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The world this past few weeks is too rich in material for a half-assed writer with the attention span of a person with a very short attention span to write a “weekly” omnibus post that covers current events in some cursory way for the readers of, in this case, a blog that is read primarily by robots.

The Obama White House will see a dog, finally, at long last. It’s not a mutt, it’s not really a rescue, and it’s not what any kid who’s been promised a pet in November would consider timely. But it’s not quite just-another-politician’s-broken-promise. It’s been orchestrated to be arguably the thing it purported to be — not a rescued mutt, but not exactly a brand new pure-bred, since there was one previous owner who gave it a name even. And, while it is related to royalty, it has been rejected at least once, and therefore, the WH folks seem to be saying, can’t we just move on, please? Yes. We can.

The economy continues to suck (that’s official language. More of it can be found on BeckerPosner and Reich and everywhere else you turn.), although there may be glimmers of hope. Most of those glimmers, it has been well-noted, have to do with things still sucking, but just not sucking as badly as we might have expected them to. So that’s cool. (To wit, on a personal note: I’ll get a tax refund this year, which doesn’t suck. But the reason I’ll get a refund is that I had funds withheld from January through October at a rate that supposed I would continue to have a job through December, and instead of that happening, I lost my job in October. We’ll talk about that at some point, but in the meantime, you see past the shadow of that which doesn’t suck — a refund — to the hulking thing behind it, which does most definitely suck.)

There’s a great deal to be written about some of the momentum here in San Francisco around California’s famously, horribly, inhumanely, unconscionably broken corrections system, and as I dip some toes into the issues, there are some players who are going to have a huge and positive impact from whom I’m eager to learn much, much more. But for now, we’ll skip over that (it’s a human rights issue that is literally more important than almost anything else that The State (writ large, by the way) does, because it deprives people unfairly of rights, and does so on a basis that is far and away disproportionately disadvantageous to African Americans and Latinos), but I’m leaving it for another time, so we’re moving on now to something timely but incredibly, infinitely less important to human welfare, and much, much more important to a different part of one’s brain.

On the 50th anniversary of the book Elements of Style (by strunk, and then by white, so by strunkandwhite, which is what most people say these days), there’s a bit of chatter this week. The chatter is all worth reading because it is, for once, by about and for grammar and grammarians, but it includes one notable curmudgeonly take, making a surprising assertion about Strunk and E. B. White and their puny little book.

Interestingly (or not), Geoffrey K. Pullum, who is by no means the first to attack strunkandwhite, takes the tack that neither strunknorwhite knew much about grammar. To grapple with the truth or untruth of that statement would seem a bore of the highest magnitude, but it’s of interest because the grammar part (as opposed to the “style” part, which takes up about half the small-but-apparently-potent volume. To wit, Jan Freeman in the Boston Globe) is the part that people usually ignore when they criticize the book. That’s because the “style” part has plenty to complain about, too. so, for example, here’s writer Ben Yagoda, from his totally-worth-reading “The Sound on the Page,” on the topic of strunkandwhite, and in particular on the removing-your-own-voice, less-is-more mantra that runs through not only Elements, but, according to Yagoda also through so many other prose-help books like Zinsser’s On Writing Well (Zinsser would not agree, judging by his version of why he wrote his bestselling book, which was intended in part to help writers hold the interest, and not only the respect, of the reader), Barzun’s Simple & Direct or Peter Richardson’s Style: A Pragmatic Approach:

Each time, it’s the same minimalist and impersonal doctrine. But this is a chimera based on a fallacy. Perhaps transparency is possible, or at least a useful metaphor, when one is composing an instruction manual …. But in communicating ideas, opinions, impressions — indeed, in any attempt to describe or imagine the wide world — content does not exist separate from the words in which it is expressed. Each one depends on the other. When you remove the wrapping of the language, you see that the box is empty.

Yagoda’s book is worth it for that passage alone, but it really pays you back in the next few paragraphs, when Harold Bloom manages link strunkandwhite to a kind of Puritanical, inhuman, holier-than-thou New England repressive “Gentile tradition.” Seriously, the extended quotes from Harold Bloom, along with Yagoda’s writing, which pretends to aspire to pith but actually hammers you with perfect, complex thoughts and ideas expressed beautifully, is worth reading.

But I digress (slightly). The point is, while some folks have surely taken aim at the fact that strunkandwhite seems about as anti-author as it can be while still allowing for writing to occur in some sense, critics don’t tangle much on the grammar part. (Even the great Bloom, as you’ll see when you buy the book and read it, finds no fault in the grammar bits.)

Grouch Pullum takes special aim at strunkandwhite’s failure to correctly identify the passive voice in their extended warrant for its arrest. And the irascible Pullum also blames strunkandwhite for the proliferation of their poor or flat-out wrong examples all over the Internet.

Pullum’s is a crabby, and presumably a lonely view, but it’s got more heart than it’s quarry (not hard to do, of course), and it expresses a heartening and sad devotion to a human enterprise that is, as all are, fleeting and ever changing (“English syntax is a deep and interesting subject,” writes the old grump in his conclusion. Huzzah!).

Concluding question, for Easter: Is it passive to say “He is risen”?

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One Comment

  1. Great to see you writing again, Michael! I do have to point out that your short attention span neglected to mention Vermont legalizing gay marriage. Apparently Howard Dean spoke to some Democratic legislators before the (second) vote and told them that on matters like this they have to vote their consciences, not their constituents, otherwise they would regret it for the rest of their political lives. I can’t help but remember, though, that much as I love Howard Dean, he wasn’t so enthusiastic about signing civil unions into law. He was forced into it by the courts, but perhaps his attitude had more to do with how it tore the state apart rather than any personal feelings on the issue. That, and/or his upcoming re-election bid. Anyway, that was pretty exciting news here. It felt almost like Obama won the election all over again, it was that good.


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