Where Everyone is a Writer and a Reader

Writing in the New Yorker in December of 1928, E. B. White recounts an encounter with a paid for hire writer. The writer is getting paid “fifty cents a word,” and is grimly disappointed when White advises that “willy-nilly” gets a hyphen, “at a cost of half a dollar.” Laura Miller, writing in Salon, must be getting paid per word, for her June 22 article, bemoaning the recent rise of self-publishing, is about twice as long as it needs to be. Ostensibly about her concern for readers deluged in the self-published detritus of a slush pile tidal wave, the piece laments the loss of the professional slush pile reader, the entry-level editor who combs through trash piles of unsolicited material like an astronomer searching the night sky for life on another planet. Several assumptions support Laura’s claim that the adulteration of traditional publishing by self-publishing is ultimately to the detriment of the general interest reader: professional writers are better than amateur writers; all self-published works result from slush pile rejections; traditionally published material guarantees quality, and this stamp of official approval saves readers from having to make that decision for themselves. But at risk is an old character, a kind of modern-day Bartleby, the professional reader, the slush pile expert who is now out of work, who has been laboring at the risk of blindness and insanity all these years on behalf of the general interest reader to ensure only works of the highest quality reach their book of the month club selection options.

We discovered Laura’s article in a post at HTML Giant, a relatively recent addition to our blog feeds, but yet another example of the kind of self-published material Laura bemoans. Roxane Gay presents a kind of opposing viewpoint to Laura’s piece, at least where the slush pile going public motif is concerned.

So what do we have to add to the already too long and boring discussion? Well, we were thinking of self-published music. Most of what we hear on the radio, in spite of its imprimatur, sanctioned by the traditional music publishing system, in other words, professional work, we find hackneyed, superfluous, and platitudinous. Or consider television – also full of terrible work sanctioned by professional license. And against these works place the street corner crooner, the independent label, the throwaway zine, the twice visited blog, the indie film. We don’t see self-publishing as the problem in the same way that Laura views it as the problem.

Writing again in the New Yorker, in December of 1948, E. B. White, under the title “Accredited Writers?” remarks: “Perhaps, as democracy assumes, every man is a writer, every man wholly needy, every man capable of unimaginable deeds.” As for us, we don’t mind taking the time to try to read what everyman, or everywoman, has to say, for every person has a story to tell. How well they tell it, how persuasive their argument, how lovely their prose or poetry, how surprising their style – these are our values, too, but, like Roxane, we also value the opportunity to compare and contrast, the better to evaluate for ourselves whose story for its honesty and originality bears repeating, for if every man or woman is a writer, they must also be a reader.

Piracy off the Coast of Gramarye

Huddleston and Pullum’s English Grammar liberates grammar studies from the prescriptivists. Pullum boards the jolly, unsuspecting ship Elements of Style, captained by the evil E. B. White, and ransacks it, taking no prisoners. Pullum is now king of Gramarye, having deposed White and his motley crew of prescriptive pirates. A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar is the dinghy version of the piratically priced mother ship, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language.

Why study grammar? Most native speakers will get “dog, the, away, ran” correct (correctness is not, contrary to popular notion, the language spoken in Gramarye – correct is what serves one’s purpose; now if we have that wrong, we are still deliberating; we’re not sure who the true pirates are in this story).

“The, dog, ran, away” is the first exercise in Dinghy. There are 24 possible arrangements of the four words; only three will be grammatical, and they are not difficult for the native speaker to recognize, for, as it turns out, if we speak the language, we know the grammar. So why study grammar?

We are given eight reasons in the preface to Dinghy, only a couple very convincing, at least one political, having to do with the declining student population of Gramarye. I wish they had talked about how they got into the study of grammar, why they became grammarians and linguists; there’s little passion in the reasons they submit. Pullum did a study early in his career analyzing popular song lyrics – he could have talked about that! There is a whiff of passion in the middle of the preface, where they talk about their lunch discussions, and the “pronouncements unchallenged for 200 years [that] are in fact flagrantly false.” We’re all for exposing the tyranny of the old kings and their minions, but Dinghy’s preface is no match for Roger Angell’s (White’s stepson and another New Yorker writer) forward to the fourth edition of Elements.

Pullum seems bent on defending his reign, and more power to him, for it will be some time before his prescriptive grammar alerts are heard and understood throughout the land, but he sounds like a Fox News commentator when he says “We linguists should not be shy about speaking out and condemning this opinionated [Elements], influential, error-stuffed, time-wasting, unkillable zombie of a book for all the harm it has done.” *

One of the problems with Pullum’s claim that Elements has done “real and permanent harm,” and that it has been “deleterious to grammar education in America,” * is the assumption that every high school kid in the land has been subjected to it, and having been subjected to it, has successfully incorporated it into their language skills, and that their teachers taught it as a literal reading of the bible – or that their teachers taught it at all. In any case, it might be a good thing if a style book, even a flawed one such as Pullum accuses White’s of being, had anything close to such a profound effect on the general reading public. And there’s the rub. Pullum goes after White because he’s not a text-book. Pullum proves that as a grammar Elements is way off course. Why doesn’t Pullum go after the text-books? White is only a puppet king.

White’s an easy target. Elements is a commercial effort, something CGEL will never be (my copy of English Grammar, purchased from Amazon for just under $30, does not have a price anywhere on its cover – it’s a text-book). I do like English Grammar. I first tried paddling straight through, but got only about half way before the swell of terms started to swamp my boat; I recommend that the general interest reader begin with the “Prescriptive grammar notes” – that’s where the new constitution is being written.

What grammar studies needs isn’t a Pullum, but an Andy Warhol, someone who can show us and popularize what we already know to be true – Gramarye is our land.

*Pullum’s article explicating Elements, “Prescriptive grammar in America: The Land of the Free and The Elements of Style,” (Dec. 2009), is posted on his website, along with links to his other works, including CGLC and EG. Pullum blogs with other linguists at Language Log, an entertaining pirate hangout.

Grammar Shock: Person, Tense, Time, and Sense

For most of us, grammar is like electricity; we use it all the time, usually correctly, but we don’t really know what it is or how it works, but we do know it can be dangerous. We wouldn’t want to discuss inflection while standing barefoot in a pool of water, or mix tenses when changing fuses.

We are advised in a discussion of  the verb paradigm, in Huddleston and Pullum’s English Grammar, that “The relation between tense and time in English…is by no means straightforward.” I never doubted it, but it’s always nice to hear that your hunches have friends.

And so it came as no surprise to find Roger Angell, in the February 15 & 22 issue of the New Yorker, in what he calls “another strange journalistic effort,” mixing memory and desire and person and tense, a dangerous business. “We are getting ahead of ourselves,” Angell says, slipping into first person plural, in what might be an imitation in present time or a nostalgic nod to his stepfather, E. B. White, and a tradition that he apparently disliked but that came to define a certain style and journalistic era. (I read recently somewhere of some editor taking out the old knob and tube of White’s first person plurals and replacing them with modern conduit; we trust they wore gloves).

Angell switches person in his present piece in part because like his subject, “Mac [St. Clair McKelway],” he “knew them when.” And, as Angell deftly illustrates in his piece, keeping one’s tense and person straight is basic to nursing our sanity, particularly during wartime, but as well afterwards when we might be haunted by the decisions and indecisions that changed our lives forever. “It keeps you awake at night,” Angell says (now hiding behind the second person), after he’s diagnosed that sleep deprivation was no doubt a major contribution to “Mac’s madness, Mac’s fugue – let’s call it a flight, in this story….” Just so, English Grammar points out that “The usual definition found in grammar books and dictionaries says simply that the past tense expresses or indicates a time that is in the past. But things are nothing like as straightforward as that. The relation between grammatical category of past tense and semantic property of making reference to past time is much more subtle.”

There is a tense, most usefully expressed in music, but sometimes also in writing, where we can’t seem to locate our precise situation in time. The inflections all come together into one person and tense that seems some crazy mix-up of all possible persons and tenses. Perhaps this tense is properly called sleep. But when you can’t sleep, it’s called ungrammatical, a kind of linguistic power surge.

APA Caution: Metaphor Crossing

We don’t find E. B. White adhering to APA guidelines. It’s more palatable monkeying with rats if one denies them human characteristics.

One rule that hasn’t changed in the new 6th edition APA manual concerns a warning against the use of metaphor, specifically anthropomorphic connotations (p. 69). One may not use metaphor; the question is, can one not.

Camus avoided metaphor in The Stranger, creating an anti-man. For McLuhan, technology is metaphor, extensions of the senses. For Norman O. Brown, in Love’s Body, language is metaphor; to avoid metaphor is to avoid language: “Metaphor is mistake or impropriety; a faux pas, or slip of the tongue; a little madness; petit mal; a little seizure or inspiration” (p. 244). It’s easy to see why the APA wants to avoid it. On the other hand, “Freedom is poetry, taking liberties with words, breaking the rules of normal speech, violating common sense” (p. 244), in short, jazz. But metaphor is ambiguous, and that’s what we must avoid: “Psychoanalysis, symbolic consciousness, leads from disguised to patent nonsense – Wittgenstein, surrealism, Finnegans Wake” (p. 245). In “VII” of Love’s Body, titled “Head,” Brown lights out for the territory, ahead of all the rest: “Psychoanalysis shows the sexual organization of the body physical to be a political organization; the body is a body politic…a political arrangement arrived at after stormy upheavals in the house of Oedipus…a well-organized tyranny” (pp. 126-127). And if one wants to avoid sex, of course, one may go in for the corporate body, where the head sits at the top, and gets dibs on the first parking space.

Metaphor begins with sound, and poetry begins with being tricked by sound: “…cuckoo(‘s)fool, maid(en, mate, the Wryneck, which arrives at or about the same time as the cuckoo” (OED, mate).

So, in the 6th edition of the APA manual, we find this: “Correct: Pairs of rats (cage mates) were allowed to forage together. Incorrect: Rat couples (cage mates) were allowed to forage together” (p. 69). But, first, pair is no better than couple. Since the 13th Century, at least, the OED gives us, pair has been used to describe a married couple; indeed, the denotative meaning of pair is couple. Second, the offensive word in the passage (taking the APA view of metaphor as something to be avoided), is not pairs or couples, but mates, for a mate is one of a pair, a partner in marriage, a lover. The denotative meaning of mate, from the OED, is “A companion, fellow, comrade, friend; a fellow worker or business partner,” and only an E. B. White can handle a rat as all of these.

The poor rats, coupled in their cage, denied by the APA their very coupling, for, again, as the OED gives us, couple means “That which unites two. 1. a. A brace or leash for holding two hounds together.” Alone, together; together, but separate: like humans, a condition that can only exist in some cage, in cagey logic.

And what of cage? From the OED: “I. Generally and non-technically. 1. A box or place of confinement for birds and other animals (or, in barbarous times, for human beings), made wholly or partly of wire, or with bars of metal or wood, so as to admit air and light, while preventing the creature’s escape.”

Note “in barbarous times” suggests time past, but no longer: we wish, for language is our cage, a pair of gloves with a missing mate, a decoupling of experience.

If we want to avoid metaphor in the APA example given on page 69, we suggest: Rats were allowed to forage together, in cages, separated two by two. Lovely, isn’t it? Then again, were the rats allowed out of their cages to forage? Can one forage in a cage? Perhaps rats can, but still, an even greater problem than pair, couple, or cage is found with the word forage, for a forager is a messenger, though one may forage for oneself. Do rats “plunder, pillage, ravage” (OED, for forage)? No, only humans forage, as we have done here, within the cage of our blog.

New Outbreak of Grammar Influenza

We’ve only just noticed someone else coming to the aid of the mistreated E. B. White – Jennifer Balderama, in a Times review of Mark Garvey’s Stylized. We find Simon & Shuster’s description of Elements and its influence hyperbolic, but they’re trying to sell a book, not grammar, while it does sound like Garvey misses neither the point of Elements nor that of the grammarians. Get your grammar shot; school’s back in session.

Stanley Fish, Full of Ethos

Few bloggers are as full of ethos as Stanley Fish – as he frequently reminds us. He’s lately been waxing on the teaching of writing. He’s simply trying to challenge his community.

We like that Fish recently invoked Francis Christensen’s generative rhetoric (though he doesn’t mention Erskine). And Fish didn’t trash E. B. White, though he did question our ability to annotate him meaningfully for the modern student who knows no terms, and he seems to have skipped over White’s dictum to “omit needless words.”

Stanley’s wrestling with the protean snake of the sentence strikes us as heroic, a last stand against the philistines who would text, twitter, and roll rather than read to the floor of the ocean, write cursively, on paper, and stroll.

Speaking of music: if one aspires to be a musician – classical, jazz, rock, zydeco – one listens; one listens to the music of the discipline. Why would it not be just so with one who aspires to be a writer? An aspiring writer should read, just as an aspiring musician listens.

Kicking E. B. White When He’s Down

To a neighborly inquiry, yes, we saw the vicious attack on the venerable E. B. White, first in the Chronicle, then, with several bystanders jumping on for a kick or two, in the Times. We first became aware of Pullum at Emdashes, where, we thought, Martin Schneider – omitting needless words – handled the matter clearly and concisely and to a close, but we like following links, so from Emdashes, we followed a link to Levi Stahl’s discussion; without explaining too much, he dismisses the academic Pullum to move on to a more tasteful topic, E. B. White’s letters.

We are aware of the shortcomings of Elements, having on our own often tried to tackle the issue of what’s correct when. Pullum posts his own follow-up, fed up with the commenters (we have added his blog to our feeds). In his follow-up, he heads off going to his book, but it seems fair to ask if not White then what. Pullum’s book is a descriptive grammar, so it “…will not…make recommendations about how you should speak or write” (p. 3). It should come as no surprise to anyone that there are disagreements and conflicting opinions. For example, and as we’ve pointed out, White said to write with nouns and verbs; Erskine said to write with modifiers. Of course, the answer is to write with words, and good luck choosing the right ones, putting them in the right order, and separating them with the right punctuation.

In the June 28, 2004 New Yorker, we enjoyed Menand’s dissing of Truss, and he helps explain why we prefer White to the standard grammar text. Menand (like White before him) writes as a generalist, not a specialist. Menand argues, and we agree, and we think that White also agreed, that the rules don’t really have much to do with effective writing. If they did, most academic writing would not be nearly so anemic. Pullum complains in his Chronicle piece that “Some of the recommendations are vapid, like ‘Be clear’ (how could one disagree?).” Yet much academic writing would improve if the writer would only make some attempt at following this obvious, White tenet. In Menand’s piece, titled “Bad Comma,” he has something more to say than corrections of Truss. We don’t find that Pullum has much more to say, at least not on the evidence of the two pieces we see here.

We’ll ask White to help us with a close, from the March 4, 1944, New Yorker: “A good deal depends on the aims of a publication. The more devious the motives of his employer, the more difficult for a writer to write as he pleases. As far as we have been able to discover, the keepers of this house have two aims: the first is to make money, the second is to make sense”; two aims that academic writers are not usually saddled with. 

None of which directly answers Pullum’s argument. Pullum has two points: one, that Elements is flawed; two, that the flaws have afflicted generations of students who as a result of their immersion in Elements cannot now write. Pullum provides support for his first point; his second is insupportable. There might be scores of students unable to write, but it doesn’t follow that it’s the fault of Elements. But what about our point that the argument is somehow embroiled in academic versus commercial ends, that Pullum’s secret thesis is the advancement of the purpose of his text – a poor advertisement if he wants to compete with the incredible ethos surrounding White, an ethos based not on Elements, but on his actual writing success. That point is irrelevant to Pullum’s argument. But we have two claims too: first, students can’t write because they’ve been taught writing from grammar handbooks and textbooks, wrong from the start; second, that the textbooks are unnecessarily academic and rarely involve the kinds of reading experience necessary for students to improve their writing skills (the textbook industry’s commercial success is driven in large part from forced new editions, captive student readers, and exorbitant pricing). 

At the same time, there are academic efforts that have made both money and sense: for example, Zinsser’s On Writing Well; Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph Williams (whose “The Phenomenology of Error” is must reading for anyone seriously interested in this argument); and Notes Toward a New Rhetoric, by Francis Christensen. We never said Elements was the only book to read, just that it is a worthwhile book to read and carry. And we are grateful to Mr. Pullum for updating its errors – his analysis will add fuel to the discussion of the choices suggested in Elements.