Neal Sheeran

Rants, Raves, and Geekery

Justice Scalia Is a Snoot


One of my favorite David Foster Wallace essays is Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage, written for Harper’s in April 2001 and also included in his anthology, Consider the Lobster.

While DFW spent much of the article recounting the strife between the descriptivists and prescriptivists on the grammar and usage battlegrounds, he heaped much praise upon Bryan Garner, and his book Garner’s Modern American Usage.

The New Yorker has an article about a collaboration between Garner and Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and mentions Scalia’s admiration for Wallace’s essay. The article includes a link to Garner’s series of interviews on legal writing with eight of the nine current Justices. Here is an exchange between Garner and Scalia from page 61:

BAG: When we first sat down to talk about doing this interview, you mentioned that there’s a word to describe people like you who care a lot about words. I think the word is snoot.

AS: Yes, and you knew the acronym for that better than I did, and the author who developed the term, neither of which I recall.

BAG: David Foster Wallace.

AS: There you are. David Foster Wallace. But there are people who care a lot about words, about precise use of words, and there are people who don’t. And snoots are those who are nitpickers for the mot juste, for using a word precisely the way it should be used. Not dulling it by misuse. I’m a snoot. I confess. I guess a more old-fashioned word for snoot is pedant. I hope I’m not a pedant. I will end a sentence with a preposition. I don’t believe in those hobgoblins, but I do believe in not misusing words, in using apostrophes where good English calls for it, things of that sort.

How great that Scalia is a snoot. How awesome the conflict this may create in the minds of some who greatly admire Wallace, but certainly register some level of disdain for Scalia. 1

  1. Jason Kottke could not be reached for comment.