Theodore M. Bernstein wrote seven books on grammar and English usage including Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Outmoded Rules of English Language. Bernstein created the fictional Miss Thistlebottom, an eighth grade English teacher at an all boys’ school and supposedly his teacher.
Bernstein begins with “A Word to the Whys” in which he explains the title of his book: Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Outmoded Rules of English Language. He maintains “a belief that a title so hard to pronounce and so hard to remember will be difficult to forget.” He goes on to report that the title is designed to denote the contents of the book. He wishes to “lay rest to the superstitions that have been passed on from one generation to the next by teachers, by editors and by writers — prohibitions deriving from mere personal prejudice or from misguided pedantry or from a cold conservatism that would freeze the language if it could.”
“A Word to the Whys” concludes with a list of references Bernstein cites in Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins. A few of those include the following: The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, The Verbalist by Alfred Ayres, Write it Right by Ambrose Bierce, Syntax by George Curme, The Oxford English Dictionary, and A Grammar of Present-Day English by Eric Partridge. The last book was published in 1947.
In the prologue of Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins, we find a letter from Bertha Thistlebottom to Bernstein in which she says that “the disparaging remarks you make about me in several places hurt me.” At the end of the letter, however, she writes, “Despite all, however, I am of a forgiving nature and I am content with the thought that I must have taught you something right if you were able to turn out that book.”
In his reply to Miss Thistlebottom, Bernstein concludes that “as in so many endeavors in life, in the use of English an avoidance of extremes is the way to achievement and excellence.” Perhaps this bit of advice is the most important in the whole book.
The table of contents should pique any language lover’s interest. In addition to the ones already described, Bernstein includes “Witchcraft in Words,” “Syntax Scarecrows,” “Imps of Idioms,” and “Spooks of Style.”
In his letter to Miss Thistlebottom at the beginning of “Imps of Idioms,” Bernstein writes: “Idioms, it must be remembered, are sports in the linguistic garden.” Sentences such as that abound in Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Outmoded Rules of English Language. Those who love language can enjoy Bernstein’s wit and his understanding of the English language. Following his introduction to idioms, Bernstein goes into an explanation of some commonly used idioms. He gives a bit of history to explain the idiom even if “the label for [so long] must be ‘origin obscure’.”
In “Spooks of Style,” Bernstein explains about puns. He says “puns are the easiest form of humor, but it does not follow that they are the lowest form.” Bernstein cites Charles Lamb in a letter Lamb wrote to Samuel Coleridge: “A pun is a noble thing per se. O never bring it in as an accessory! … it fills the mind; it is as perfect as a sonnet; better.” Bernstein ends “Spooks of Style” with this bit of advice about using you to refer to readers: “A few cautions are necessary. One is not to overdo the you device; that same caution applies to any writing advice. A second is to avoid shifting from one person to another. A third is to avoid seeming to talk down to the reader.”
At the end of the book, Bernstein includes “William Cullen Bryant’s Appendix Expurgatorius.” It contains a list of words that Bryant wanted writers to avoid. Bryant, though a poet, was also well-known as a journalist and was part owner and editor in chief of the New York Evening Post. The list is too long to repeat here, but it includes some interesting choices such as “over and above instead of more than, artiste instead of artist, casket for coffin, pants for pantaloons, en route, donate, rowdies, and the deceased.” Read Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Outmoded Rules of English Language to find the entire list.
Theodore M. Bernstein earned a BA from Columbia University in 1924. He was editorial director of the New York Times Book Division, taught journalism at Columbia, and was a consultant on usage for Random House and American Heritage dictionaries. Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Outmoded Rules of English Language is full of good advice and fun to read for those who love language.