America has lost its greatest wordsmith.
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I read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style again and again, and nothing seemed to register. And then I read The Writer’s Art.
It was an epiphany. Why, I wondered, hadn’t anyone tried to teach me these things when I was younger? The truth was that someone probably had but, like too many other young men, I was too busy gazing at the girls in my class to have learned these things.
Writing was suddenly easier for me, and as I re-read Kilpatrick’s book and continued to write it only got easier, and better.
I learned how a writer has to trust not only his “mind’s eye” but his mind’s “ear”: if something sounds good in your head when you read it to yourself, it’s probably going to work just as well for the next guy who reads it.
In 1991, after a brief term in the Pentagon as political appointee, I re-entered the law practice with the Virginia office of a large Richmond law firm. Chatting idly with one of the receptionists one day while waiting for a client to show up, I mentioned my admiration of Kilpatrick and she quickly volunteered that she was his goddaughter. I then had the audacity to take issue with something he’d written in a column on the usage of the word “caliber” in describing a firearm.
A few days later my home phone rang, and the gent on the other end of the line said, “Jack Kilpatrick here.” I told him about my disagreement with his usage — as I recall — of the term “9mm caliber.”
A rather cold “humph” came through the line, followed by “why?”
I explained that “caliber” was a measure of the diameter of the projectile (or inner diameter of the barrel of the weapon) in hundreds of an inch. Hence “.45 caliber” meant 45/100ths of an inch. “9mm” is a parallel expressed in metric terms, so to say “9mm caliber” was to combine incompatible measurements. Better, I said, to convert “9mm” into the mathematically equivalent “.38 caliber.”
I was answered with a warmer “hmm.” And then came an invitation to join him the next time I visited Charleston, South Carolina.
When my wife and I visited Jack and his first wife, Marie, in Charleston, she was quite ill. And Jack, already in his seventies, gave her loving attention every minute of the day. They were deeply in love and he — a Southern gentleman in the best sense — worked hard to make her burdens lighter and courted her every day.
A short while after Marie passed away in 1997, Jack moved to Washington and married newspaper columnist Marianne Means in 1998.
We spoke from time to time, by telephone and e-mail, and on the rare occasion a dinner including our wives.
Jack continued to write his weekly column and was always ready to referee language disputes. I remember one I had with my pal Greg Garrison, Indianapolis radio host, lawyer, and all-around good guy. He used “anxious” where I said he should use “eager” and Greg wouldn’t budge. My point was that “anxious” included an element of fear or anxiety and that “eager” shouldn’t be limited to descriptions of puppies and little boys even though it connoted a degree of happiness.
I submitted the argument to His Honor, the Chief Judge of the Court of Peeves, Irks and Crotchets, and — within the hour — the decision was rendered. I was right, Kilpo pronounced, saying he’d resorted to three dictionaries to be entirely sure.
Kilpo said all writers should strive to write at least one perfect sentence each month. If we don’t, it’s not because his good-natured instruction failed us. It’s because we were too lazy to follow it or too inattentive to absorb it.
Here’s my best shot for this month: Every American writer should be thankful for all of Kilpo’s peeves, irks and crotchets, because each one more finely tuned our minds’ ears to our readers’ needs, and made us better at our lives’ work. God rest ye, Jack. I shall miss you greatly.
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