Recently in Words and Language Category
In a recent piece of light reading, I stumbled, almost literally, across this sentence.
"A stink beetle marched purposely through the dust on some mysterious errand, becoming a little black dot as it went off and disappeared. "
Let us leave aside for the moment the question of whether any animal, let alone an insect, can be said said to have, in any meaningful way, purpose in what it is doing. Surely, if it cannot, the anthropomorphic sense of the human intellect can impose purpose on what is seen. It is a sentence like this, random, perhaps a little lazy, that disrupts what John Gardner was wont to call "the vivid and continuous dream." Indeed, upon stumbling over it, I came out of the description of the scene (so thoroughly that I had inordinate trouble relocating the sentence in the book) and thought for a while about "purposely." Is that even a word? If it is a word, should it be? What purpose does it have as a word that "purposefully" does not fulfill. Is it an adverbial appendage to indicate "on purpose," in which case, why? The fewer adverbs, the better in most prose, and this one strikes me as particularly pernicious, seeking to circumvent clearer and more careful articulations of the same idea. Adverbs reek of lazy writing. And in this case, after questioning "purposely" I had to wonder about a stink beetle marching. Had I not stumbled over "purposely," that stink beetle could have marched into the obscurity so richly deserved, as his only purpose was to give us an indication of passing time. But now, I wondered whether it was possible for a beetle to march, and if one could march what might that look like given six legs, and what might be the beat of such a march, "hut, two, three, four, five,six" or more waltz-like with a rhythm that doesn't seem to trial off to nowhere, "hut, two three, hut, two, three."
And so I was drawn out of the scene and into the world of bad grammar and its surreal possibilities.
It is the careful editor's work to assure that this does not happen to the reader. I don't care how popular, how influential, how best-selling the author, they can all use help from time to time to reshape the prose and make it meaningful and powerful. And in this case, all that was required was to use the proper adverbial form--"purposefully." By this simple alteration the beetle marches his way off the page and out of the reader's mind. Oh, perhaps the real pedant and stickler would question the marching, but for that person there is nothing to be done but to encourage him to retire to the well-padded chambers of the prose of Henry James where every article is fraught with meaning, every comma considered, withdrawn, reconsidered and inserted again. The dutiful editor need not trouble him- or herself with such a reader--they are self-selecting and would not choose a book of modern prose in any case.
I have now raked poor Preston and the momentary inattention of his much-overworked editor sufficiently to make the point. It takes only a small slip for the reader to be drawn out of the vivid and continuous dream, and if your story is not compelling, they may never be drawn back in again. I only hope that when my book goes to press I have the most vigorous, meticulous, and careful editor available. There is much to be said for the naive eye that sees what is written, not what is meant.
If you have not yet sought it out, Orwell's "Politics and the English Langauge" is still required reading. Written in 1946, his analysis is still dead-on and the trends he noted are becoming only more entrenched. His introductory analysis of five examples of overblown prose will make you exceedingly cautious when you are tempted to use the word "utilize" again.
I would say that this essay, along with Strunk and White will point you in the proper direction of clear prose more readily than a passel of University professors.
from "Politics and the English Language"
Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.
Here it is in modern English:
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.
. . . It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations -- race, battle, bread -- dissolve into the vague phrases "success or failure in competitive activities." This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing -- no one capable of using phrases like "objective considerations of contemporary phenomena" -- would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase ("time and chance") that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. . . . People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning -- they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another -- but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying.
In the Boltzmann entry below I mentioned the Tacoma Narrows Bridge disaster. Did I pause to mention it's cause?
Wind. Yes--one of the great structures of contrete and steel was laid low not by the powerful winds of a tornado or a hurricane, but by ordinary gusts channeled throught the neck of the narrows at the right frequency.
Wind--words. As the ordinary wind has this power, so too do the words we choose to say. We can "make" someone's day, equally we can "break" it simply by what we choose to let out of our mouths.
And the scariest part of all of this is that Jesus tells us that it isn't what goes into a person that makes him unclean, but what comes out of the fullness of his heart. And this is why words are so important, so powerful, and so much in need of careful examination and studious consideration. Nothing should leave our lips, ever, that we have cause to regret. If we are uncertain what to say, the best course is to say nothing at all. James warns us that we shall be called to account for every idle word. He does not say that we shall be called to account for those that grace has given us the strength not to say. Good to confess those, but they have not been unleashed in the whirlwind of words to damage others. We are accountable for the thoughts, but not if we don't brood on them. At most they are an imperfection of our nature--something to be weeded out.
But let's face it. Daily we let loose with a torrent of words that have varying purposes, meanings, and effects. We don't much think about the harm they can do when we make a cutting remark. We don't much consider how our spouses or children might consider not just the word but the tone of what we say.
Words are the human wind that can bring down the Tacoma Narrows bridge. We can choose to gossip and destroy a reputation. We can repeat things that have not been verified and tear a person apart. Because we do not know the strength of the bridge and because we can do nothing about it once the forces are in motion, perhaps we would do better to think carefully about what we have to say--and when it is hurtful to choose not to say it.
Speaking of Quite
We all know that there are some profound differences between English as spoken in the U.S. and English as spoken in the Commonwealth (if that term holds any meaning--The Queen's English, if it does not). Yesterday we received a short lecture about a difference I was unaware of, and which for a time caused some fairly sore feelings in one citizen of Britain. He was working over here in the states and was told that some of his ideas and work were "quite good." In the U.S. "quite good" is seen as a complement, meaning precisely that the work was very good. Apparently the phraseology in the U.K. is used only in an ironic sense as though begging the question, "This is the best you could do?" So the modifier "quite" may be "quite" a no-no when speaking with those who hold to the Queen's English.
Just so's you know.