I have been reading books on writing style. My teachers at Beechwood Park Preparatory School for Boys taught me to avoid writing in the first person whenever possible, so up with that opener one shall not put, though of course, nowadays only the Queen uses the Nob’s Pronoun. Begin again.
This reader has been reading books on writing style. But that is a tautology: all readers read, and all writing has style, good or bad. Worse, I have blundered into the bog of elegant variation. Henry Fowler, coining elegant variation in The King’s English (1906), filed it under “Airs and Graces,” as a kind of unmanly vice. Beechwood Park Preparatory School for Boys was a hotbed of unmanly vices, but inelegant variation was not one of them. I was taught that elegant variety was a mark of learning and taste, and a necessary technique for avoiding confusion. Begin again, again.
This reader has been perusing books on writing style. But This reader is now archaic. And perusing is mock-archaic, used by the sort of wag who prefers quaffing ale to drinking beer. Anyway, what do I mean by perusing? Even the most attentive critic rarely peruses books in the etymological sense, for the medieval Latin perusitare means to use up or to wear out. Am I confessing to perusing in the current sense of casual inspection or skimming, a usage that we all recognize, but which is proscribed by the Oxford American Dictionary? Or am I that conscientious critic who peruses in the Victorian sense of close inspection, as in Jane Eyre: “I examined her figure; I perused her features”?
Perhaps I am perusing somewhere in the middle, in the general sense of reading, a synonym in use since the sixteenth century. In which case, the substitution of perusing for reading adds nothing to the meaning. Instead, just as Fowler warned, it creates the confusion that it hoped to avoid. It also introduces all kinds of unhelpful and unpleasant associations with ale quaffers, Tudor beams on suburban garages, and the kind of person who repairs to a hostelry when he goes to the pub, and who, when he gets there, addresses the landlord as Mine host.
Before I scan the history of peruse, I really should peruse the history of scan. A scan can be a quick summary, as in scanning the headlines. A scan is also a detailed scrutiny, as in the digital image assembled by a photoelectric scanner. While the etymology of peruse is no use to anyone, only the etymology of scan can explain these variant meanings. The Middle English scan derives from a scholarly secondary sense of the Latin scandere, to climb. As the monk memorized a text, his foot kept the beat, as though climbing a heavenly staircase. The rhythm is the summary that contains the details. When later scholars looked for the scansion, they scoured the details in order to locate the summary. This habit produced an emphasis on the details over the summary. That emphasis was intensified by the advent of mechanical scanning.
Aldus Manutius should be the patron saint of grammarians, as the inventor of the semicolon.
All this suggests that etymology is worthless, except when it is essential; that principles of good style are arbitrary, except when they are not; that usage is flexible as well as historical; that the more you know about language, the harder it gets to write anything with conviction or accuracy; and that Aldus Manutius should be the patron saint of grammarians, as the inventor of the semicolon.
English is in an age of decline; English is in an age of vigor. No language, not even Latin when it was lingua franca, has attained the full-spectrum dominance of Global English. Meanwhile in the home territories, the quality of written English has declined as its quantity has increased. In expression, the hierarchies of formality are flattened rather than reinforced. Grammar, once a benchmark of basic literacy, is now a luxury. In spelling, the prizes go to texted acronyms. KWIM?
If the English teachers of Beechwood Park were able to work around the background checks and gain admittance to the liberal arts colleges where I’ve been teaching, they would run screaming into the ornamental lake. Many of my students cannot write a legible, joined-up hand. Many struggle to assemble a two-clause sentence without fumbling the grammar. They have trouble spelling “i before e except after c.” They know that there are differences between formal and informal communication, but why should they care? The last president of the United States to write his own speeches was Woodrow Wilson. If you are a freshman in 2018, you will never have known a president who could deliver a speech without the aid of a teleprompter.
Here are some of my souvenirs from a famous and very expensive liberal arts college near Boston:
History repeats itself over and over again from time to time.
In the Middle Ages was when in Greece and Rome there was a rise in the interest of the science field of study.
America was doing nothing to even try to stop any one of these countries from gaining too much power and it eventually bit them in the butt when June 7, 1941 came around.
[In Dangerous Liaisons,] Valmont makes a good job of being what we today would call an asshole.
It is often argued that had the inelegance agencies and department of defiance not failed to share the information [about the impending attack on Pearl Harbor] more could have been done to prevent this epic tragedy but should that have been the case no doubt the face of history would have been greatly altered.
[On the Holocaust] The Nazi’s did this through their work and concentration camps in which millions of people were murdered in gas tanks.
During the war years, the comfort women weren’t even treated as people; the Japanese considered them second-rate sex machines.
I cling to the last example’s correct use of the semicolon as a monk might have clung to his copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History when the Vikings sacked the abbey. I tell myself that malapropisms like “the inelegance agencies and the department of defiance” are proofs of life, and that language can fructify itself even in a devastated mind. But the infallibly high correlation between ignorance of the facts and failure of expression tends towards immorality. The grammatical confusion over whose butt was bitten by whom in 1941 leads inexorably to the misdating of the month in which the biting occurred. The needless apostrophe in “Nazi’s” is like an air-raid siren, warning that the author is about to launch a brutal assault on historical fact, like confusing gas chambers with gas tanks. Henry Higgins called Eliza Doolittle’s speech “the cold-blooded murder of the English tongue.” He never had to mark her papers.
Written English is at what the euphemists would call an inflection point. The nineteenth-century ideal of a democratic mass culture is a bizarre historical dream. The twentieth-century empire of “Mid-Cult” is gone. The departments of English got the theoretical barbarians for whom they were waiting. Standards of literacy are declining, even though the tests are getting easier. Knowledge of a foreign language, even Spanish, is rare among those without immigrant parents. Young Americans, like Romans among the British tribes, struggle to understand the language of their servants.
Written English is at what the euphemists would call an inflection point.
Digital communication has inflected written English in the way that the guillotine inflected Marie Antoinette’s neck. It is not enough that the lawmakers of the old order lose their heads: the symbols of the age of linguistic chivalry must go, too. For when quantity is all, quality is the enemy. That is why one of the aristocrats of the English language, a frequently superfluous but usually elegant construction we could live without but prefer not to on stylistic grounds, is arraigned in the title of Emmy J. Favilla’s A World Without “Whom.”
Favilla is the Global Copy Chief for BuzzFeed. As a compound noun, BuzzFeed resembles an Old Norse kenning, one of those fused, frozen images of the northworld at the roots of English poetry. As a fused image of the fictive digital world, BuzzFeed promises to impart information in the way that a foie gras producer imparts grain to a goose. It is hard to tell if Favilla is a mock-apologetic humble-bragger, or genuinely ashamed of her part in feeding us the buzzy slops of language:
I am constantly looking up words for fear of using them incorrectly and everyone in my office and my life discovering that I am a fraud. I was a journalism student (and a fashion journalism graduate student, lol—cut me some slack, I wanted to live in London) with minors in creative writing and Italian studies.
Favilla claims to be more of a “feelings-about-language expert” than a “straight-up language expert,” and to have “neither the fortitude nor the brain capacity” for diagramming sentences. She claims that there is no such thing as “correct style,” and that “sometimes there’s no such thing as correct spelling.” But she also assumes some entirely traditional positions, including the last of Orwell’s six rules, that all rules should be broken: “It’s fine to flout ‘the rules’ when you have a solid understanding of what the rules are and a calculated reason for doing so—for tone, for humor, for readability.”
Favilla goes on to say:
You should know your imminents from your eminents from your immanents, because, really, how am I to have faith that the guy who can’t be bothered to get his stationery and stationary straight got the reported facts correct in a story about a missile strike.
In “On Difficulty” (1978), George Steiner, who is not a BuzzFeed guy, identified three types of difficulty in writing. Firstly, “Contingent difficulties arise from the obvious plurality and individuation which characterize world and word.” Emerging from the text, they can be suppressed or managed textually, by consulting a dictionary or encyclopedia. Secondly, modal difficulties “lie with the beholder.” They arise from the historical and moral fissures between an author’s perceptions and ours, and “challenge the inevitable parochialism of honest empathy.” Thirdly, tactical difficulties are created by writers to “deepen our apprehension by dislocating and goading to new life the supine energies of word and grammar.”
Digital communication has changed all three of these difficulties. When the image dominates the text, world and word cannot individuate in the same way as they do from a text alone. A “text” is not an authorless object to be probed by French theorists, but a highly personalized message. The digital environment is so comprehensive that our parochialism becomes inescapable, and the past incomprehensible. As for tactical difficulties, texting instantly dislocates the generations and goads the parents. The problem is not the quantity of “new life” that this generates, but the quality of life.
Difficulty is the quality that opposes quantity. Variety slows the production line. “Easy solution?,” Favilla advises. “Avoid whom altogether, for as long as you shall live!” Semicolons are “a little stodgy,” but comma splices, the diarrhea of written expression, are a “radical grammatical move.” Anyway, a peer-reviewed Public Library of Science study proves that “people who are obsessed with grammar aren’t as nice as their don’t-give-a-crap-about-grammar counterparts.” Take that, Aldus Manutius.
The truth is that Favilla does care about grammar and rules. She just has a “calculated reason” for throwing in her lot with the digital rule-changers. If there is to be a new order, it is better to be a legislator than a conscript. But the analog history of revolutions still applies. She cannot stay ahead of the tumbrils forever. Soon, she will be consumed by the revolution. There may be a “suuuuuuper easy way” to avoid the gender equality “he or she” problem by using “they.” There is no “suuuuuuper easy way” of avoiding digital superannuation. Everything Favilla writes is of historical interest, because none of it has a future.
To whom shall we turn as we digitate into a new Dark Age? Whom knows?
“I can write from authority,” Steven Pinker promises in The Sense of Style. Strunk and White, he reminds us, lived “before the advent of modern linguistics and cognitive science, before the wave of informalization that swept the world in the second half of the twentieth century.” Today’s writers are “infused by the spirit of scientific skepticism and the ethos of questioning authority.” They expect “reasons,” not “superstitions, fetishes, shibboleths, and initiation ordeals.” They need “a writing guide for the twenty-first century.” Yay!
To whom shall we turn as we digitate into a new Dark Age? Whom knows?
Pinker calls himself “a descriptive linguist,” writing an “avowedly prescriptive book.” His descriptions are mostly accurate and useful. The “main problem” in writing is the “Curse of Knowledge,” the “difficulty of imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” One solution is to remember the old adage about “the reader over your shoulder.” A “better way” is to avoid “jargon, abbreviations, and technical vocabulary,” just as Robert Graves and Alan Hodge advise in The Reader Over Your Shoulder (1943). If you must be technical, add “a few words of explanation.” Pinker does that in his next chapter, a lucid and detailed description of the mechanics and value of syntax. In descriptive terms, style emerges here as the clarifier of communication. Perfect style is the enemy of “good” writing.
The trouble starts when it comes to the prescriptions. Pinker identifies a hundred “usage issues,” and resolves them by the “thoroughly conventional” method of combining “data” from various dictionaries and experts. When they disagree, or when “the examples are all over the map,” he offers his own “best judgment.” This sounds logical but, as historians know too well, data is only the plural of anecdote. Language is social, and people are all over the map. While “good” writing is elevated by following the rules, better writing deviates from the blandness of perfection. We recognize the best writing as Kenneth Clark recognized civilization: “I think I can recognize it when I see it.” That method might be empirical, but it is not scientific; hence the varieties of taste. As usage changes, Pinker keeps having to use his best judgment. When he does, he gets angry.
Arguments, Pinker writes, should be “based on reasons, not people.” You do not win by “slinging around insults” or impugning people’s motives to “show you are smarter or nobler than your target.” But linguistic rules are social artifacts, and ordinary users decimate and delapidate reasonable meanings whenever they feel like it. Such insults to reason enrage Pinker. The taboo against split infinitives is a “thick-witted” Latinate “superstition,” persisting “only among know-it-alls who have never opened a dictionary or style manual to check.” Prescriptivists are accused of “misanthropy,” “misplaced emotion,” and “purist rants.” The “vitriol” and “bile” of the “vilifiers” is “full of baloney.” Enraged much?
English has no gender, but Pinker seems keen to gender good and bad practice. Like Fowler, he derogates as unmanly the usages of which he disapproves. The use of whom should be calibrated to “the complexity of the construction and the degree of formality” desired, but even in formal prose you may prefer to be “lean and direct,” and use who, like the always lean and direct Hemingway did when, improving on Donne, he titled a novel For Who the Bell Tolls. The predicative nominative, which would have Ophelia crying “Woe is I,” is a “schoolmarm rule.” Prescriptivists are “usage nannies.” Good writers must eschew “trendy terms which tart up a banal meaning,” like Anthony Blanche with his eyeliner. More interested in colons than semicolons, Pinker calls objections to the verbing of nouns “anal retentive.” Bizarrely, anality is personified as a straw woman named “Ms. Retentive.” ROFL—not! ;-)
Pinker rightly argues that there is “no dichotomy between describing how people use language and prescribing how they might use it more effectively.” But that does not make him an authoritative prescriber. “In considering questions of usage,” Pinker writes, “a writer must critically evaluate claims of correctness, discount the dubious ones, and make choices which inevitably trade off conflicting values.”
This sounds authoritative, but it is pure fudge. Unless a writer is meant to evaluate truth-claims emotionally, the “critically” is superfluous. Does “discount” mean dismiss the claims entirely, or reduce the value of the claims? Are “dubious” claims only uncertain, and deserving of further investigation; or are they false coinages of suspect origin? Do linguistic choices “inevitably” involve a “conflict of values”? When values are in conflict, can they always be “traded off”? A “trade-off” is a compromise between two desirable but incompatible features of roughly equal value. Are all claims about usage of roughly equal value?
Pinker, see me after class.
He that has once studiously formed a style,” Johnson observed of Pope, “rarely writes afterwards with complete ease.” It is hard to write with ease, harder still to declare for a style. The Language Wars between Prescriptivists and Descriptivists are a shadow play of the Culture Wars. “Puttin’ On The Style,” Lonnie Donegan sang in his mildly rebellious Skiffle hit of 1957, means “Puttin’ on the agony,” and taking on the agon. The conflict between the speech of the living and the grammars of the dead is only one of the struggles over hereditary rights and the hierarchies that they create. As I learned at Beechwood Park, rights and hierarchies, and the style that they teach, are forms of class war. QED, to use the right sort of acronym.
Pinker writes for his class. Not for the public, but for “the smaller virtual community of literate speakers” who write “in public forums such as government, journalism, literature, business, and academia.” Reading Pinker, it is surprising how little has changed since Graves and Hodge looked over that class’s shoulder in 1943: the same warnings against vagueness and bureaucratic pomp, the same pleas for the semicolon and the comma. Reading Emmy Favilla, it is terrifying how rapidly the linguistic floor has caved in. Linguistically, as socially and economically, the middle class is falling away, while the upper echelons fight over their formal usage. SMH.
English, unlike French, has no academy to protect its virtue.
English, unlike French, has no academy to protect its virtue. Market forces have done the job instead. The concentrations of class and power they create now threaten to undo the language. Meanwhile, the real language war goes on. This, as Kingsley Amis observed in his own King’s English (1997), is not between academic Prescriptivists and Descriptivists, but between guerrilla outfits of Berks and Wankers.
Berks are careless, coarse, crass, gross, and of what anybody would agree is a lower social class than one’s own. They speak in a slipshod way with dropped Hs, intruded glottal stops, and many mistakes in grammar. Left to them the English language would die of impurity, like late Latin.
Wankers are prissy, fussy, priggish, prim, and of what they would probably misrepresent as a higher social class than one’s own. They speak in an over-precise way with much pedantic insistence on letters not generally sounded, especially Hs. Left to them the language would die of purity, like medieval Latin.
Professional writers are mercenaries in this battle. Sometimes you defend beauty from the Berkish horde. At other times only Berkish vigor can revive the Wankers’ languor. In this, professional writers are closer than they realize to ordinary writers, for whom valor is also the better part of discretion, and who always write with a reward in mind.
Sam Leith’s Write to the Point calls for a ceasefire in the war of Berks and Wankers, and a “Christmas kick-about for the troops in no-man’s land.” Leith, the literary editor of TheSpectator, advises pragmatism, and persuasion over prescription. It is a sociological fact that many speakers of Standard English “place a high value on getting it right.” If you know the battlefield, you are less likely to fall into a shell hole and “break your silly neck.” So learn the rules of English warfare. Fight the English way, with courtesy, common sense, and a touch of cold steel.
The hierarchy of language reflects social hierarchy. On the first recording of “Puttin’ On The Style,” from 1925, the trained tenor Vernon Dalhart pretends to be a hick. Two years later, Irving Berlin’s “Puttin’ On The Ritz” in its original verse satirizes the upwardly aspirational style of black Harlemites. Today, BuzzFeed’s inversion of value reflects the inversion of the Romantic cult of youth into commercial youth culture.
Change is inevitable: some of the stylistic proscriptions in the first edition of Fowler’s King’s English are now prescriptions of good style. The issue is whether we accelerate or manage the process. The digitization of manners is separating the written langue from the spoken parole. This is bad for literature, and worse for social mobility and democracy.
It is in the writer’s interest, Leith argues, to bridge Steiner’s “modal difficulties” and show empathy for the reader. The person who believes that infinitives must not be split is “technically, quite wrong.” So is the person who, like Steven Pinker, believes in the “folklore” that the split infinitive rule derived from analogy with Latin. But rhetoric is about persuasion, not proving people wrong, and language is common property. “If that’s the sort of person you’re writing to, or even if there’s a decent chance such a person will be in your audience, leave that infinitive unsplit with a good grace and an inward smile.”
Persuasion also requires the striking of the correct “register.” You can use “It’s me” or “It is I,” but the latter strikes a more formal register. The same goes for double negatives whose spoken sense is obvious, but which provoke the pedants and confuse the readers. And though whom is “going the way of the rest of the inflectional system,” show some consideration for those who may mourn its passing. Even a BuzzFeeder does not wear flip-flops to a funeral.
Leith fixes bayonets for the combats on whose outcomes the fate of written English depends. There is, he writes, “a special place on the end of the Devil’s toasting fork” for the comma splicers. And semicolons are not, as Kurt Vonnegut said in another of those macho outbursts that grammar seems to inspire, “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing.” Semicolons, like language itself, are flexible enough to accommodate development, but rigid enough to contain ideas and sustain their development. A well-turned semicolon, like a twist of the painter’s brush or a turn of a dancer’s body, is formed after the natural object it describes.
Style is the silent art. Leith quotes the poet-etymologist-doctor Lewis Thomas’s The Medusa and the Snail (1979):
The thing I like best in T. S. Eliot’s poetry, especially in the Four Quartets, are the semicolons. You cannot hear them, but they are there, laying out the connections between the images and the ideas. Sometimes you get a glimpse of a semicolon coming, a few lines farther on, and it is like climbing a steep path through woods and seeing a wooden bench just at a bend in the road ahead, a place where you can expect to sit for a moment, catching your breath.
1A World Without “Whom”: The Essential Guide to Language in the BuzzFeed Age, by Emmy J. Favilla; Bloomsbury, 400 pages, $26.
2The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker; Viking, 368 pages, $27.95.
3Write to the Point: How to be Clear, Correct and Persuasive on the Page, by Sam Leith; Profile Books, 288 Pages, £14.99.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 6, on page 17
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