Language Matters

Style, substance, and the labor involved in getting it just so


As soon as I decided to write about language for this Browsings column, my sentences started to grow clumsy and fall all over one another. Nothing sounded right, and I questioned the grammar and syntax of virtually every clause. Isn’t there an old joke about how a bird couldn’t fly or a creepy-crawlie couldn’t skitter along once either started to contemplate how the flying or skittering was done?

Like most writers, I confess to a number of linguistic tics and crotchets. While ambiguity seems to me a plus in poetry—I didn’t write my honors thesis on William Empson for nothing—it is something I tend to avoid in prose. I try to practice … But wait. Look again at that sentence with the dashes: Shouldn’t there be a comma after the word “poetry”? The dashes make that impossible, but in such a case do they render a comma superfluous? Will anyone care besides me?

Not for the first time do I wish that I hadn’t disdained the study of grammar when young. Nowadays, I would just reconfigure the above sentence to avoid this punctuational uncertainty, but I’ll let it go this time as an example of the kind of linguistic bump that tends to trouble me. Nothing, after all, should interfere with the smooth flow of my mellifluous and pellucid paragraphs.

Or should that be “pellucid and mellifluous paragraphs”? I wrote that as a bit of self-mockery—ironic deflation as a way of deflecting charges of vanity—but I do tend to be leery of alliteration and those two “p” words next to each other give me pause. On the other hand (but where was the first hand?), reversing the order of the adjectives leads to a less pleasing rhythm. What to do? Perhaps being a little jokey is simply a mistake?

Too much consciousness, observed Dostoevsky’s Underground Man, is a disease, a positive disease. All writers long to lose themselves in the creative moment, to find themselves caught up in what was once dubbed “the divine afflatus,” when the words come trippingly and the thoughts achieve a profundity that Plato might envy … Sigh—look again at that last analogy: I recognize it immediately as one of my go-to rhetorical tricks. Such and such a writer is so witty that Oscar Wilde might envy him; another is so precise that she could give lessons to Flaubert. The formula strikes me as mildly amusing, but I do it all the time—unless I catch myself.

While a writer would like his inner daemon to guide his pen, an editor needs the kind of cold clinical intelligence that Sherlock Holmes might learn from. (See what I mean?) When I rewrite—and sometimes I’ll spend hours making a piece sound as if it had been tossed off in 15 minutes—I carefully go over every sentence. (Oops, that same dashes problem again.) Somehow, one hopes to achieve a balance, so that the prose all tracks properly but doesn’t sound costive, constrained, or too carefully considered. (Hmm, should I change all those “c”s?) Unless you’re actually after a Thomas Browne-like oratorical solemnity, you probably want to sound natural, whatever that is. (Hmm, I’ve moved from “I” to “One” to “You” in almost as many sentences—that seems wrong, but will anyone notice?)

In fact, this column wasn’t really meant to be about my own flaw-specked writing, but about linguistic puzzles and anomalies. Last month, the October issue of Consumer Reports carried the headline: “America’s Worst Scams.” Looking at it, I wondered if that shouldn’t be “America’s Best Scams”? Really terrible scams wouldn’t be particularly effective, would they? I went back and forth on this and still haven’t decided.

Or take the expression: “It goes without saying,” as in “It goes without saying that Dirda isn’t half the writer he thinks he is.” If it doesn’t need to be said, does one need to say it? And, to stick with this same sentence, how can anyone know how good a writer I think I am? Personally, I hold a rather low opinion of myself, constantly desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope. (There’s another of my quirks—the buried allusion, the embedded quotation without any identification of the source. Shakespeare, by the way, Sonnet 29.)

A lot of idioms trouble me. Every time I try to use “Notwithstanding” in a sentence, I find myself confused. Should it be “Notwithstanding his sheer brilliance, Dirda is …” or, “His sheer brilliance notwithstanding, Dirda is …”? I can never decide and so just give it all up and poor Dirda loses his claim to brilliance yet again.

I could go on. Sigh. I can’t go on. I’ll go on. (Beckett, this time.) Just bide with me a little while longer, and we’ll soon be done.

In my hot youth (Byron, of course), I used to study books such as—or should that be “study such books as”?—Robert Graves and Alan Hodge’s The Reader Over Your Shoulder, Fowler’s Modern English Usage, Herbert Read’s English Prose Style, Bonamy Dobrée’s Modern Prose Style, Arthur Quiller-Couch’s On the Art of Writing (Q, as he was known, is the source of the notorious “murder your darlings” rule of writing), Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, and of course, the esteemed works of my predecessor in this Friday column, William Zinsser. Today, I occasionally dip into an old copy of The Oxford Book of English Prose, and often wish I could achieve the grand flights (slight echo there of Wallace Stevens) and Olympian grandiloquence of Gibbon and Ruskin. But Thoreau was my earliest model—as it was E. B. White’s—and I seem locked into a plain, Shaker syntax, albeit one gussied up with the borrowed finery (now where’s that from?) of pervasive quotation and allusion.

Somerset Maugham used to say—and I’ve quoted this a dozen times if I’ve quoted it once—that if a man would write perfectly, he would write like Voltaire. In truth, I’d settle for being able to write like Rousseau or Diderot, or even Arthur Machen, Evelyn Waugh, Cyril Connolly, or Joseph Mitchell. I wouldn’t want to write like Henry James, though, or Virginia Woolf—too much consciousness is a disease, a positive disease. Alas, there seems small likelihood that my style will ever be perceived as anything but a poor thing but mine own (Shakespeare, again, slightly skewed).

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Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for The Washington Post and the author, most recently, of Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books. Its essays originally appeared on the home page of The American Scholar.


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