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.

The Death Certificate

Almost every day I meet men and women well advanced in years who walk to my desk holding the little blue paper. Perhaps it is me, but I seem to see white knuckles, fingers pressing the little blue scrap, not to let it go. That little blue scrap is a metaphor, the only scrap they have left of the one whose name is written on it. In this case it says, Frieda Fern Wooden, maiden name Mabry. Oh, when it was Mabry! How beautiful she was! She would be 77 this August, that is, before box 33 came. Box 33 is heavy with pain. In this case it’s “Colon Cancer,” for “years.” Maybe this is why I see his face is calm, at peace for once. God knows the last four years have been tulmultuous. Surely the skeptics were wrong, death is very painful. The pain of death is in the waiting for it. Grimly the reaper stood immobile, impassive for years, four to be specific. But now all that remains is the soreness from that pain, the jagged reminders of lost joys in the form of tea cups and Christmas ornaments and blue scraps of paper. Perhaps that’s why he told me not to bother making a copy?

Educating better journalists

This is interesting, from Dreher, citing Malcom Gladwell:

If you had a single piece of advice to offer young journalists, what would it be?
The issue is not writing. It’s what you write about. One of my favorite columnists is Jonathan Weil, who writes for Bloomberg. He broke the Enron story, and he broke it because he’s one of the very few mainstream journalists in America who really knows how to read a balance sheet. That means Jonathan Weil will always have a job, and will always be read, and will always have something interesting to say. He’s unique. Most accountants don’t write articles, and most journalists don’t know anything about accounting. Aspiring journalists should stop going to journalism programs and go to some other kind of grad school. If I was studying today, I would go get a master’s in statistics, and maybe do a bunch of accounting courses and then write from that perspective. I think that’s the way to survive. The role of the generalist is diminishing. Journalism has to get smarter.