Friday, January 28, 2011

words well placed

Adam Haslett does well in reviewing the new book by STANLEY FISH: How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. The review is The art of good writing on the Financial Times web site.

Haslett says "the form and rhythm of sentences communicates as much meaning as their factual content, whether we’re conscious of it or not" and quotes a variety of them from Lincoln, David Foster Wallace, William Trevor, WG Sebald, and Paul Harding.

These are good selections (go there and see). They're better than the ones Slate has solicited in Nina Shen Rastogi's Brow Beat blog post, Stanley Fish's Top Five Sentences—Now with Reader Contest! or Stanley Fish's own favorites (quoted by Rastogi).

Haslett points us to misdirections by Ezra Pound, Hemingway, and Orwell, who came down hard on complex sentence structure and nuanced prose, and he quotes Geoff Kloske's warning that "the incessant dribble of mini-messaging has made most people’s daily use of written language brutally factual in character, more private ad copy than prose."

Like many, Haslett reminds of Strunk & White's undue influence on modern prose. But he doesn't condemn the two for failings of their readers: "The trouble with the book isn’t the rules themselves," he says, "which the authors are sage enough to recognise 'the best writers sometimes disregard', but the knock-on effect that their bias for plain statement has tended to have not only on expositional but literary prose."[1]

I was recently asked to contribute a short appreciation to a web site devoted to a favorite author. In responding I said how much I like her natural descriptions and gave this as one example: "A puddling of snow still lingered in the hollows; and far off, the higher hills of the Frontier Country were still maned and crested with white; but nearer moors showed the sodden darkness of last year's heather, and the wind that always harped along the Wall had gone round to the West, and the green plover were calling." The sentence appears in an historical fiction by Rosemary Sutcliff called Frontier wolf (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1980). It reads well out of context, and even better when encountered while coursing the novel.[2] I won't claim it's all-time greatest prose but I like it better than Fish's selections or the sentences contributed by those who responded to Slate's challenge.[3]



[1] Linguists Geoff Pullum and Ben Zimmer have stronger feelings about S&W. See, for example, this Q&A by Paul Mulshine in the Newark Star Ledger:
Q. Your colleague Geoff Pullum, at Language Log, has made it his personal goal to tear down Strunk and White. What’s wrong with "The Elements of Style?"
A. Pullam (sic) has been debunking the argument that this is the one book people should be using as guide to language. I find Strunk and White had a tenuous grasp on grammar. Many of their smaller rules are wrong, such as the blanket rule against using the passive voice.
       Their larger rules are something you could never disagree with: "Omit needless words." If you knew which words were needless, you would not need the advice.
-- On language, Ben Zimmer gets the last word |
And see Pullum's erudite article, The passive in English, in his Language Log in which he writes:
The people who criticize the passive the most tend to use it more than the rest of us. George Orwell warns against the passive in his overblown and dishonest essay "Politics and the English language". E. B. White does likewise in the obnoxiously ignorant little book he coauthored with Strunk, The Elements of Style. Both of these authors have a remarkably high frequency of passives in their work: around 20 percent of their clauses with transitive verbs are cast in the passive, a distinctly higher frequency than you find in most of the prose written by normal people who don't spend their time pontificating hypocritically about the alleged evil of the passive.
[2] Here's some of the context.
[The two hunters headed] up a side glen where alder and hazel crowded the banks of a small fast burn. The burn was coming down in spate, running green with melting snow-water from the high moors, so that they must follow the bank a good way before they could come to a good crossing place; but between the darkly sodden wreck of last year's bracken and the soft grey drift of the sky, the catkins were lengthening on the hazel bushes, making a kind of faint sunlight of their own, and in one especially sheltered place, as the two young men brushed past, the first pollen scattered from the whippy sprays so that they rode through a sudden golden mist. Even here at the world's end, spring was remembering the way back, and for a moment a sense of quickening caught almost painfully at Alexios somewhere below the breastbone...

The burn had widened into a chain of shallows, and they splashed through easily enough, the hounds shaking themselves as they scrambled out on the further bank, and headed up through the steep woods towards the lip of the glen.

The hazel woods fell back, and now they were out into open country; high country that climbed higher yet. Half melted snow lay puddled in every hollow, and the wind had an edge to it like a scold's tongue, for all that it blew from the south-west. But even up here there was the sense of quickening. The first blossom clung like stray sparks to the dark masses of the furze, and there was the green rooty smell of things growing, and the air full of the lonely bubbling mating-call of curlew that had come up from the estuary as nesting time drew near. It was a day when scent would lie close to the ground but long lasting; a good hunting day.

'Luath has a scent,' Cunorix said quietly.

And looking down, Alexios saw the big hound standing suddenly tense, muzzle raised a little and faint tremors running his whole length to the ragged plume-tip of his tail. A moment later, Luffra had it also. The two riders waited, their ponies reined close, careful to make no sound or movement that would draw their attention away. Then with no sound the two great hounds were off, and Alexios and Cunorix, driving their heels into their ponies' flanks, were after them.

It was a long hunting and a hard one...

-- Extract from Chapter 5, "Wolf Skin" in Rosemary Sutcliff's Frontier Wolf. I reproduce this under fair use provisions of copyright and will remove it if shown that I'm wrong in doing so.
[3]The site's owner, Anthony Lawton, saw the blog posts I'd done on Sutcliff and asked me to submit something. Here's a link to my contribution:
Blogger Jeff appreciates Rosemary Sutcliff’s evocative writing, and here are links to the blog posts I've written about her writings:

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