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Old School

by Charlotte Hays

The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead: Dos and Don’ts of Right Behavior, Tough Thinking, Clear Writing, and Living a Good Life, by Charles Murray (Crown Business, 144 pp., $17.95)

I’m, like, digging Charles Murray’s new book, which grew — at the suggestion of his colleague Karlyn Bowman — out of in-house tips on grammar and usage for super-smart kids working at the American Enterprise Institute. But oops! A Murray dictum we can all second: “Excise the word ‘like’ from your spoken English.”

I urge you to bestow a copy of this valuable book upon every graduate you know this June. The premise of the first half of this slim volume is that Murray is a curmudgeon much like the ones a new graduate will encounter in the world of full-time work, unless she is seeking a future in the entertainment or IT fields, in which case her boss will likely be young or pretending to be so. By the way, if you don’t know why I used “she” instead of the grammatically abhorrent “they” with a singular verb, an all-too-common usage nowadays, please consult pages 37 and 38 in The Curmudgeon’s Guide.

“Technically speaking, a curmudgeon is an ill-tempered old man,” Murray admits. “I use the term more broadly to describe highly successful people of both genders who are inwardly grumpy about many aspects of contemporary culture and make quick and pitiless judgments about your behavior in the workplace, and don’t hesitate to act on those judgments in deciding who gets promoted and who gets fired.”

Some insecure Baby Boomer bosses pretend not to be curmudgeons. Instead of helping ambitious younger employees by not being stodgy, they may inadvertently create minefields for unwary twentysomethings. Good tip: If your boss asks you to call him “Bill,” don’t do it the first time. If — heaven forfend — Bill really wants callow youths half his age to use his given name, he’ll ask again. However, “if Bill is a closeted curmudgeon, his opinion of you will rise” if you continue to call him Mr. Smith until he really means for you to adopt a more informal usage.

A surprising number of senior executives, Murray writes, care deeply about the English language, even if they are in businesses that are not normally thought to require impressive writing skills. Curmudgeons are likely to write off young employees who use words sloppily. It would therefore be wise to avoid “reaching out” and “sharing” when what you mean is inviting or telling. Thank you, Mr. Murray, for addressing my pet peeve: “branding.” When people talk about branding — which, alas, they do all too often in my world — they mean trying to promote themselves distinctively. Murray recalls that branding originally meant a trademark burned into a product, or, with animals, the flesh. Well, that would certainly be distinctive. “Why would you aspire to be labeled and defined so that your subsequent behavior must conform to the ‘brand’ that you have established?” Murray asks. May I brand the next non–cattle rancher who uses this term in my presence?

In this brief book, Murray manages to hit almost all the verbal tics that are so infuriating that their repetition may drive me to an early grave: “unique” used to mean special rather than the one and only; the confusion of “less” with “fewer,” and — the pièce de résistance in the grammar hall of shame — misusing the word “literally.” I recently heard the director of a Shakespeare play going on about how we “literally” get to see Henry V growing up before our eyes. Now, that would be an awfully long production.

As much as I like Mr. Murray’s tips, I regret that he didn’t address what I regard as the most horrific (and revealing) grammatical error afoot in the land: “he,” “she,” and “I” for “him,” “her,” and “me.” It isn’t the uneducated but graduates of good schools who nowadays say, “I gave it to Jim and he.” This betrays a certain unfamiliarity with grammar — and thus with the process of thinking itself. This curmudgeon’s tip: The nominative (“he,” “she,” “I”) acts, the accusative (“him,” “her,” and “me”) is the object that is acted upon, and the dative is a receiver, or indirect object (“him” again). Please, give it to Jim and him. Confusing the subject and its object or indirect object comes under the heading of what my dear, late mother liked to call “a dead giveaway” — a seemingly minor error that reveals heretofore hidden depths of depravity.

That some of the tips on self-presentation must be given at all is a sad commentary on Baby Boomer parenting. “First, abstaining from casual obscenity gives you the aura of an adult,” Murray writes. No kidding. Murray also takes on “piercings, tattoos, and hair of a color not known to nature.” Such decorations are fine for the mailroom but not for a position in which one might be more widely seen. Don’t even ask for a rationale on the tattoo front, because “it does no good to remind curmudgeons that tattoos have been around for millennia.” Bravo!

The book’s first half deals with presenting oneself on the job, the second with the formation of the self and living a happy life. When I interviewed Murray many years ago, when his 1988 book In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government came out, I was struck by his entirely secular attitude. Something has changed. While still an agnostic, Murray, who attends Quaker services with his wife, is “shakier” in his non-belief, and counsels: “Take religion seriously, especially if you have been socialized not to.” He also counsels taking marriage seriously.

Murray’s final tip is to watch the movie Groundhog Day, about a smug TV weatherman who disdains a small town but after getting stuck there learns not to be a conceited jerk. Not being disdainful is the cornerstone of Murray’s advice for success at work and happiness in life. I may not get around to rereading Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, which Murray says is the longer version of Groundhog Day, but I have a permanent place for The Curmudgeon’s Guide on a shelf beside my copy of The Elements of Style (which Murray heartily recommends). I love its crisp, firm tone, reminiscent of Elements but with a bit of Miss Manners and a serious consideration of the cardinal virtues thrown into the mix. As I might have put it before reading this book, “Like, this is going to be a classic, dude.”

– Charlotte Hays is the director of cultural programs at the Independent Women’s Forum and the author, most recently, of When Did White Trash Become the New Normal? A Southern Lady Asks the Impertinent Question.

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