David Foster Wallace’s 5 Grammarian Tips Every Anal Writer Should Know

I love looking back at David Foster Wallace’s teaching materials. They’re an interesting look into the mind of one of America’s most popular (and perhaps greatest)  writers of the past few decades (some would argue century). The achieves are why I read Renata Adler’s “Speedboat,” James Baldwin’s “Geovanni’s Room,” and Walker Percy’s “The Moviegoer.”

(Baldwin’s book was the best and saddest of the three by far, by the way, although all were well worth reading. Baldwin is also one of my favorite writers of all time, so maybe I’m just biased. But Giovanni’s Room is amazing and you should read it.)

Now, in the midst of my first full read-through of Infinite Jest (the first attempt, as it were, was stopped in its tracks by my first full-time reporter job roughly 500 pages in. It’s sat in and around my bookshelf shaming me ever since. Now I’m 800 pages in and writing multiple sentences in parens. SOMEONE HELP ME), I came across five incredibly useful grammar tips from the late DFW used for an English class at Ponoma College. The document is titled “English 183A Your Liberal-Arts $ at Work” and is from a 2002 class.

(The tips are still relevant. English is fluid but it ain’t that fluid.)

Wallace’s tips, which you can find alongside his other teaching material archived on the University of Texas’s website, move from the simple (No. 1) to the painfully wrapped up into themselves (No. 5). All tips are useful and should be understood by anyone who cares enough to have a nice, easily understandable writing style. The latter tip will likely be appreciated by any fan of Infinite Jest or Wallace’s work, which tends to become so self-referential by its end that the reader feels like they’re in on an inside joke.

If a writing tip can make you feel like you’re in on a joke as No. 5 does, I think it achieves multiple ends of helping one better understand the English language, which of course is a joke wrapped in an enigma wrapped up in Latin.

Click through to the University of Texas’s site upthread, if you’d like, but below I have enlarged the scan UT provided to readable levels. I hope this small step can help someone who may have been too lazy to squint to figure out the difference between “toward” and “towards.”

(Click on the image to make it bigger)


Am I breaking any of the rules outlined in DFW’s sheet in this very post? Let me know. That’d be funny. We can all have a laugh at my expense. I can learn from my mistake. You can feel righteous for pointing it out in the comments. We’ll all win.

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