Saturday, April 28, 2012

Don't mess with Raymond Chandler's verbiage!

By the way, would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write in a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of barroom vernacular, this is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. The method may not be perfect, but it is all I have. I think your proofreader is kindly attempting to steady me on my feet, but much as I appreciate the solicitude, I am really able to steer a fairly clear course.
Crime novel great Raymond Chandler expressed these sentiments in the course of a letter to Edward Weeks, the editor of the Atlantic Monthly, in 1947. Thanks to the website Letters of Note, we also are privy to a poem he wrote said copyeditor in response to a follow-up note from her. This is obviously a person who goes all out to make his point!
Lines to a Lady With an Unsplit Infinitive
Miss Margaret Mutch she raised her crutch
With a wild Bostonian cry.
"Though you went to Yale, your grammar is frail,"
She snarled as she jabbed his eye.
"Though you went to Princeton I never winced on
Such a horrible relative clause!
Though you went to Harvard no decent larva'd
Accept your syntactical flaws.
Taught not to drool at a Public School
(With a capital P and S)
You are drooling still with your shall and will
You're a very disgusting mess!"
She jabbed his eye with a savage cry.
She laughed at his anguished shrieks.
O'er the Common he fled with a hole in his head.
To heal it took Weeks and Weeks.
"O dear Miss Mutch, don't raise your crutch
To splinter my new glass eye!
There ain't no school that can teach a fool
The whom of the me and the I.
There ain't no grammar that equals a hammer
To nail down a cut-rate wit.
And the verb 'to be' as employed by me
Is often and lightly split.
A lot of my style (so-called) is vile
For I learned to write in a bar.
The marriage of thought to words was wrought
With many a strong sidecar.
A lot of my stuff is extremely rough,
For I had no maiden aunts.
O dear Miss Mutch, leave go your clutch
On Noah Webster's pants!

The grammarian will, when the poet lies still,
Instruct him in how to sing.
The rules are clean: they are right, I ween,
But where do they make the thing?
In the waxy gloam of a Funeral Home
Where the gray morticians bow?
Is it written best on a palimpsest,
Or carved on a whaleboat's prow?
Is it neatly joined with needlepoint
To the chair that was Grandma's pride?
Or smeared in blood on the shattered wood
Where the angry rebel died?
O dear Miss Mutch, put down your crutch,
and leave us to crack a bottle.
A guy like I weren't meant to die
On the grave of Aristotle.
O leave us dance on the dead romance
Of the small but clear footnote.
The infinitive with my fresh-honed shiv
I will split from heel to throat.
Roll on, roll on, thou semicolon,
ye commas crisp and brown.
The apostrophe will stretch like toffee
When we nail the full stop down.
Oh, hand in hand with the ampersand
We'll tread a measure brisk.
We'll stroll all night by the delicate light
Of a well placed asterisk.
As gay as a lark in the fragrant dark
We'll hoist and down the tipple.
With laughter light we'll greet the plight
Of a hanging participle!"
She stared him down with an icy frown.
His accidence she shivered.
His face was white with sudden fright,
And his syntax lily-livered.
"O dear Miss Mutch, leave down your crutch!"
He cried in thoughtless terror.
Short shrift she gave. Above his grave:


  1. Anyone who can rhyme Harvard with insect young deserves a fresh box of juicy infinitives to split with his shiv daily. I'm reading "The Big Sleep" as soon as I can lay my hands on it.
    Did he say: "Chess is as elaborate a waste of human intelligence as you can find outside an advertising agency"?
    Wherever he's going, I'm driving the car!

  2. In William Froug’s Zen and the Art of Screenwriting (1996), David Peoples on page 163 quotes Chandler to the effect that “you have to have passion: Technique alone is just an embroidered potholder.”