The Ivan Ilyich School of Usage, and Beyond

"He was by nature attracted to people of high station as a fly is drawn to the light, assimilating their ways and views of life and establishing friendly relations with them. … He succumbed to sensuality, to vanity, and latterly among the highest classes to liberalism, but always within limits which his instinct unfailingly indicated to him as correct.”

This famous description of Ivan Ilyich, in Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886), describes very economically the central flaw of Ivan Ilyich’s character, of his soul. He had the chameleon’s gift of adaptive coloration, always keen to blend in with the social and cultural classes he aspired to belong to. But he failed to develop a self in the process, settling instead for a masterful impersonation of a self, an impersonation that he hoped would bring him the status he thought he needed.

Few readers admire a character who systematically sidestepped the obligation to know himself. But in matters of usage, I tell my student writers that they need to work hard to graduate from what I have called the Ivan Ilyich School of Usage, not because such study is sufficient, but because it is a useful place to begin.

Writers who want to be taken seriously in the larger world (the academy, the professions and public life generally) must learn how to write in ways that are not self-destructive. Writers who ignore the conventions of Standard Edited English—conventions of spelling, punctuation, paragraphing and grammar, for instance—will usually discover that they have created the kinds of distractions that most readers are unwilling to ignore. The same principle holds true in matters of usage. A writer who regularly fails to observe current usage distinctions is also very likely to fail to communicate effectively with his or her intended audience. The writer who wishes to be taken seriously will work on mastering the most important usage distinctions—she will aspire to be a graduate of the Ivan Ilyich School of Usage, practicing her skills and learning how to work with words, phrases and clauses in ways that meet the basic demands of Standard Edited English.

But writers should also realize that effective language is not generated by prescriptive usage rules. Effective prose is generated elsewhere, and prescriptive rules have very little jurisdiction there. Good writers should aspire to go well beyond the production of merely acceptable prose, not because mere acceptability isn’t a real achievement—it is. But we want our prose to do more than demonstrate the ability to avoid errors. We want it to communicate information clearly and effectively; we want it to communicate a spirit or an attitude; we often want it to communicate a self—our own self, the self that Ivan Ilyich forgot to develop. We want to give shape and meaning to the world, in ways that allow us to feel that we can sometimes control language. We want our writing to display mastery, spirit, our own personal voice and style. When we manage to do that, we’ve graduated from the Ilyich School.

James Vanden Bosch
Department of English 
Calvin College