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In the galleries: David Foster Wallace's affinity for grammar and usage

By Courtney Reed

David Foster Wallace, who was regarded by many as the best writer of his generation, was a talented essayist who was commissioned by several publications, from Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly to Rolling Stone and Gourmet, to write on topics as disparate as a luxury cruise, tennis, the Illinois State Fair, and the first presidential campaign of John McCain.

Wallace, whose affinity for and comprehension of the rules of grammar and usage were widely known, published an essay entitled “Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars over Usage” in Harper’s in April 2001. An early draft of his essay can be seen in the Ransom Center’s current exhibition, Culture Unbound: Collecting in the Twenty-First Century. The draft is a veritable rainbow, covered in red, black, blue, and green ink. Wallace notes his argument at the bottom of the page: “Language & grammar are the distinctive human attainment. They make possible almost everything we value as human (and beyond: ‘In the beginning was the Word). Facility with language… may be one of our responsibilities (like care of the earth, decency to our fellows).”

David Foster Wallace’s affinity for grammar is also seen in his library, which includes a number of books related to language, usage, and writing. One of his books about the history of the English language is underlined extensively throughout by Wallace. On one page, Wallace highlights with an exclamation point the following text: “[The average person] is likely to forget that writing is only a conventional device for recording sounds and that language is primarily speech.”

It seems that none of Wallace’s books were safe from his inquiring pen. Wallace deeply admired novelist Don DeLillo. His library includes more than a dozen books by DeLillo, whose influence on Wallace can be seen in Wallace’s extensive handwritten notes about the novels and DeLillo’s writing style. On a page of DeLillo’s 1982 novel, The Names, Wallace writes with his red and green pens: “D doesn’t use commas between independent clauses—only uses ‘and.’ See p. 19. Why? It gives narrative a more oral quality—We never hear this comma.”