Showing posts with label Strunk and White. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Strunk and White. Show all posts

25 September 2019

It Rained All Night the Day I Left


I've been thinking lately about the diminution, or devaluation, of language. Degradation, even, not too strong a word. The calculation being that it doesn't matter, that precision or accuracy is irrelevant, and we're just a bunch of persnickety snobs, who condescend to honest folk and treat them like knuckle-dragging hillbillies, that never had no book-larnin', and get things all twisted around with fancy words and high-falutin' airs.

I'm obviously thinking, too, that this is connected to our present culture of false or competing narratives - conspiracy theories, in effect. Bad money drives out good. The counterfeit devalues honest weight.



There was a time, not that long ago, when a guy like Albert Einstein inspired respect. ("How does it feel to be the smartest man in the world?" somebody asked him. "I don't know," he said. "You should ask Tesla.") An athlete or a war hero, sure, but Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine, the NASA team that put us on the moon, an American novelist winning the Nobel. We admired their skill, and tenacity, and sheer will. We took pride in their intellect. All of a sudden, this is suspect, and we're not supposed to trust the weatherman. Not an exact science, admittedly, but more informed than reading the entrails of chickens.

Maybe this is an odd complaint from a writer of fictions, but to be convincing, fiction depends on exact detail. If you get one thing wrong, it casts doubt on all the rest. Not to mention Twain's enduring advice: use the right word, not its second cousin. 



So if you take this inexactness, and fold it in with false narrative, you get a kind of Stalinist double-talk. "Our brave soldiers are moving ever forward," or "Our fervent comrades of industry are exceeding all expectations," and pay no mind to the NKVD machine guns behind our brave soldiers, to shoot slackers, or the bazillion shoes made to fit left feet. Facts become transactional, in the sense that they're negotiated. We agree on a shared reality, the least common denominator. (Or is that the most?)

The question then becomes, what's lost, in the exchange? As language gets dulled, it conveys less. Misuse makes it less useful. Without precision, it's at the same time less resonant. It slips its moorings, cast adrift.



Now, in France - I know, this sounds like the opening line of a comedy routine, the same crowd that regards Jerry Lewis as an auteur - the French answer to an Academy, which guards against barbarisms, like social media or cell phone jargon imported from les Etats Unis. Good luck with that one. But it reminds me that my grandmother, all these many years back, wrote a letter to R.J. Reynolds, complaining about their advertising slogan, 'Winston Tastes Good, Like a Cigarette Should.' And she actually got a very courteous response. Apparently enough people were offended by the use of 'like,' instead of 'as,' that corporate assigned a team to answer the complaints. The answer, in effect, was that they were dumbing it down. This was advertising, not Freshman English. It simply sounded better to the naked ear. My grandmother was having none of it. A longtime educator, she wasn't in the least mollified. She was fluent in French, too, although to my knowledge she never saw a Jerry Lewis picture. 

English as a language, of course, develops through usage and accretion, much like English common law, established by precedent and convention, not by fiat. There is no ruling body, the Chicago Manual of Style notwithstanding, to lay down the law one way or the other, or settle the dispute over the Oxford comma. But it's disheartening, all the same, to see language disrespected - or more to the point, dismissed. I'm not that much of a grammar Nazi, although I do think spelling counts, and I'm overly fond of the semi-colon, but what distresses me is that the dismissiveness, the act of not caring, seems symptomatic of a larger contempt for expertise, for informed debate. Somebody, maybe from the CDC, commented about the anti-vaxxers, "Science is just another voice in the room." In other words, everybody gets equal time, no matter that common sense calls bullshit. 



I'm well aware that I could be accused of falling into a You-Kids-Get-Off -My-Lawn thing, and that what I'm saying is by definition elitist, but that's the whole damn point. When language loses coherence, when it loses exactness, it loses utility. You can't share an agreed-upon reality if you can't even describe it. Is this political? Of course it is. The politics of language is about ownership. If we surrender ownership, we lose the gift of speech itself.  

12 September 2015

To Verb or Not to Verb?


"I can't access the fingerprint files," Phil said.
Sally fisted her hair. "Oh, no! That could negatively impact our investigation!"
Should I contact the lieutenant?" Fred asked.
"I'm efforting that right now," Phil assured him.
In this brief but thrilling bit of dialogue, I have verbed five nouns. That is, I have taken five words once firmly ensconced in the language as nouns, and I have used them as verbs. This sort of verbing seems to be going on a lot these days. We read newspaper articles about the benefactor who gifted the museum with a valuable painting, about the county office transitioning to a new computer system. And of course almost all of us speak of texting people and friending people. Some of us say we Facebook.

Should we accept the verbing trend as inevitable, perhaps desirable? Should we resist it? Does resistance make sense in some cases but not in others? Writers, including mystery writers, probably have some influence on the ways in which language changes, perhaps more influence than we realize. So maybe, before we let ourselves slip into following a linguistic trend, we're obliged to examine it carefully, to think about whether it's a change for the better.

Obviously, there's nothing unusual or improper about a word functioning as more than one part of speech. "He decided to turn off the ceiling light and light the candles, while his wife, wearing a light blue dress, fixed a light supper." Here, in one sentence, "light" serves as noun, verb, adverb, and adjective--repetitive, but not ungrammatical or unclear. And I think we'd all agree language is a living thing that needs to change to meet new needs. Many would argue (and I'd agree) that the English language, especially, is vital and expressive precisely because it's always been so flexible and open, so ready to absorb useful words from other languages and to adjust to changing conditions. Sometimes, change means inventing new words to describe new things--telephone, astronaut, Google. Sometimes, it means using existing words in new ways--text, tablet, tweet. These sorts of changes in the language reflect changes in reality. Some of them may enrich the language; some may make it sillier or less euphonious. Either way, trying to resist them is probably pointless.
I'm not so sure about "fist." I've been seeing it used as a verb more and more lately, especially in erotic scenes. Usually, it's a man who does the fisting, and it's a woman's hair that gets fisted--"Lance pressed his body against Desiree's and fisted her hair, declaring he could not bear to leave her that night." Well, gosh. First of all, I have trouble picturing exactly what Lance is doing to Desiree's hair. He's grabbing hunks of it, I guess, and forming his hands into fists around the hunks. If that's what he's doing, couldn't we just say "clutched"? I have a feeling some writers choose "fist" because they think it sounds sexier and more forceful, because it hints at a trace of coercion, a smidgen of violence. If that's the appeal of "fist," maybe it's a verb we can do without. Let's have Lance stroke Desiree's hair while keeping a respectful distance from her and suggesting they discuss their plans for the evening. If we want to get sexier, he can always finger a tendril.

Is verbing such a change? In some cases, I think, it probably is. Consider the first sentence in the opening dialogue. "Access" used to be a noun and nothing but a noun. Fowler's Modern English Usage (I've got the second edition, published in 1965, inherited from my English professor father) draws careful distinctions between access and accession, showing scorn for those who "carelessly or ignorantly" confuse the two. Fowler doesn't even consider the possibility that anyone might use "access" as a verb. One might need a key to gain access to the faculty washroom, but the idea that anyone might access the washroom--no. Today, though, when almost all of us use computers and often have trouble getting at what we want, using "access" as a verb seems natural. Yes, Phil could say he can't gain access to the fingerprint files, but the extra words feel cumbersome here, an inappropriate burden on a process that should take seconds. Old fashioned as I am, I think using "access" as a verb might be a sensible, useful adjustment to change.

Back to the opening dialogue: Sally fears not being able to access the fingerprint files "could negatively impact our investigation." I think some writers use "impact" as a verb because, like "fist," it sounds sexy and forceful, sexier and more forceful than "affect" or "influence." But does it convey any meaning those words don't? If not, I'm not sure there's an adequate reason for creating a new verb. And if we have to modify "impact" with an adverb such as "negatively" to make its meaning clear, wouldn't it be more concise to choose a specific one-word verb such as "hurt" or "stall"--or "end," if the negative impact will in fact be that bad? Again, I'd say "impact" is a verb we can do without. It answers no need our existing verbs fail to meet. It adds nothing to the language.

What about "contact"? In the opening dialogue, Fred asks if he should "contact" the lieutenant. Like "access," "contact" was once a noun and nothing else. Is there a problem with using it as a verb as well? Strunk and White think so. In the third edition of Elements of Style (a relic from my own days as an English professor), they (or maybe just White) declare, "As a transitive verb, [`contact'] is vague and self-important. Do not contact anybody; get in touch with him, or look him up, or phone him, or find him, or meet him." Or, in this situation, Fred might ask if he should inform the lieutenant, or warn her, or ask her for advice. "Contact" is pretty well established as a verb by now, but I think the argument that it's "vague and self-important" still holds. "Contact" is a lazy verb. It doesn't meet a new need--it just spares us the trouble of saying precisely what we mean. Even if few readers would object to using "contact" as a verb these days, writers who want to be clear should still search for a more specific choice.

Common Errors in English Usage: Third Edition
Then there's "effort." What possible excuse can there be for transforming this useful noun into a pretentious verb? In the second edition of Common Errors in English Usage (a wonderful resource), Paul Brians declares such a transformation "bizarre and unnecessary": "You are not `efforting' to get your report in on time; you are trying to do so. Instead of saying `we are efforting a new vendor,' say `we are trying to find a new vendor.'" Maybe some people think "efforting" will make it sound as if they're working harder. If so, they can always say they're "striving" or "struggling"--but those words will be obviously inappropriate if not much work is actually involved, if they're just making a phone call. Is "efforting" appealing because it lets us get away with making simple tasks seem more arduous than they really are? If so, we should definitely resist the temptation to inflate the importance of what we're doing by using a fancy new verb.

A photo showing the head and shoulders of a middle-aged man with black hair and a slim moustache.
By now, some may be wondering if any of this matters. If we want to dress up our sentences by turning some nouns into impressive-sounding new verbs, so what? Where's the harm in that? George Orwell provides an answer in his classic "Politics and the English Language." I can't summarize his subtle, complex argument here; I can only offer a quotation or two and urge anyone who hasn't already read the essay to do so. Just as ideas can influence language, Orwell argues, language can influence ideas. The English language "becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." Nor should we surrender to damaging trends in language because we assume resistance is futile. "Modern English, especially written English," Orwell says, "is full of bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one is willing to take the necessary trouble." As writers, perhaps we have a special responsibility to protect the language by setting a good example. At least we can effort it.

Oops. Sorry. At least we can try.

06 May 2014

The Elements of Style


       Before retiring in 2009 I did my fair share of legal writing. But I did an even greater amount of editing. My approach to editing is a simple one to state, harder to put into practice. I told those whose work I was charged with reviewing (and revising) that they should write as though there were one thousand ways to write their piece erroneously and one thousand ways to write it correctly. If they got it right, it would be right, even if I might have chosen a different one of those thousand acceptable approaches. But if they got it wrong, well, then it was in my hands and I had free rein when I revised it.

       Those of us who have written for a living -- as I did when I was editing those (uninteresting) legal briefs and memoranda -- have learned how to write through a prolonged process of trial and error. If successful, this process eventually results in the development of an ear for the language, an ability to “hear” what works on the page and what does not. But the process of getting there can be agonizing, and generally begins with the boot camp of learning (and following) a set of strict rules that are drilled into us at an early age. For many of us, at least those in my generation, those rules were probably initially encountered in The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White.
   
       The Elements of Style was originally written and self-published by Strunk, an English professor at Cornell, who was White’s teacher in 1919. Popularly, however, the volume has been available for 55 years, dating from 1959, the year when White, who had written a New Yorker article praising the volume and Professor Strunk, edited and updated Strunk’s slender guide and for the first time published it for the mass market. Almost immediately the volume took off. Dorothy Parker said of it “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”

       But, as is the case with almost any “how to write” treatise Strunk and White (as the book is often called) also has its detractors. Much of their criticism stems from the brittleness of the volume’s approach, its tendency to prescribe hard and fast rules in circumstances where guidance might be a better approach. In an article “celebrating” the 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style, “Fifty Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” (The Chronicle Review, April 17, 2009) Edinburgh English professor Geoffrey K. Pullum had very little good to say about the volume. As an example, Pullum takes issue with Strunk and White’s position on split infinitives.The Elements of Style advises that split infinitives "should be avoided unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb." Pullum rejects the approach, labeling it “completely wrong”:
Tucking the adverb in before the verb actually de-emphasizes the adverb, so a sentence like "The dean's statements tend to completely polarize the faculty" places the stress on polarizing the faculty. The way to stress the completeness of the polarization would be to write, "The dean's statements tend to polarize the faculty completely."
       But arguably Pullum has fallen into the same “brittleness” trap for which he derides Strunk and White. In fact, as a purported universal rule, Pullum’s rule on adverb placement fares no better than does the Strunk and White rule. All Star Trek fans, for example, know that the word “boldly” is stronger under the Strunk and White "exception" approach (“to boldly go where no man has gone before”) than it would be under the Pullum alternative (“to go where no man has gone before boldly”). When one approach works for the “dean’s statement” sentence but the other works for the Star Trek opening, one can only conclude that there in fact can be no universal rule, nor universal exception.

       Are there other pitfalls encountered when a writer follows black and white approaches religiously? Certainly. For example, Strunk and White dictates that no sentence must ever begin with the word "and" or “however.” We are told to avoid “certainly” in almost all circumstances. “Factor” and “feature,” we are told, are “hackneyed words.” And the rule, as originally set forth by Strunk and White, is that “to-day”, “to-night” and “to-morrow,” are only to be written using hyphens. There may be guidance in this, but hardly unbreakable rules.

       In a 2009 article, also celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Elements of Style the New York Times had this to say:
The little book had big pretensions, which were not always appreciated by writers or even grammarians. Had they followed all the rules (avoid injecting fancy words, foreign languages and opinion), Thomas Wolfe, Vladmir Nabokov, William F. Buckley and Murray Kempton (a comma before “and” — or not?), to name a few successful writers, might have been shunted into very different careers.
       Pullum’s article goes further. To make its point that rules of English usage cannot be hard and fast Pullum takes on the Strunk and White rule that the phrase “none of us” requires the singular “is.” Using computerized searches of which the authors of The Elements of Style could only have dreamt, Pullum points out that Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Lucy Maude Montgomery’s Anne of Avonlea consistently and and almost invariably use “none of us are.”

       These examples illustrates the problem with any stark approach when it comes to setting usage rules. English simply refuses to play by those rules. It evolves. I used to work with someone who railed at anyone who spelled “supersede” with a “c”, decrying that this was the most common misspelling in the English language. But today “supercede” clears most spellcheckers just fine. And hardly anyone today (no hyphen) would hyphenate tonight or tomorrow as prescribed by The Elements of Style.

       The truth is, that while it is good to know the underlying rules when developing your writer’s ear, the rules themselves need to be taken with grains of salt. Once your ear has matured and developed it needs to be relied upon more than the rules. If the prose sounds right to an educated ear as it is written, it likely is right to the ear of the reader. This point was not lost on White, who, as anyone who has marveled at Charlotte’s Web fully realizes, was possessed of a great writer’s ear. White in fact acknowledged that his own approach to writing was at least a bit at loggerheads with the black letter law of The Elements of Style:
E.B. White, at work at The New York Times
I felt uneasy at posing as an expert on rhetoric, when the truth is I write by ear, . . . [but] [u]nless someone is willing to entertain notions of superiority, the English language disintegrates, just as a home disintegrates unless someone in the family sets standards of good taste, good conduct and simple justice.
       To me, that says it all. The rules set forth in The Elements of Style are foundational. Knowing them is like learning how to outline a story, or essay, in advance. Usage rules and outlining skills are tools that each of us should first master so that our writing is constructed on a solid foundation. Then, when and if we abandon the rules, or at least loosen the reins, it is with full knowledge of what we are doing.

       And (I purposely begin) even then we have to be careful. In that 2009 article celebrating the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Elements of Style, The New York Times noted that the latest edition of the book contained “ a forward by White’s stepson, Roger Angell.” Soon thereafter The Times published a correction. 

        It should have been “foreword.”