Tuesday Tout Compris

Peter Wood

Be Clear

                Professor Geoffrey K. Pullum, head of linguistics and English language at the University of Edinburgh, anticipates the 50th anniversary this Thursday of the publication of The Elements of Style by ridiculing Strunk and White’s bad advice.   I suppose the Chronicle of Higher Education posted Pullum’ screed today so that we would have time to cancel our celebrations. 

            Oddly, Pullum focuses on the “limp platitudes” ("Be clear." "Do not explain too much.") doubtful grammar, and self-contradictions in the little book: 

"Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs," they insist. (The motivation of this mysterious decree remains unclear to me.)


And then, in the very next sentence, comes a negative passive clause containing three adjectives: "The adjective hasn't been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place."


That's actually not just three strikes, it's four, because in addition to contravening "positive form" and "active voice" and "nouns and verbs," it has a relative clause ("that can pull") removed from what it belongs with (the adjective), which violates another edict: "Keep related words together."


I would fault The Elements of Style at least as much for promoting an ethic of lifelessly bland composition. Good writing begins and ends with metaphor. E.B. White the writer knew this; but the rulebook he conjured out of his old schoolmaster’s text makes formulaic simplicity the highest virtue. 

Nation of Debtors

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Sixty-six percent of undergraduates received some type of student aid during the 2007-8 academic year, up from 63 percent in 2003-4, says a report released today by the Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics.


Political Science

                The New York Times Tuesday section “Science Times,” following the lead of the rest of the paper, increasingly infiltrates political themes into its news reports. This week reporter Natal Angier discusses animal species that, under some conditions, share food. The article is timed for the IRS income tax deadline, and opens with an invocation of the reluctance most Americans have to pay their taxes.   We need, says Angier, “a little perspective.”   The kind of perspective she has in mind is the pressure put on foraging monkeys to hoot out a “food call” to other monkeys when they find some ripe coconuts. This should be conceived, says Angier, as a tax that monkeys pay to their band for the privilege and advantages of belonging to the group. The same applies to junior bell miner birds that seed insect droppings to the fledglings of senior bell miner birds. Cichlid fish fan the eggs of other cichlid fish as a form of public service.

Hence, paying taxes is natural animal behavior—as Angier sees it.

I think what’s missing here is a distinction between reciprocity and tribute. 

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