Category Archives: Writing

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Pediaphilia

Narcissus2

Caravaggio’s “Narcissus.” The encyclopedia made us look outward.

No, it’s not what you think. It’s the creeping insistence that everything needs its own encyclopedia.

Older readers of Lingua Franca will remember the era of multivolume encyclopedias. Some of you may have grown up with classy sets of Britannicas. Others may have had their parents acquire a humbler set of Funk & Wagnalls, one volume at a time, at the grocery store, as mine did. The books were offered week by week, letter by letter,…

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Writing Instructors: Your Pain Is Felt

Anthony Trollope we are not.

Readers of my polemics against incompetent passive-disparagers (for example, this paper, and this Lingua Franca post) often suggest that I would sing a different tune if I had to grade the student papers they see.

Well, don’t be misled: I teach courses, and I grade papers. And I have to admit that when I saw this opening paragraph in a student paper last week, I did get a sense of what the passive-haters are talking about:

Throughout this essay, the various theories …

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All I Want for Christmas …

Even though European shops seem to resist promoting their Christmas products just a bit longer than their American counterparts, living four weeks away in package-delivery time from most of my family gets me planning my gift-giving early. Which is why I spent some time last week investigating the contents of the 2014 editions of The Best American Essays and The Best American Short Stories—although I don’t know why I bother: The collections are consistently fantastic, and this year’s are no excep…

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Wordsmith Bingo

Cyril Connolly

Cyril Connolly

My Facebook (and actual) friend Gene Seymour posted this the other day:

Some 40 years ago, Wilfrid Sheed began his post-mortem for Cyril Connolly by asking who the best living writer of English prose is now. His pal John Leonard made a case for Malcolm Muggeridge while Sheed tossed out such eminences of the era as Cheever & E.B. White, concluding that what complicated the cases for both was that neither could likely do what the other could. (I vaguely remember that being the case….

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Professor Pinker and Professor Strunk

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Geoff Pullum says leave it on the shelf.

The voice on BBC radio was that of Professor Steven Pinker, fluent and engaging as ever. But my blood froze as I listened to what he said.

On the panel show A Good Read (Radio 4, October 17, 2014), each guest recommends a book, which the other guests also read and discuss. And Pinker’s recommendation for a good read was… The Elements of Style !

It was like hearing Warren Buffett endorsing Ukrainian junk bonds. It was like learning that Stanley Kubrick cal…

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If Not Me Then Who?

dogwithtoy

“The anti-pedant zealots,” said a recent Lingua Franca commenter, “have become tedious and repetitive, and one can’t help but feel that all the strawmen getting the stuffing beat out of them is an exercise akin to watching a terrier worry a squeaky toy.”

I’m the main anti-pedant zealot the commenter had in mind. So let me begin by pointing out that zealotry in the defense of accurate analysis is no vice, and moderation in the struggle against pedantic foolishness is no virtue.

But remember too …

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Dumb Writing Advice, Part 2: Yielding to Nitwits

“Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive,” says The Economist’s style guide: “The ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.”

So modifiers preceding the verb in an infinitival clause (as in to clearly demonstrate) must be avoided because grammatically uninformed readers might experience irritation. The Economist’s writers are expected to acquiesce to opinionated nitwits.

And that is just wha…

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Dumb Writing Advice, Part 1: Word Prohibitions

An Überflip page by Andrea Ayres-Deets is headlined “5 Weak Words That Are Sabotaging Your Writing.” If only there were a few words that you could simply expunge to get an immediate improvement in your prose! But of course it’s nonsense. Writing advice can’t be reduced to word prohibitions; and the prohibitions recommended here would be ridiculous overkill.

Here are the words you should allegedly shun: (1) really; (2) things and stuff; (3) I believe, I feel, and I think; (4) the be of the passiv…

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The Long Game

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Anthony Trollope

I just turned in to the publisher the final version of a book, and have now started on this post. Not exactly a Trollope move, but it’ll have to do. (“Every day for years, Trollope reported in his ‘Autobiography,’ he woke in darkness and wrote from 5:30 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., with his watch in front of him. He required of himself two hundred and fifty words every quarter of an hour. If he finished one novel before eight-thirty, he took out a fresh piece of paper and started the next…

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The Sound on the Page

candow

David Candow

Last Saturday morning, as is my wont, I was sitting in the club chair in the living room, paging through the newspaper, fitfully checking e-mail, and  listening to Weekend Edition on NPR. My wandering attention was called back home by the sound of host Scott Simon embarking on his weekly essay. I call it an “essay,” but that’s kind of a fussy word for the personal, sometimes quirky, always intelligent commentary I look forward to hearing every week.

On Saturday, it was an obituary f…