"What can you ever say to Polonius?"

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Looking into the background of the idea that modifiers are immoral, I read Richard Lanham's Style: An Anti-Textbook (available as an ebook from amazon and google), and found this description of writing instruction:

What we have now is a tedious, repetitive, unoriginal body of dogma—clarity, sincerity, plainness, duty—tarted up every week in a new, disposable paperback dress. The dogma of clarity, as we shall see, is based on a false theory of knowledge; its scorn of ornament, on a misleading taxonomy of style; the frequent exhortations to sincerity, on a naïve theory of the self; and the unctuous moralizing, on a Boy Scout didacticism.

I can't resist quoting Lanham at greater length — though you should keep in mind that his book dates from 1974:

[I]t is not earnestness that composition texts lack. It is joy. Their earnestness lies upon the spirit like wet cardboard. The moral imperative above all characterizes these texts, a bizarre class of endeavor which, as I made my way through them, spontaneously christened themselves “The Books.”

Good prose, The Books tell us, is a duty. Their conception of prose is utilitarian and moral. If language is the means of conscious life, then Good Prose, like Cleanliness, must stand next to Godliness. This perpetual moralizing about language haunts all modern writing about style. […]

Thus in The Books, in most writing about style, the imperative mood prevails. Here is a list of exhortative chapter headings from one of The Books:

Do not take yourself too seriously
Consider your readers
Make your writing talk
Be a good mechanic
Sharpen your thesis
Believe in your thesis
Build your essay in three parts

What can you say? What can you ever say to Polonius? A student, if he is on scholarship or has an ambitious mother, may actually try to earn all these merit badges. But if he has any spirit, he’ll murmur a well-chosen four-letter word and go out and get stoned. Or if he is exceptionally thoughtful, he may explore the contradictions embedded in these commandments:

What is “too seriously”? Why three parts? How can I believe in a thesis obviously hoked up for English 1? Write from a suitable design? You might as well say “Be intelligent.” In fact that’s what all The Books’ mottoes come down to, isn’t it? Why not just pass out wall plaques reading “Don’t Screw It Up Again!”

Students of style are bombarded with self-canceling clichés. Here’s a quintessence taken from The Books published in the last hundred years:

Be plain; Avoid “fine writing”
Avoid bluntness; Articulate your sentences gracefully
Make your writing spontaneous
Be yourself
Imitate the masters
Write from your own experience
Read widely (“A man will turn over half a library to make one book,” Samuel Johnson is repeatedly quoted as saying)
Make an outline
Don’t over-outline
Be serious without being stuffy
Study spoken speech
Writing and Speaking are different things
What the prose writer needs is a temperament nicely balanced between the sprightly and the phlegmatic, a lively mind and a deliberate judgment. His ideas will flow easily, but not too impetuously.

And, on a larger scale, Dickens and Buffon advise that writing talent is an infinite capacity for taking pains. Edward S. Martin disagrees: “I don’t think writing can be taught much beyond the rudiments. The rest of it seems to come from the teacher who runs the singing classes for the birds.” All this advice, totaled up, yields “Nothing succeeds like success.” “Success,” of course, is never specifically defined. Sir Herbert Read, in English Prose Style, writes:

But is there an abstract entity, an absolute or “pure” style, to which all styles approximate, or against which all styles are judged? I think there probably is, but it follows from my definition of prose that such a style can never be defined. (p. xii)

This difficulty doesn’t bother Sir Herbert as much as it ought to. For it exposes what we might call the Fallacy of Normative Prose. All prose style cherishes a single goal, and that goal is to disappear. The aim is the same for all: clarity, denotation, conceptual fidelity. The imperative of imperatives in The Books is “Be clear.” The best style is the never-noticed. Ideally, prose style should, like the state under Marxism, wither away, leaving the plain facts shining unto themselves.

One of the difficulties Freshman Composition has faced, then, though The Books take no notice of it, is trying to teach the invisible, to discuss something that, ideally, isn’t there at all. In a real and literal sense, The Books have argued their subject out of existence. They do not teach style, they abolish it. And it is around this fascinating vacuum that the American fetish for correctness, the agony over those droll Victorian antimacassars “usage” and “abusage,” so resolutely assembles.

Anyone who dips into The Books soon sees that their advice runs to a dreary sameness. Yet successful prose styles vary as widely as the earth. A hundred different styles cannot be accurately described by a single set of apothegms, eulogistic or dyslogistic. That the transparent prose norm, that reified nonentity Expository Prose, leaves out all prose fiction and nine-tenths of nonfiction prose ought at least to have troubled someone. People seldom write simply to be clear. They have designs on their fellow men. Pure prose is as rare as pure virtue, and for the same reasons. The classical discussions of style concern themselves less with clarity than with more common human purposes, with advantage and pleasure. But The Books, written for a world as yet unfallen, depict a ludicrous process like this: “I have an idea. I want to present this as a gift to my fellow human beings. I fix this thought clearly in mind. I follow the rules. Out comes a prose that gift-wraps thought in transparent paper.” If this sounds like a travesty, it’s because it is one. Yet it dominates prose instruction in America. Prose composition masquerades as a one-step operation that aims to communicate concepts. […]

What we have now is a tedious, repetitive, unoriginal body of dogma—clarity, sincerity, plainness, duty—tarted up every week in a new, disposable paperback dress. The dogma of clarity, as we shall see, is based on a false theory of knowledge; its scorn of ornament, on a misleading taxonomy of style; the frequent exhortations to sincerity, on a naïve theory of the self; and the unctuous moralizing, on a Boy Scout didacticism. Instruction in style ought to concentrate on what can be taught. Goethe, in his conversations with Eckermann, is reputed to have said that “if any man would write in a noble style let him first possess a noble soul.” Wonderful, but not much help. It may be, though some wise men have denied it, that virtue can be taught, but it seems unlikely that it can be taught in Freshman Composition. Nor sincerity. Nor spontaneity. Nor true grit. What can be taught is words. And they must be taught in the full matrix of human utterance, written and spoken, accompanied by a theory of style equally broad. A student bright enough to be taught style needs a context for it beyond didactic precept, an intelligible and sound context. Style cannot be taught only by lists of self-contradicting proverbs, strings of dos and don’ts. Students so instructed are not being taught; they are being housebroken.

I'm not sure what Lanham means by "the full matrix of human utterance", but we can hope that it includes some concern for the order and arrangement of words as well as their selection.

Anyhow, I like the idea of those wall plaques reading "Don't screw it up again!"– maybe in the lolcat version, for added modernity. And I'll have more to say later about the sinfulness of modifiers.



  1. Chris M said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

    I think Steven Pinker's new book, which is as yet unpublished, takes a new approach that might actually work. If you've seen his recent lectures on the topic, you've seen him to talk about joint attention and how a good writer anchors the reader's attention on something specific by textually pointing to it, and then moves the reader's attention onward in small steps by pointing to related things.

  2. Jerry Friedman said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 3:55 pm

    Lanham has at least chosen a mixture of the helpful and the silly that's different from that of the books he's read.

    He doesn't seem to notice that his passage beginning "People seldom write simply to be clear" is contradicted by some of his evidence about sprightliness and spontaneity. But writers impatient with rules are well known to be large and to contain multitudes.

  3. Rubrick said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 4:43 pm

    I doubt there ever has been or will be a better method of teaching good writing than the following:

    1. Find a bit of writing you really like.
    2. Try to understand why you like it.
    3. Try to emulate that in your own writing.
    4. Repeat.

    Books and teachers can certainly help with steps 1 and 2.

    Sadly, relatively little effort seems to go into analyzing why really good sentences are really good. Take a class on Shakespeare and you'll probably spend a lot of time discussing motivations and character development and plot devices, and none trying to answer what I feel is the key question: Why does a line like "Time is out of joint" make our spines tingle?

  4. AntC said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 4:47 pm

    The best style is the never-noticed.
    (At double risk of taking out of context: are the passages Mark quotes representative? Is this particular sentence?)

    [(myl) Lanham is characterizing what he found in reading books of advice on writing, not what his own point of view. I think he's right about the puritanical tone that such advice often adopts, including the idea that modifiers are ornamental and thus morally suspect, like statues of saints or high-fructose corn syrup.]

    Are we trying to write literature for posterity, or an email that will be tomorrow's chip wrapper?

    [(myl) Obviously different ways of writing are appropriate to different purposes. This includes many kinds of register variation as well as variation in stylistic vividness or individuality.]

    One thing I had to unlearn, when moving from 'literature' mode (learnt at school) to business writing, is 'stylistic variation'. Business writing involves a lot of repetition. If at each repeat you stretch for wilder and wilder variations, you end up drawing attention to the style. My experience of business audiences is that they are much more tolerant of flat-footed language than I am. (In fact they seem to prefer it over 'clever' language.)
    I could have done with a style guide that told me that was OK. (And it being a British Grammar School, the Latin master did teach me to spot a passive at forty paces; but I never suffered from S&W nor even George Orwell.)

  5. Ralph Hickok said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 5:40 pm

    When I was young, I read a lot of books about writing. The only genuinely helpful advice I ever found was to stop, at the end of a writing session, in mid-sentence, knowing exactly how you intend to finish the sentence. Then, when you sit down to write again, you know exactly what you're going to write next, and you're right back in the flow.

  6. JR said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 10:08 pm

    For those of us who know other languages, seeing the deadly seriousness with which monoglots (I'm assuming) treat style and the "real way" you gotta write is amusing.

    For example, when he talk about "joy" lacking (and I don't disagree), well, it isn't lacking in French writing! I'm not saying I prefer French writing styles. I'm just saying that other cultures may be doing things very differently and they have no problem with it, and maybe we shouldn't think there is only one way to do things.

  7. Ron Hetland said,

    September 2, 2013 @ 10:45 pm

    After a twenty-four year hiatus, I am considering returning to my one true love: teaching composition. In my preparation, I have noticed that some institutions are interested in currency of philosophy and methodology. I am at a loss as to where to start looking. Where are the cutting edge instructors and what are they doing that makes a difference in the quality of their students' writing? Is there a publication, website, blog devoted to the discussion of varying methods of presenting composition effectively? After a cursory review of several blogs, I've honed my curiosity as to what's new, what's the same, how can I discover more, and so forth.

    Any responses are welcomed. In fact, drop me a line at ronhetland@icloud.com in lieu of the public forum.

    [(myl) I'm not an expert in this area, but my recommendation would be to start at writingcommons.org.]

  8. Peter Erwin said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 6:32 am

    the idea that modifiers are ornamental and thus morally suspect, …

    I'm reminded of the architect Adolf Loos and his lecture/essay on "Ornament and Crime" (e.g., "the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornamentation from objects of everyday use"; "Lack of ornamentation is a sign of spiritual strength"; etc.). Of course, Loos was talking (or ranting) about visual ornamentation, but it does makes me wonder how much of the "scorn of ornament" that Lanham detects is a specifically Modernist idea, versus yet another manifestation of the puritan impulse.

    [(myl) Indeed.]

  9. richardelguru said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 7:03 am

    ""What can you ever say to Polonius?""
    "Watch out old chap! If you continue like that you're gonna get it in the arras!"


  10. Rodger C said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 7:32 am

    @Peter Erwin: I was just about to say that when I was in school in the early 60s, one of my English textbooks pronounced that commandment about plain style and illustrated it with a little comic strip of smiling workers tearing Victorian gingerbread off a house, leaving a gleaming midcentury crackerbox to admire. Even at the time I (to be anachronistic) was like, wtf. A decade later, people were paying good money to have Victorian gingerbread put on their houses. At about that time, too, I was one of a generation of twentysomethings snoozing through experimental liturgies written in "today's language" (to us, unbearably flat and old-fashioned) by clergy ~20 years older than us, members of the generation that had written that advice.

  11. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 7:32 am

    The old Puritan hostility to e.g. statues of saints was not merely suspicion of ornamentation as such, but suspicion that e.g. those statutes were not *merely* ornamental (it eventually became ok for respectable Protestants to admire them in museums as mere artworks torn from their original ecclesiastical context) but an integral part of cultural practices regarded by Puritans as superstitious, idolatrous, and otherwise redolent of Popery. No doubt there is a parallel that could be found in the Freshman-Comp advice literature (i.e., someone deprecating ornamentation as not merely frivolous but as actively implicated in dangerous superstitions that ought to be stamped out).

    [(myl) This is certainly true. But it's also true that the Puritans preferred simple buildings without a lot of elaborate (even non-representational) ornamentation, and chose to dress in plain garments, and so on.]

  12. Lydia said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 8:02 am

    Nice! But I don't love the implicit classism (racism, even, with the implication of the pushy immigrant mother?) of this bit:

    A student, if he is on scholarship or has an ambitious mother, may actually try to earn all these merit badges. But if he has any spirit…

    Of course, one suspects that it is unfortunately true that there is a class divide in the teaching of writing (as in everything else): the masses get the dreary unoriginal dogma, while the lucky few get the "intelligible and sound context" in private schools and liberal arts colleges.

  13. chris said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 8:12 am

    No doubt there is a parallel that could be found in the Freshman-Comp advice literature (i.e., someone deprecating ornamentation as not merely frivolous but as actively implicated in dangerous superstitions that ought to be stamped out).

    ISTM that it's Lanham who is setting himself up as an iconoclast, against the idolatry of "The Books".

    Not that that precludes both sides working themselves up into moralizing dudgeon, of course. An all too common human pursuit.

    P.S. If a source contradicts itself, does that guarantee that it's half right? Plus, some of the things Lanham tries to identify as contradictions are really just advocating a golden mean, ISTM.

  14. ChuckRamone said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 10:04 am

    What he describes is what was being taught in many fiction writing courses a few years back, and I'm pretty sure still is. Modern American writing professors usually teach you to take out every "unnecessary" word, which includes most adjectives, adverbs, etc. so what you're left with is a bunch of short, simple, and usually declarative statements not too different from the text of an instruction manual or a really dry news article. Every sentence has to be in the active, and you should avoid the word "was." "Show, don't tell."

    I think some of this advice could be useful to someone getting started but it's enforced with such zeal and dogmatism that I've frankly come to detest this kind of writing and am tired of reading it and seeing all the pedants online professing it. Most modern fiction sounds like it was written by the same hypothetical former journalist.

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 11:39 am

    ChuckRamone is probably right that there is some similarity to a certain sort of MFA-program cult of simplicity in faction writing, but a fairly small percentage of young people ever take those classes. The problem with bad/counterproductive advice coming to dominate instruction in Freshman Comp type classes is much greater because they are ubiquitous and for many college students mandatory. (Whether those who grade written work in their other college classes will grade them based on the extent to which they conform to what they were supposedly taught in Freshman Comp no doubt varies with school, subject, and instructor.)

    All else being equal, advise a 12th grader who has already gotten the hang (by whatever means) of stringing together consistently syntactically well-formed sentences into moderately conceptually coherent paragraphs to look for a college that lacks a mandatory Freshman Comp requirement and/or has a nominal one that is not too hard to sidestep (e.g. by getting a good score on an AP exam that doesn't actually measure whatever skills Freshman Comp is supposed to teach but some bureaucrat thinks is impressive anyway).

    OTOH, my anecdotal impression is that Freshman Comp is often there to provide crude remedial bandaging over the failures of the K-12 system, and is often not adequately resourced to take a more nuanced and constructive approach.

  16. Bill Tozier said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 1:20 pm

    I am always disappointed when the Hoffmans' Adios, Strunk and White is not mentioned. I wish more people knew about it.

  17. bks said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 1:46 pm

    Emotional content trumps technique like colorless ideas sleep greenly.


  18. Joshua said,

    September 3, 2013 @ 3:59 pm

    Here you go, one lolcat:


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