September 3, 2013

"A student, if he is on scholarship or has an ambitious mother, may actually try to earn all these merit badges."

"But if he has any spirit, he’ll murmur a well-chosen four-letter word and go out and get stoned. Or if he is exceptionally thoughtful, he may explore the contradictions embedded in these commandments...."

Writes Richard Lanham (in 1974, quoted by Mark Liberman, at Language Log) protesting the "commandments" laid down (purportedly) in books about writing style.

I detect some snobbery, as if it's low class to take the basics of writing style seriously. Those in the know can bypass that cant about clarity and... what?

ADDED: I've corrected this to show that Liberman was quoting Lanham. I knew Liberman was mostly quoting Lanham, but there are so many ins and outs of blocking and indenting that my eye lost track of where one author ended and the other began. I should have paid more attention to the reek of snobbery, because it's something people today are more fastidious about.

6 comments:

Matthew Sablan said...

Good writers understand there are rules to writing well. One of the rules is knowing when to subvert those rules ("I can't get no satisfaction" being the classic example of when to break the rules.)

Also, I think the Language Log fails to understand some of the advice: "Be plain; Avoid “fine writing” Avoid bluntness; Articulate your sentences gracefully." These are not necessarily contradictory. One can be plain [without ornamentation] and still graceful.

AF said...

That's not Liberman, that's a quotation from a 1974 book by Richard Lanham. Also, while that passage may well reflect a kind a snobbery, it clearly does not take the position that "it's low class to take the basics of writing style seriously." On the contrary, the point is that taking the basics of writing style seriously entails questioning received dogma about writing style.

Sam L. said...

If I knew what he meant about "Boy Scout didacticism", I'd likely criticize him until day is done, whether he meant it in a good way or a bad way. I suspect it's the bad way, and that he did not understand the Scouts.

Freeman Hunt said...

The upper class can afford to go out and get stoned rather than work hard. Don't dull that special spirit through effort, dull it in a haze of girlish Mary Jane.

Crunchy Frog said...

The only rules in writing that I have taken to heart are:

a) consider your audience. A business letter should not read like poetry, and vice versa; and

b) ask yourself, "Would I want to read this, or is it total crap?"

Of course, given the audience, total crap may be appropriate. YMMV.

cassandra lite said...

A friend's daughter, applying to vet schools, asked me to look over her essay. I told that a particular sentence should start with "And" to clarify its connection to the preceding thought.

She said, "You can't start a sentence with 'and'."

I insisted it was done well all the time.

She countered, "The people grading this aren't professional writers. They'll have learned the same crappy rules I have and mark me down for violating one of them."

Can't argue with that. When the legendary misstatement becomes fact, don't print anything but.