Know Your Stuff

“Roughly 150,000 chimps and around the same number of gorillas are living today, compared to some seven billion humans. Yet humans have less genetic diversity than these monkeys, significantly less.”

 

From The Violinist’s Thumb by Sam Kean, Little, Brown and Company, 2012

 

Sam Kean writes about science. His book The Disappearing Spoon, about the periodic table, was a best seller, as was The Violinist’s Thumb. Unfortunately, he does not know the difference between an ape and a monkey. Until the 16th century, the word “ape” was used to refer to monkeys as well as anthropoid apes. The word “monkey” was never used to refer to apes. Monkeys have tails. Apes do not.

 

It is not clear why a writer of books about science would not know such a basic fact. What is even less clear is why a publisher such as Little, Brown would not notice the mistake and correct it. And yet one such blunder can throw a shadow of doubt over everything else in the book.

Maybe There Wasn’t…

This is from a fellow who won one Pulitzer Prize and was nominated for another. He’s describing a meeting of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1983.

 

“There was Erskine Caldwell, who many thought was dead; there were the elongated granitic features of John Kenneth Galbraith; there was Malcolm Cowley, his face crumped by age, who had known Hart Crane; there were the husband-and-wife teams, seated apart, as at a dinner party; Eleanor Clark and Robert Penn Warren, Shirley Hazzard and Francis Steegmuller.”

 

Making matters worse, Ted Morgan deployed this embarrassment as the first sentence of a 650-page book, his biography of William Burroughs. Such a stumbling opening doesn’t invite the reader to continue the journey.

 

Few techniques will disable a sentence more effectively than that of beginning with the word “there” followed by a form of the verb “to be.” It makes it nearly impossible to give the sentence a proper verb. 

 

Once you have set sail on this dubiously constructed vessel, it becomes difficult to change course. The author goes on endlessly in the same style, flagellating the verb “to be” in all its forms.

 

“It was through Richard Stern that Billy…”

 

“Another character was James Le Baron Boyle…”

 

“There was one fellow called William P. Frere von Blomberg…”

 

From Literary Outlaw: The Life and Times of William S. Burroughs

Ted Morgan, Henry Holt and Company, 1988

Don’t Tread On Me

“The deal announced on Wednesday includes provisions that would protect ViacomCBS in the event that a sale is squashed by authorities. Bertelsmann would pay what is known as a termination fee if the deal does not go through.”

 

Of course, “squashed” for “quashed” is illiterate. We would expect more from the New York Times. But this is an age of illiteracy, in which common phrases, such as “buck naked” and “set foot in this house” become “butt naked” and “step foot in this house.” 

Tell the Truth

Don’t say “unrest” if you mean that people are killing one another. Don’t say “clash” if you mean that police are shooting innocent people.

 

Tell the truth. 

 

Journalistic euphemisms such as “unrest” are terribly destructive to the truth because they misdirect our attention from what is real to some imagined world that does not exist. 

 

If a policeman shoots to death an unarmed person, that is called murder. It is not some kind of lack of rest that can be put right by a nap, and it is not a clash that can be fixed by using a solid color rather than a plaid. It is simply murder. 

 

Tell the truth.

 

“A police officer murdered an innocent person for no reason at all other than the fact that police are being trained to murder people.” 

 

The new wave of police training–called “Force on Force”–directs officers to kill first and ask questions later. It is a military model, and military models are aimed at killing the enemy. The enemy is anyone who is not you.

 

Our fellow citizens are not the enemy. 

 

We have to stop calling police riots “unrest” and “clashes.” And we need to stop calling murder “gun violence.” Not only is that ungrammatical, but a gun cannot be violent. A gun is a tool. So if you are murdered with a hammer, is that “hammer violence?” No, it’s murder. 

 

Make sure you know what you’re saying, and then tell the truth.

Nouns, Nouns, and More Nouns!

I’ve written about this in another entry. But the trouble is so widespread that I will add to that entry here. The first entry on this subject was called “Don’t Use Nouns as Adjectives” and was an attempt to point out a particular sin involving the misuse of nouns. This entry takes another step or two.

 

The struggle against this pestilence has a long history. H. W. Fowler in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, first published in 1926, wrote, “if a large vehicle fleet were translated into either a large fleet of vehicles or a fleet of large vehicles an ambiguity would be removed.”

 

Wilson Follett in Modern American Usage (1966) called this sort of trouble, tongue in cheek, a “noun-plague,” using the noun “noun” as an adjective to modify the noun “plague.” (The argument could be made that the hyphen turns it into a single noun, but “a plague of nouns” would be better.)

 

Follett’s point is a subtle one. Using language well is about exciting the senses to produce meaning. Exciting the senses is about movement. And to the extent that writing is static, it “dulls narrative and description” and produces “an impoverishment of experience.” 

 

So his argument is generally against using static nouns in place of active verbs. He begins with the simple example of instructions on an envelope to “apply pressure to seal.”

 

Apply pressure,” he says, “is a weak indirection for press down.” And the more complicated the attempt on the part of misguided writers, the more unwieldy the structure grows.

 

This sentence, from Fowler, is about testing food. “Strangeness of samples has been shown to lead to relative rejection of products in the comparative absence of clues to a frame of reference within which judgement may take place.”

 

This is not merely a case of using nouns as adjectives. It amounts to high crimes and misdemeanors against the language. Here the author has constructed great abstractions by compounding nouns. For example, a quantity or thing that we cannot know is created by “Strangeness of samples,” and it somehow leads to a thing called “relative rejection.” None of this falls within the realm of human experience.

 

In other words, it is incomprehensible nonsense.

 

In a similar vein, Fowler faults writers for “using a long string of words as a sort of adjectival sea serpent (e.g. a large vehicle fleet operator mileage restriction has now been made imperative.)

 

So by now you should be able to tell what’s wrong with this: 

 

“The prediction of the existence of antiparticles was made by P.A.M. Dirac in 1927 and its confirmation was an important reason for the construction of the Bevatron at Berkeley in 1954.” 

 

 

Journalistic Descent Into Baby Talk

“These knee-high wool dogs weren’t combed like modern pooches but sheared like sheep.” 

 

This appeared in an article about Tulalip people and other groups in the Pacific Northwest breeding dogs for wool in earlier times. One would expect that in an article about dogs the word “dog” would appear frequently. But in a desperate attempt to come up with a synonym and follow some obscure rule from journalism school, the author groped in the dark and found “pooch.” Don’t give in to such dark temptations. Rather use common sense. There is nothing wrong with the word “dog” in an article about dogs. 

 

Man’s Best Friend Once Made Nice Wool Blankets, Too

by Lesley Evans Ogden

October 9, 2020, New York Times

 

Don’t Quote Me

“Much of the work of natural selection over the millions of years has been to find ‘decisive’ or ‘single-minded’ molecules whose ‘preference’ for their favoured shape is much stronger than their tendency to coil into any other shape.” 

– From Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins

 

Quotation marks are meant to denote something that someone said or wrote. They indicate that these are the exact words used. They do not add meaning. If the quotation marks enclose something that is not a direct quote, then they are out of place and should not be used. Often people enclose a word or words in quotation marks because they don’t quite know what they mean to say and hope that the reader will somehow fill the vacuum and supply the meaning. In other words, quotation marks are a lazy way of avoiding saying what you mean. In this case, Dawkins fails to explain how the molecule in question is selected. In other words, the sentence fails at its one and only job.

Casting a Spell

Always try to begin a piece by casting a spell. When you tell a story to a little child, you may begin, “Once upon a time….” to induce the magic. With an adult for an audience, you may need a bit more. Here is what I mean by that: 

 

            I am sitting here now looking out on my back yard and my driveway and my neighborhood of plain brick houses with flags of white steam nearly still in the air above the chimneys. There are more than two feet of snow covering everything, and the towering evergreens are freighted with it, creaking under it, bending low. The temperature is well below zero. Icicles, some of them four feet long, hang from my roof and from the vines that cover my brick house. The sky is a ceramic winter blue that looks artificial, because it’s so cold that there’s almost no moisture in the air. There are no clouds.

 

            The Mexican guys from the garden store delivered firewood the other day, and now there are logs burning in the grate. Veal stock is cooking on the stove in a great white pot, veal knuckles cut and quartered and even a cow’s hoof in pieces, and the aroma of it fills the house, along with the faint scent of the banana bread that Debbie made yesterday.

 

            The holidays are over. My daughter Elena is at the library with C.C., her ten-month-old daughter. Elena recently earned her doctorate. Her husband Simon is at home with their four-year-old son Emmett. I took care of the kids this morning while Elena worked on a scholarly book she’s writing and while Simon built beautiful things out of wood in the basement. Then I came back home to read and write.

 

The sun is low in the southwest, nearly its lowest point for the year. It bears down on the rooftops and seems to set the houses afire. The light is turning yellow, and long shadows fall across the white snow where a rabbit, half buried, nibbles on a twig. The peregrine falcon that lives in our neighborhood circles some blocks away, and I watch her now as she crosses from south to north, her black body tracing a catenary arc across the blue canvas. I saw her take a pigeon down to the yard next door one day. Peregrine falcons stake out a large territory, so I known it’s her and not another. They’re the fastest animals on earth. She can hit seventy miles an hour in cruising flight, and when she commences her stoop to catch a pigeon in flight, she’ll dive from half a mile up, reaching 200 miles an hour as she hits her prey and breaks its back. She was ripping apart the pigeon’s breast when I opened the window to try to take a photograph, and she lifted off on slow wings, with the limp body in her talons trailing gray feathers. She has no predators, but there’s plenty of prey. Ours is a college town of city pigeons. This world is hers.

 

I do not know by what right I continue to walk this earth. I wonder about it all the time. It’s three in the afternoon, and I can continue writing, or I can get up and do something else instead. I could go to a movie or play chess or plan a vacation or call my friends on the phone just to talk to someone. But I have a deep sense that writing is what has kept me here, kept me safe from electron bombardment and dissaray and alien abduction and insanity. Writing is what allows me now to sit on this side of the glass looking out at the snow instead of having things turned the other way around. I don’t know if I chose writing or if writing chose me, but in all the work I sensed nothing heroic. I love to do it–have to do it–and pursuing that path put me here in this spot at this moment. It feels as if it was not my doing. I was just lucky. Very lucky.

32. Persevering (héng). Duration

No blame. Perseverance furthers.

 

The falcon disappears behind the houses. A stately American Airlines ship, creamed with yellow light, heaves into view from the northeast and lowers toward the sun, leaving a trail of ice crystals behind it. It’s engines are howling a ceramic ringing song. The falcon reappears, circling back north, watching, taking it all in. What is she doing up there? She can’t eat all day long, yet I see her at all times of the day.

 

Just before evening, the crows all gather in a big naked elm with a mange of snow on its flank, and they laugh and jabber with one another. The crows are the really smart ones. They don’t hunt. They listen and watch and wait for others to hunt and then eat what they leave. In this neck of the woods, they eat the squirrels that are run over by cars and the garbage that the squirrels ferret out of the cans and spill in the alleyways. And they laugh at the falcon, so sharp and sleek. The falcon is up there for everyone to see. She doesn’t have to hide. She’s so fast that it doesn’t matter if you see her or if you don’t, she’ll get you either way. The crows. I like the crows. They sit there and take it all in. And then they laugh.

Why You Need the Word “that”

“The tone [of the speech]–too ruminative for a country club ballroom and the sort of good time people were looking for there–didn’t seem at all ill conceived between three and six A.M., as I tried, in my overstimulated state to comprehend the union underlying the reunion, the common experience that had joined us as kids.” 

 

American Pastoral, Philip Roth

 

His trouble occurs here: “a country club ballroom and the sort of good time people were looking for there…” If only for the briefest moment, we may read that the people are “good time people,” not that people were looking for a good time. A competent editor should have found this easy to fix: “a country club ballroom and the sort of good time that people were looking for there…” 

Thinking Fast and Slow

Because of modern cognitive science and imaging technology,  we can now pinpoint some of the reasons that writing can fail even when it’s technically correct: It’s because the organism (the reader, the human), at its deepest level, is not responding. Only the linear intellect is engaged. For writing to be most effective, both the intellect and the emotions must be engaged. The writing must appeal to the whole brain and whole body. Because the emotions have to do with the body, they are engaged primarily through the senses.

 

Writing will seem bland when it tries doggedly to convey information. (And if the writing is technically incompetent, it will frustrate and confuse the reader as well.) Here is a statement from The National Drought Mitigation Center at the School of Natural Resources of the University of Nebraska.

 

In the 1930s, drought covered virtually the entire Plains for almost a decade (Warrick, 1980). The drought’s direct effect is most often remembered as agricultural. Many crops were damaged by deficient rainfall, high temperatures, and high winds, as well as insect infestations and dust storms that accompanied these conditions. The resulting agricultural depression contributed to the Great Depression’s bank closures, business losses, increased unemployment, and other physical and emotional hardships. Although records focus on other problems, the lack of precipitation would also have affected wildlife and plant life, and would have created water shortages for domestic needs.

 

That passage makes no claims on our emotions. It is possible, perhaps, to read that and ponder it and come up with a suitable emotion. But phrases such as “deficient rainfall,” “insect infestations,” and “increased unemployment,” just to mention three, work hard to keep emotion out of the picture. In fact, the writer created no picture, and if we’re to have any images at all, we’ll have to find them without the help of the writer. Compare that passage to this other description of the same events.

 

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weak colonies and grass along the sides of the road so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

 

In this vein, John Steinbeck goes on for about 1500 words, and for the most part, he touches on exactly the same information that the Drought Mitigation Center did.

 

“Agricultural” – “…the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward…”

 

“high winds” – “Now the wind grew strong and hard and it worked at the rain crust in the corn fields.”

 

“dust storms” – “Little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away… During a night the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind.”

 

“physical and emotional hardships” – “The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. And the children came out of the houses, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often.”

 

The vivid detail of Steinbeck’s prose makes the senses come alive with images. Of course, the first piece of writing is a technical report, and the second is a novel, so it’s unfair to compare them. I do it to make a point more vividly. If the writer in the first case had turned in something like Steinbeck’s description, undoubtedly the boss would have tossed it back at him, saying, “What do you think you’re writing here, The Grapes of Wrath?”

 

But the two pieces illustrate the difference between engaging the intellect alone in an abstract fashion and engaging the emotions with physical details that appeal to the senses. In the first case, the words are lifeless symbols. In the second case, they create rhythm, texture, color, tactile sensations, and even sounds and smells. To use the old dichotomy, they engage the body as well as the mind. The Cartesian duality in which we have so long been confined is not a commodious thing. It makes us half human. A work of art strikes it down and makes us whole again.