At a time when anyone can post anything instantly on social media, it’s never been easier to spout nonsense. It’s also never been easier to screw up on such matters as grammar, punctuation, capitalization, spelling and syntax. For these days, Theodore M. Bernstein CC 1924, JRN 1925 was made.
But it was as the Times’ arbiter of style, usage, standards and practices that Bernstein remains invaluable to those who care about properly deploying the English language in the internet age. “If writing must be a precise form of communication,” Bernstein said, “it should be treated like a precision instrument.” In his heyday, his precepts echoed both within and without the walls at 229 W. 43rd St.
Bernstein, a New York City native, found his calling as managing editor of Spectator, where his duties included marking up every issue for style and proofreading faults. He joined the Times as a copy editor upon graduating from the Journalism School. Working his way up the masthead, he ultimately carved out a domain in the southeast corner of the third-floor newsroom, in a windowed office dominated by a world map that covered an entire wall. There he would chain-smoke and, when not napping (doctor’s orders after a heart attack), take his work seriously.
Part of Bernstein’s devotion stemmed from personal tragedy. In 1938 he and his wife Beatrice’s only child, 3-year-old Eric, was struck by spinal meningitis, causing permanent brain damage. After that, as his niece Marylea Meyersohn said, the Times became “his home, his refuge, his family.”
When Bernstein was promoted to assistant managing editor in 1951, managing editor Turner Catledge told him that the newspaper could no longer spend too much money on too much newsprint. The writing had to be tighter, brighter, clearer. It was a tough balancing act. Bernstein wanted none of what he derided as “Model T sentences” — pile-ups of clauses choked with confusing detail, common in the Times of that era. “To enlist with the too-orthodox would be to tend toward prissiness and to risk losing touch with the popular tongue,” Bernstein reflected. “To enlist with the too-liberal would be to invite the horrors of anarchy.”
So Bernstein championed simple, smart prose. “One idea to a sentence” was one of his most important edicts. This, he knew, was not always possible. “To take an extreme example,” he wrote, “it would be nonsense to write: ‘The American flag is red. It is also white. It is blue, too.” But always, Bernstein urged, remember your audience. If you don’t, you might find yourself “writing about a man drawing horsehair over catgut instead of about Isaac Stern playing a Bartók concerto.”
Bernstein codified his dictates every two or three weeks in an in-house review of recent Times output, Winners & Sinners. Some of this newsletter was devoted purely to reinforcing basic grammar rules and noting factual errors. But frequently, Bernstein used what he called his “bulletin of second-guessing” to improve the art of storytelling. Once, the word “tuxedoes” was arbitrarily changed to the snootier “dinner jackets.” Bernstein wailed, “In what kind of ivory tower does this editor dwell?” He cheered what he called “dabs of color,” as when Russell Baker described North Dakota senator William R. Langer CC 1910 “chewing his customary cellophane-wrapped cigar.”
At his best, Bernstein was both instructive and uproarious. “A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Dartmouth, Pat Weaver’s head is said to burst with ideas,” wrote one reporter. Bernstein asked, “What did Dartmouth do with the rest of him?” When a story about the new Beverly Hilton Hotel mentioned its “floor-to-ceiling walls,” he wondered, “Why didn’t anyone ever think of those before?”
“When he spoke, he was not argued with,” said Betsy Wade BC’51, JRN’52, the Times’ first female copy editor. “People who had been there before me by 10 or 20 years sometimes grew weary of him. But they said, ‘This is what Bernstein says, and this is how we do it.’ They were almost reverential.”
Winners & Sinners was originally meant only for internal Times consumption. But as its reputation grew, the paper began distributing it to “wordmongers” (a Bernstein word) on the outside. Eventually, as he put it, “a book publisher twisted the author’s arm.” The result was Bernstein’s popular 1958 guide, Watch Your Language, and a series of similar volumes. Today, his titles — Headlines and Deadlines; More Language That Needs Watching; and Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins among them — can still be found within reach of many a diligent writer along with Fowler, the Chicago Manual of Style, and Strunk and White.
Bernstein died on June 27, 1979. Among his many innovations, his front-page Times obituary noted, was a new punctuation mark. It was the “interrobang,” a combination exclamation point and question mark, to denote questions that were actually exclamations. Five days later, a red-faced Gray Lady publicly corrected itself. What Bernstein had actually proposed was a “pronequark” — a question mark lying on its side.
Bernstein, ever the exacting apostle of an evolving mother tongue, would have appreciated that.
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