Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Short Sentences Are For The Short Attention Spans of Those Who Don't Have Ideas

I get a lot of flack for my writing, which doesn't much bother me.  I'm not a writer.  But a lot of it is rather funny.  One of the favorite accusations is that I sometimes, well, quite often, write long sentences.  To that I say that it's not possible to write about complex things without using complex and compound sentences.  Especially not on the amount of time I have to write.

The idea that short sentences are mandatory and the definition of good writing is evidence of the decrease in intelligence of the intelligentsia in the past hundred years.   I haven't noticed that the fetish for short sentences, particularly popular since at least the idiocy of such popularizing as is contained in "Strunk - White" the idiotic "Elements of Style"*, has resulted in an increase in either general sophistication of thought or literacy.  I think the short sentences so dutifully written in accord with "Strunk -White" are generally banal in content and, quite often, are not worth reading.  And that's not the only source of non-wisdom on the topic of short sentences.  There are a number of sources ordering that only short sentences consumable by someone with what used to be considered a fourth-grade reading comprehension are allowable.

In the early months of my blogging I experimented with writing short sentences in easy style and found it only worked at all when the topics were rather obvious and simple and of general agreement.  I also found it was a lot harder to avoid banality while doing it.  None of which is compatible with exploring what's wrong with the common received wisdom.  The common received wisdom seems to be compatible with such rules mandating banality and such corsets on expository content.

The fetish for "elegance", of supposed simplicity, supposedly a virtue in science, has come to dominate over the humanities.  That is a basic denial of the exigencies of the topics of the humanities, including history, including commentary on the widest of human experience and the literary record of humanity which are far vaster in their complexity than the proper topic of rigorous science.  There has also been a pudding headed decision that nothing of any difficulty, things that won't be readily comprehended is to be deemed elegant.   Elegance, though, doesn't cut it when the topic is hard and thorny and inescapably ambiguous and handled only in a way which will and can not have unanimous and instant agreement.

To dictate short sentences while dealing with the complexities of human experience and life is as stupid as it would be to dictate linear equations while dealing with science that requires more complex calculations.

I look at the writing of E. B. White, so admired, so often held up as a model and it looks banal to me. There is a reason that his most famous writing was either in the form of children's books or light, semi-flippant magazine articles for The New Yorker.  So much of what people admire in White is a mirror of their preexisting ideas or, more so, their attitudes than any kind of hard challenge of their previously held beliefs and wishes.  I don't do that stuff.  It's not what I do.  I'm not an elegant, polished writer, I have a different agenda.   I will not bow down to the oracles of Cornell and pledge obeisance to their dictates.

*  Some will remember I committed the mortal sin of dissing "The Little Book" the sacred "Elements of Style" the very end of last year.  I still think there is no better short source pointing out the incompetence in English grammar of both Strunk and White than the article 50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice by Geoffrey K. Pullum. .  Him pointing out that not only did the authors of the great work demonstrate they couldn't even reliably identify passages in the passive, as they condemned it, but also that they baldly and ignorantly violated their own edicts as soon as they'd laid them out.   Not only does that prove the incompetence of Strunk and White on the topic of the book, it also identifies those who have lavished praise on the book as incompetent to do that.  He notes some of their worst instances of that incompetence are dutifully repeated by would be critics and language mavens to this day, unaware of the wrongness of their perfect masters.

Note:  I should also repeat that I have good reason to despise E. B. White who was the foremost of the "Maine writers" who moved here and held up the natives of my state as a quaint amusement for his readers in New York and the alleged sophisticated world. He was a cultural imperialist and an example of the folks from away who convinced too many Maine natives of the inferiority of our thoughts.    I will also mention again the anthology of "Maine writers" once published which contained not a single piece of writing by someone who was born and grew up in the state.  The literary lights who produced it, no doubt fans of irony as read in the friggin' New Yorker, apparently didn't see the irony of that.  I'll bet they don't know what a passive construction is either.

Update:   Here is some more of Pullum from a blog post on the writing dictates of the Harvard economics prof, Greg Mankiw

My heart began to sink when I found he advises against using the passive voice (expressing that instruction by saying "The passive voice is avoided by good writers' — I am assuming this is economist humor) — a long-standing, indeed tired, old theme (see here for discussion).

And ultimately (perhaps you guessed this was coming), he says:

Buy a copy of Strunk and White's Elements of Style. Also, William Zinsser's On Writing Well. Read them—again and again and again.

Oh, dear. Again and again and again, American professors with absolutely no background in English grammar insist that their 21st-century college students should study this unpleasantly dogmatic little work, written by men born in the 19th century. But the dictats given in The Elements of Style range from the redundant to the insane. Anyone who read the book again and again and again, and took its edicts literally, would do disastrous damage to their writing.

Most of those who dip into it come out with some signs of a nervous cluelessness about grammar: they get edgy around adverbs and prepositions and instances of the verb be, without exactly knowing why they feel like that, or what they should do about it.

I am quite convinced that The Elements of Style harms students more than it helps them. Yet the Google search term {Strunk White "Elements of Style" site:harvard.edu} calls up nearly ninety hits. Replacing harvard.edu by mit.edu yields more, about 140. At Princeton it's 23. At Stanford it's about 95. The finest universities in America continue to insist that this awful little compilation of century-old peevery is an important accessory for today's literate student. It isn't. The difference between carrying around The Elements of Style in your backpack and carrying around a slide rule is that slide rules gave accurate answers. (I actually don't know much about Zinsser's book; I'm trying to obtain a copy, but it is apparently not published in the UK. What I do know is that he makes the outrageous claim that most adjectives are unnecessary. So I have my doubts about Zinsser too.)

I will bet you that 99 out of 100 of those who venerate Strunk-White don't get the point in the first sentence.  I doubt Mankiw realized it. Is it any wonder that a product of both Yale AND Harvard asked "Is our children learning? " when the cream of the Ivy League class of universities contains so many examples of obviously ignorant erudition.

Such stuff led Pullum to declare:

I've simply had it with all the people who keep telling me that they revere The Elements of Style because it's such a nice little book and helped them so much with their writing when they were in college that they carry it everywhere they go and give it to all their students or hand a copy to each new employee that they hire for their company yadda yadda yadda… I have decided that my campaign against Strunk and White's toxic little compendium of unfollowable dumb advice, bungled grammar claims, and outright mendacity must be taken directly to America's colleges, starting with the great universities of the East Coast.


  1. Thanks for the Pullman article.

    I somehow managed to avoid "Elements", I still haven't figured out how. I absorbed a lot of grammar in public school, then ignored its dictates when I encountered "transformational grammar" (i.e., Chomsky's linguistics) in college. Grammar as a technical subject bored me, so while I heard good things about S&W, I never picked up a copy.

    Turns out that was a good thing.

  2. Adding: it amuses me that the "great universities of the East Coast" would be so enamored of S&W. Proof once again, as if it were needed, that they are indeed the most hidebound of institutions, resting on their reputations far more than making new inroads into thought and scholarship.

    I'm trying to think of the creative insights in theology or Biblical scholarship in the last, say, 50 years, that came out of Harvard or Yale (both of which have Divinity schools). Crossan taught at Chicago, Niebuhr (okay, over 50 years ago) was at Union. I dunno; the "great universities" have great reputations, but what insights are they producing? Or are they really just interested in preserving the status quo?

    Boy, was THAT a rhetorical question!