After two decades of writing popular books and articles about language, I’ve learned that people have strong opinions on the quality of writing today, with almost everyone finding it deplorable.
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May 17, 2017 – Online MCAT CARS Practice
Question: What is your summary of the author’s main ideas. Post your own answer in the comments before reading those made by others.
People often ask me why I followed my 2011 book on the history of violence, The Better Angels of Our Nature, with a writing style manual. I like to say that after having written 800 pages on torture, rape, world war, and genocide, it was time to take on some really controversial topics like fused participles, dangling modifiers, and the serial comma.
It’s not much of an exaggeration. After two decades of writing popular books and articles about language, I’ve learned that people have strong opinions on the quality of writing today, with almost everyone finding it deplorable. I’ve also come to realise that people are confused about what exactly they should deplore. Outrage at mispunctuation gets blended with complaints about bureaucratese and academese, which are conflated with disgust at politicians’ evasions, which in turn are merged with umbrage at an endless list of solecisms, blunders, and peeves.
I can get as grumpy as anyone about bad writing. But as a scientist who studies language for a living (and who has had to unlearn the bad habits of academic writing) I long ago developed my own opinions on why so much prose is so egregious.
Contrary to the ubiquitous moaning about the imminent demise of the language, this is not a new problem. Similar lamentations about the slovenly habits of the young and the decline of English have appeared regularly since the invention of the printing press.
Though bad writing has always been with us, the rules of correct usage are the smallest part of the problem. Any competent copy editor can turn a passage that is turgid, opaque, and filled with grammatical errors into a passage that is turgid, opaque, and free of grammatical errors. Rules of usage are well worth mastering, but they pale in importance behind principles of clarity, style, coherence, and consideration for the reader.
These principles are harder to convey than the customary lists of errors that get recycled from one traditional style guide to the next. The real problem is that writing, unlike speaking, is an unnatural act. In the absence of a conversational partner who shares the writer’s background and who can furrow her brows or break in and ask for clarification when he stops making sense, good writing depends an ability to imagine a generic reader and empathise about what she already knows and how she interprets the flow of words in real time. Writing, above all, is a topic in cognitive psychology.
It’s also a topic in linguistics. Is it an error to write: “No citizen should be under a cloud of suspicion because of what they look like?” What about “to boldly go where no man has gone before”, or “it’s you she’s thinking of”, or “entering the room, it was nice to see so many old friends”? Various purists, snobs, snoots, sticklers, traditionalists, and language police will declare that all of these are unconscionable insults to standards of excellence. But when pressed to explain why these errors are errors, all they can offer is the not-so-excellent response: “They just are.”
Linguists and lexicographers have long known that many of the alleged rules of usage are actually superstitions. They originated for oddball reasons, violate the grammatical logic of English, degrade clarity and style, and have been flouted by the best writers for centuries. At the same time, pointing out the illogic of many rules of usage does not mean blowing off rules altogether, any more than pointing out the unjustness of an archaic law implies that one is a black-cloaked, bomb-clutching anarchist. It just means that rules of usage should interpreted judiciously, with a sensitivity to their historical provenance, consistency with English grammar, degree of formality, and effects on clarity and grace.
For all these reasons, I have long recognised the need for a style guide based on modern linguistics and cognitive science. The manuals written by journalists and essayists often had serviceable rules of thumb, but they were also idiosyncratic, crabby, and filled with folklore and apocrypha. Linguistics experts, for their part, have been scathing about the illogic and ignorance in traditional advice on usage, but have been unwilling to proffer their own pointers to which rules to follow or how to use grammar effectively. The last straw in my decision to sit down and write the book was getting back a manuscript that had been mutilated by a copy editor who, I could tell, was mindlessly enforcing rules that had been laid out in some ancient style book as if they were the Ten Commandments.
The reaction to The Sense of Style has been gratifying. It won the International award from the Plain English Campaign and commendations from other clear-language advocacy groups. Copy editors have been good natured about it, and have invited me to speak at their annual meetings and do interviews on their websites. (I even enjoyed a gotcha! moment when an editor of the venerated Chicago Manual of Style used who’s in place of whose.) In the book, I had contended that academics should not blame their bad writing on publishing gatekeepers who, they mistakenly believe, insist on ponderous prose as proof of one’s seriousness. Indeed, the most positive review of all was from the editor of an academic journal who was fed up with the muddy prose in the submissions she had to deal with and commanded contributors to the journal to buy it. Other reviews provided plentiful quotations for the the opening pages of the paperback.
Adapted from theguardian.
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This was an article on Literature.
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MCAT CARS Instructor.