Samuel Johnson defends blogging

(tongue firmly in cheek on the title, in case you’ve never heard of him)

Samuel Johnson’s first essay in The Rambler: “No. 1. Difficulty of the first address. Practice of the epick poets. Convenience of periodical performances.”

“I hope not much to tire those whom I shall not happen to please; and if I am not commended for the beauty of my works, to be at least pardoned for their brevity. But whether my expectations are most fixed on pardon or praise, I think it not necessary to discover; for having accurately weighed the reasons for arrogance and submission, I find them so nearly equiponderant, that my impatience to try the event of my first performance will not suffer me to attend any longer the trepidations of the balance.

“There are, indeed, many conveniencies almost peculiar to this method of publication, which may naturally flatter the author, whether he be confident or timorous. The man to whom the extent of his knowledge, or the sprightliness of his imagination, has, in his own opinion, already secured the praises of the world, willingly takes that way of displaying his abilities which will soonest give him an opportunity of hearing the voice of fame; it heightens his alacrity to think in how many places he shall hear what he is now writing, read with ecstasies to-morrow. He will often please himself with reflecting, that the author of a large treatise must proceed with anxiety, lest, before the completion of his work, the attention of the publick may have changed its object; but that he who is confined to no single topick may follow the national taste through all its variations, and catch the aura popularis, the gale of favour, from what point soever it shall blow.”

Quotable: “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice”

You’re welcome, future me.

Geoffrey K. Pullum bashes¬†The Elements of Style¬†in his article, “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice”

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What concerns me is that the bias against the passive is being retailed by a pair of authors so grammatically clueless that they don’t know what is a passive construction and what isn’t. Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses. “At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard” is correctly identified as a passive clause, but the other three are all errors:

“There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground” has no sign of the passive in it anywhere.

“It was not long before she was very sorry that she had said what she had” also contains nothing that is even reminiscent of the passive construction.

“The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired” is presumably fingered as passive because of “impaired,” but that’s a mistake. It’s an adjective here. “Become” doesn’t allow a following passive clause. (Notice, for example, that “A new edition became issued by the publishers” is not grammatical.)

These examples can be found all over the Web in study guides for freshman composition classes. (Try a Google search on “great number of dead leaves lying.”) I have been told several times, by both students and linguistics-faculty members, about writing instructors who think every occurrence of “be” is to be condemned for being “passive.” No wonder, if Elements is their grammar bible. It is typical for college graduates today to be unable to distinguish active from passive clauses. They often equate the grammatical notion of being passive with the semantic one of not specifying the agent of an action. (They think “a bus exploded” is passive because it doesn’t say whether terrorists did it.)

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It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules. They can’t help it, because they don’t know how to identify what they condemn.

“Put statements in positive form,” they stipulate, in a section that seeks to prevent “not” from being used as “a means of evasion.”

“Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs,” they insist. (The motivation of this mysterious decree remains unclear to me.)

And then, in the very next sentence, comes a negative passive clause containing three adjectives: “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place.”

That’s actually not just three strikes, it’s four, because in addition to contravening “positive form” and “active voice” and “nouns and verbs,” it has a relative clause (“that can pull”) removed from what it belongs with (the adjective), which violates another edict: “Keep related words together.”

“Keep related words together” is further explained in these terms: “The subject of a sentence and the principal verb should not, as a rule, be separated by a phrase or clause that can be transferred to the beginning.” That is a negative passive, containing an adjective, with the subject separated from the principal verb by a phrase (“as a rule”) that could easily have been transferred to the beginning. Another quadruple violation.

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Creative Writing: A Sample

This was my attempt at our creative writing exercise in class today:

When the rosy dawn should have appeared above the heath, only a vague and disquieting light slowly crept around the tops of jagged distant peaks. The yellow face had not shown his face in days, Herculean black clouds blotting out his light, dripping noxious mists that clouded our path. It was the fifth day since we had left the river, or perhaps it was the sixth. The days melded with the monotony of the Cimmerian shade. As I rose from where I had lain I was aware of my body, especially my withered tongue and gnawing paunch, which had waned from its former fullness. Profound weariness sat behind my eyes as I shifted dispassionately straining for sight of some distant, but imagined hope.