Enjoying the person who tells you that what you do is wrong

by Mr. Sheehy

Bryan Garner writes in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, “Footnotes are generally an excellent place for citations. But textual footnotes–those that contain substantive discussion–ought to be kept to a minimum.” I find this comment particularly wonderful, as I am leafing through Garner’s book on David Foster Wallace’s recommendation.  In “Authority and American Usage” (a 57 page review), Wallace’s objections to elements of ADMAU run one paragraph and can be summarized in one sentence: “Except for the VOGUE WORDS snafu and the absence of a pronunciation entry on trough, the above were pretty much the only quibbles this reviewer could find.”¹

So Wallace, the world’s greatest virtuoso of footnotes with “substantive discussion,” did not quibble with Garner’s estimate about their use. This is likely because Wallace was not claiming to agree with everything Garner says but that it was all done well. Near the end of Wallace’s essay (in a footnote), he admits he disagrees with Garner’s use of a particular comma before a conjunction (there was no independent clause in tow!) and asserts, “But respectful disagreement between people of goodwill is of course Democratically natural and healthy and, when you come right down to it, kind of fun.” I imagine Wallace found Garner’s comments about footnotes interesting and astute even if he was totally unwilling to apply them to himself.

This morning strikes me as a good time to approach such disagreements with the same kind of spirit.


  1. That pronunciation entry complaint isn’t even a complaint. It’s a joke with the punchline in the footnote.