Paul Greenberg

Dear Pedant,

It was wholly a pleasure to get your criticism of a column of mine savoring the fall weather in the spirit of Ecclesiates, the perfect book of the Bible to read in the autumn of the year and, for that matter, the autumn of life.

I'm grateful to you for giving me the opportunity to vent about an approach to the Bible that long has bothered me - an approach that treats the Book as a religious tract of the more doctrinaire sort rather than the great piece of literature it is.

My sin, it seems, was to conclude that column by saying: "Ecclesiates had it right from first to last: Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart."

That kind of advice always offends those who prefer their religion grim, their Bible unrelenting, and who never miss a chance to display their superior knowledge of the Word.

Your letter begins with the kind of faint praise that is the hallmark of the pedant. You inform me that my writing "is nice and your piece does capture my feelings about October here in Virginia, too. But you imply an ending to Ecclesiates with the ninth chapter. There are three more. The real conclusion to Solomon's ruminations."

You write as if you had just psychoanalyzed King Solomon, to whom tradition attributes this wise little book, and so know what he really meant to say. Thank you, but I would prefer to let His Majesty speak for himself; he wrote better.

While we're being pedantic, I did not imply that Ecclesiastes ended three chapters before it does. Rather, you inferred that I was referring to the text literally, rather than using a figure of speech to sum up the book's comprehensive wisdom - "from first to last." After all, the first words of the book are not "Vanity of vanities," either, but rather "The words of the Preacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem."

There is a difference between imply and infer, or used to be, and it needs to be preserved. So does the integrity and range of the English language in general, which is in constant danger of erosion as definitions are blurred or lost altogether.

As a sample of both condescension and condemnation, it would be hard to top your explanation of why you wrote me: "I just wouldn't want people to think of you as biblically illiterate. We have enough of those people posing as writers."


Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.