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.

On Reading Well

In discussion last night we asked what makes for a good writer, what characterizes good writing, how do we recognize good writing. And so we talked about what makes good writing good. The discussion was lively, full of ideas, suggestions, and opinions. We stacked boxes of clarity in the back corner. Someone brought in bowls of mixed claims to snack on, and we helped ourselves to a refreshing punch from a glass bowl filled with assumptions.  

Then we asked what makes for a good reader, what characterizes good reading, how do we recognize good reading. And so we talked about what makes good reading good. But the discussion was chilly, quiet – only one light box of definitions, few suggestions, and thinly scattered opinions. The snacks ran out and the party seemed over. 

Writing is learned while writing, and probably in no other way. Memorization of all the many rules will not guarantee good writing. But we are not born pen in hand, fingers on a keyboard, or standing in front of an audience, our argument committed to memory and practiced. If bad writing is often the evidence of bad thinking, does bad reading result in bad writing? A good writer is a good reader. A good reader is a good proofreader. But what do we proofread for – for our own comprehension and understanding of what’s going on? But even if we can read something good with success, does it follow we can write something good with equal success? It’s possible that a good reader is, first, an imaginative reader, one who reads with imagination; but what do we mean by imagination, childhood wonder, or Wallace Stevens’s reading lamp (orange sun in his clear blue sky), the one unconcerned that we might not get it, for we may not even stop to think there’s something to get, that that’s what it’s all about, the other concerned with reality. Many of us fear writing – just as we might fear speaking before groups; do we fear reading in similar ways? How do we get over these fears?

In “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser says “Clear thinking becomes clear writing; one can’t exist without the other. It’s impossible for a muddy thinker to write good English” (p. 9). Then, without warning, he accuses the reader of being “someone with an attention span of about 30 seconds…” (p. 9). We suppose Steven Toulmin meant something similar when he said, “The effort the writer does not put into writing, the reader has to put into reading.” Nevertheless, much reading does require effort, supreme effort to read Stevens, to use one of his words, though of course Toulmin was probably not speaking of poetry, but even so, Stevens’s essays are just as difficult as his poetry; anyway, Toulmin also makes it plain he doesn’t want people using his ideas dogmatically, and another of what he calls his “mottoes” is “no theory is self-validating.”

We are working on keeping our posts short, around 500 words seems right for our purpose, but if we don’t get the right 500 words in the right order we find that what we’ve written often sounds too cryptic; nevertheless, we end now with the following, from A. W. Ward’s “Dickens”:        

“Dickens…perceived that in order to succeed as a reporter of the highest class he needed something besides the knowledge of shorthand. In a word, he lacked reading; and this deficiency he set himself to supply as best he could by a constant attendance at the British Museum. Those critics who have dwelt on the fact that the reading of Dickens was neither very great nor very extensive, have insisted on what is not less true than obvious; but he had this one quality of the true lover of reading, that he never professed a familiarity with that which he knew little or nothing” (p. 10).  

“Inasmuch as he was no great reader in the days of his authorship, and had to go through hard times of his own before, it was well that the literature of his childhood was good of its kind, and that where it was not good it was at least gay. Dickens afterwards made it an article of his social creed, that the imagination of the young needs nourishment as much as their bodies require food and clothing; and he had reason for gratefully remembering that at all events the imaginative part of his education had escaped neglect” (p. 4). 

Ward, A. W. (1882). Dickens. London: Macmillan and Co. p. 10. Digitalized by Google:

Olson, Gary A. “Literary theory, philosophy of science, and persuasive discourse: Thoughts from a neo-premodernist.” [interview with Stephen Toulmin] JAC: Journal of Advanced Composition 13.2 (1993): 283-310.