Among the 39 comments on David Beaver's post "Orwell's Liar", comments that were often impassioned and mostly long, the best one was calm and short:
Joseph Williams makes related points in his influential article, "The Phenomenology of Error," published in College Composition and Communication in 1981. That essay has an unforgettable surprise ending. You can read it online here.
This was contributed by Beth, and the link to Williams' article is valuable enough to be displayed more prominently.
Williams' article is not strictly relevant to David's main point, which was that the self-reference in the last of Orwell's list of rules for writing may generate a Cretan-liar-style logical paradox. But Williams' observations are very much relevant to the striking hypocrisy of the genre of moralistic usage advice that Orwell's essay represents, and thus his essay is also relevant to most of the other comments on David's post.
For example, Williams cites a case where Jacques Barzun explains the (invented) rule proscribing which in "defining [relative] clauses", and then violates it himself less than a page later with the sentence "Next is a typical situation which a practiced writer corrects for style virtually by reflex action."
[I]t is not the error as such that I am concerned with here, but rather the fact that after Barzun stated the rule, and almost immediately violated it, no one noticed — not Barzun himself who must certainly have read the manuscript several times, not a colleague to whom he probably gave the manuscript before he sent it to the publisher, not the copy editor who worked over the manuscript, not the proof reader who read the galleys, not Barzun who probably read the galleys after them, apparently not even any-one in the reading public, since that which hasn't been corrected in any of the subsequent printings. To characterize this failure to respond as mere carelessness seems to miss something important.
Williams similarly observes that
Orwell, in the very act of criticizing the passive, not only casts his proscription against it in the passive, but almost all the sentences around it, as well:
I list below, with notes and examples, various of the tricks by means of which the work of prose construction is habitually dodged . . . Operators or verbal false limbs. These save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry . . . the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun constructions are used instead of gerunds . . . The range of verbs if further cut down . . . and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not an formation. Simple conjunctions are replaced by . . . the ends of sentences are saved by . . .
Again, I am not concerned with the fact that Orwell wrote in the passive or used nominalizations where he could have used verbs. Rather, I am bemused by the apparent fact that three generations of teachers have used this essay without there arising among us a general wry amusement that Orwell violated his own rules in the act of stating them.
Why do Strunk, Barzun, Orwell and the rest so often behave like the self-parodying caricatures in a comedy of manners? Why do generations of readers strive mindlessly to emulate them? Williams has a theory about this. He also has a proposal about what ought to be done instead.
I don't believe that we've linked to his essay before, so this post repairs the omission. And you might not agree with his theories, but you ought to read them.