Monday, January 16, 2023

A pestilential presence in your library

David Bentley Hart, in The Lamp Magazine, writes about the elegance and evolution of language and, in doing so, offers a tongue-in-cheek, hilarious critique of Strunk and White and George Orwell, known to many of us as the go-to book references for English grammar and style. (In the blockquotes below, the emphases are mine.)
In fact, if you own a copy of The Elements of Style, just destroy the damned thing. It is a pestilential presence in your library. Most of the rules of style it contains are vacuous, arbitrary, or impossible to obey, and you are better off without them in your life. And the materials on grammar and usage are frequently something worse. Some of them are simply inherited fake rubrics—“however” must always be a postpositive, “which” must not be used for a restrictive relative clause, and other nonsense of that kind—all of which are belied by the whole canon of English literature. Others, however, are evidence of surprising ignorance. It is bad enough that the manual insists that one must on principle prefer the passive to the active voice; but it is far worse that it then adduces several supposed examples of sentences in the passive voice that are in fact nothing of the sort. One of them—“There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground”—seems to have been chosen simply because “lying” about sounds like a passive sort of thing to do. That neither Strunk nor White knew the difference between a passive construction and an active intransitive verb in the imperfect past tense—or, as the book also demonstrates, the difference between the passive and an active past perfect, or the difference between the passive and an adjectival past participle without an auxiliary verb—is genuinely shocking. It does, however, impart a useful lesson: never mistake a tone of authority for evidence of actual expertise.
You can either agree or disagree with Hart, but his essay is a delight to read. Consider his defense of semicolons.
A writer who disdains the semicolon is a fool. In fact, hostility to this most delicate and lyrical of punctuation marks is a sure sign of a deformed soul and a savage sensibility. Conscious life is not a brute concatenation of discrete units of experience; it is often fluid, resistant to strict divisions and impermeable partitions, punctuated by moments of transition that are neither exactly terminal nor exactly continuous in character. Meaning, moreover, is often held together by elusive connections, ambiguous shifts of reference, mysterious coherences. And art should use whatever instruments it has at its disposal to express these ambiguous eventualities and perplexing alternations. To master the semicolon is to master prose. To master the semicolon is to master language’s miraculous capacity for capturing the shape of reality.
I remember a piece of advice given during a writing workshop: write for a 12-year old. This, we were told, was the secret of success behind Times Magazine and Reader's Digest. The articles should be accessible to anyone. The advice made me uncomfortable. David Bentley Hart writes a searing and, once again, hilarious, rebuke:
Do not write down to what you presume to be the level of your readers (unless you are writing specifically for very small children). To do so is an injustice both to them and to you. Even if your suppositions regarding them are correct, you should do them the honor of assuming they know what you know, or can learn it, or are at least willing to try. True, some readers become indignant at their own inability to follow prose of any complexity or to recognize words any more obscure than those they are accustomed to using when talking to their dogs. Invariably they will blame the author rather than themselves. You owe them absolutely nothing. If you attempt always to descend to the lowest common denominator, you will never hit bottom, but you will certainly end up losing the interest of better readers. Ours is, sadly, an age of declining literacy and attention spans, and the situation grows worse by the year. You simply must not make any concessions to that reality, unless you are prepared in the end to give up on writing altogether.
The essay ends with a celebration of language. This part is my favorite.
Language is magic. It is invocation and conjuration. With words, we summon the seas and the forests, the stars and distant galaxies, the past and the future and the fabulous, the real and the unreal, the possible and the impossible. With words, we create worlds—in imagination, in the realm of ideas, in the arena of history. With words, we disclose things otherwise hidden, including even our inward selves. And so on. When you write, attempt to weave a spell. If this is not your intention, do not write.

Read the entire thing



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