write for Fine Books are influenced by writing elsewhere, and "famously" is a very popular word in contemporary journalism. It happens that Philip Corbett, the New York Times' language editor, – the guy who oversees the way loaded words and serial commas are used in the newspaper – is answering reader questions online this week. I thought I'd mention my pet peeve about "famously"–which appeared five times in the paper the day I asked the question–and he answered that it's on the list for reduced use. You'll have to scroll down a ways to get to it my question and answer, or simply search for "famously" when you get there.

I find discussions about words and their use and meaning to be very interesting. Now that I have to see so many words into print, I find I've become less dogmatic about it. It's tremendously difficult to get everything right all the time, and sometimes there's being right and being dead right. Some writers sound great until you start enforcing all the rules, and by the time you're done, all the life has gone out of the prose. So we do our best, knowing there's always another issue. And, even though I am now famously on record as opposing the word famously, it happens that I let "famously" slip into our November/December issue.

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