“Enormity” Does Not Mean Big

To pick on Ann Patchett a bit more (see “Only the Lonely”) consider this sentence: “Marina hadn’t understood the enormity of the river until she was on it.” And somewhat later in the book: “The enormity of Marina’s happiness was caught in that light.” 

 

Garner’s Modern American Usage (Third Edition, Oxford 2009) says, “The historical differentiation between these words should not be muddled. Enormousness = hugeness, vastness. Enormity = outrageousness, ghastliness, hideousness…. The OED notes that ‘recent examples [of enormity for enormousness] might perh. be found, but the use is now regarded as incorrect.” 

Only the Lonely

Ann Patchett is a wonderful novelist. Don’t begin one of her books in the evening, because it will steal the night from you. One day at random I picked State of Wonder from a shelf in my house to look at it during breakfast. I didn’t put it down for three days. 

 

But like so many of us, Ann has trouble with the word “only.” In a book that made me stumble over her words almost never, she had this sentence: “She only comes to town once every few months.” Of course, she meant to write, “She comes to town only once every few months.” And since both “only” and “once” mean “one,” she really meant not to use the demon word at all. This would have been fine: “She comes to town once every few months.” 

 

Our editors are supposed to help save us from that sort of obvious blunder, but they’re not onto their jobs these days. 

 

State of Wonder, Harper 2011

Monkey Business

Sam Kean writes in his book The Violinist’s Thumb, “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.” 

 

Chimps and gorillas are not monkeys. They are apes, specifically anthropoid apes of the family Pongidae. Monkeys have tails. Apes do not. 

 

It’s important to research your subject well. Otherwise you may, well… look like a monkey.

 

The Violinist’s Thumb Back Bay Books 2012

The Bug in Your Brain

David Swinney was a cognitive psychologist and Chairman of the Department of Psychology at the University of California in San Diego. Through experiments in his laboratory, he showed that when you read the word bug, for example, even if its meaning is made clear by context, you will also call up other meanings, such as trouble with a computer, a secret recording device that a spy might use, and even the Volkswagen beetle. You will also call up physical (i.e., emotional) associations with those things. Antonio Damasio, a neuroscientist, wrote, “When we recall an object… we retrieve not just sensory data but also accompanying motor and emotional data.” Steven Pinker, a psychologist at Harvard, put his finger on that concept when he described semantics as being “about the relation of words to emotion: the way in which words don’t just point to things but are saturated with feelings, which can endow the words with a sense of magic, taboo, and sin.”

 

But if you have not read about and stored those meanings, or if you have not had moving experiences of your own to give associations to the words, then what you retrieve will not have that same depth and variety of meaning. Having emotional experiences in life, along with reading a great deal, will forge the connections among words and combinations of words and their underlying emotional meaning. And that is also why effective writing may be characterized as much by what is left out as by what is stated explicitly.

 

Maryanne Wolf, the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University, wrote that “Reading is… enriched as much by the unpredictable indirections of a reader’s inferences and thoughts, as by the direct message to the eye from the text.”

 

In the act of reading, you must first detect the physical form of a word on the page. You bring those abstract symbols into the visual cortex for processing, and then, as I said, send those symbols to the angular gyrus, where they are decoded into a spoken word. At the same time, the words that have come before it in the sentence have to be held in working memory while all the possible meanings and associations with the new word (memories, emotions, previous experiences) are compared to and integrated with the text that you’ve already read. Since reading is not a linear process, the eye will sometimes shoot forward to incorporate what’s coming next. As Wolf put it, “The richness of this semantic dimension of reading depends on the riches we have already stored.”

 

In other words, what the reader knows will determine how he reads, what he can comprehend, and what impact a given piece of writing is going to have on him. That is why my students’ writing improved when I told them to write whatever they were going to write as a letter to a close friend. At last, they knew who was on the other side of that conversation. They understood how that person would read something, what the associations would be. That knowledge freed them to use their own voices.

Can One Word Spoil a Beautiful Novel?

I love the work of Emily St. John Mandel. I love to get on a plane with one of her books, because then I do not have to put up with modern air travel but can live instead inside of her head. I like living in her head. She writes really good novels. 

 

One of the best is Station Eleven (Knopf, 2014). And it roars along in dazzling fashion until some two hundred pages in. I hit a couple of clunkers along the way but nothing that would cast the whole project into shadow. 

 

The central device of the plot is a community that has sprung up in an abandoned airport after an apocalyptic influenza virus destroys most of the human race. It appears that Emily has done quite a bit of research in other areas, so it would seem fair to assume that she researched airports and aviation for this crucial part of the book. 

 

The pacing of the story is beautiful and the suspense powerful. We don’t actually get to the airport until page 224. And then we begin to stumble into Emily’s confusion. And that confusion persists for another 78 pages while anyone who knows about aviation winces with embarrassment and unease.

 

The trouble begins on page 233 when she writes, “This was how he arrived in this airport: he’d boarded a machine that transported him at high speed a mile above the surface of the earth.” A mile is 5,280 feet. His flight was scheduled from New York to Toronto, so its cruising altitude would have been at least 25,000 feet or almost five miles. Okay, well, we can shrug and forgive mistake number one. 

 

But in the very next paragraph, she writes, “Clark… was struck by the variety of planes on the tarmac.” Clark is the character above, a key figure, who arrived at the airport in question. The trouble here is that tarmac does not exist on any airport in the world. No airport has ever embodied any surface called tarmac

 

According to the Federal Aviation Administration (and to all of us pilots who use airports), the surfaces at airports are called runways, taxiways, aprons, and ramps. No tarmac. Never. No air traffic controller has ever said, “Taxi to the tarmac.” No pilot has transmitted his desire to be on or near a tarmac of any sort. Apologies to all of those misguided journalists who use this mistaken term every day. No tarmac. 

 

The Oxford English Dictionary says this: 

 

“Tarmacadam…. A mixed material for making roads, consisting of some kind of broken stone or ironstone slag in a matrix of tar alone, or of tar with some mixture of pitch or creosote.”

 

It then cites some engineers from the 1800s talking about using this mixture to try to pave “Dustless Roads,” the title of a paper in 1909 by J.W. Smith. He strongly recommends tar as the paving of the future. He was right. Two-lane blacktop roads are everywhere. 

 

The OED goes on: “Hence Tarmac, the registered trade-mark of a kind of tar macadam consisting of iron slag impregnated with tar and creosote.” This all took place before 1910, at a time when no airports existed as such. And so no airport embodied a component that could rightly be called Tarmac or tarmac. And the lower case version of this word would be in violation of the trade-mark, which today no longer exists. Hence: No Tarmac.

 

So the sad conclusion that I, eager and enthusiastic, come to on page 233 of Station Eleven, is that Emily didn’t care to research the main location of her story.

 

I pressed on. Maybe things would get better. 

 

Alas, page 237: “… parked end to end on the tarmac.” 

238: “…jet on the tarmac.” (A side note: Strictly speaking, modern airliners are powered not by jets, but by turbine engines.) 

239: “Beyond the tarmac…”

241: “…alone on the tarmac.”

243: “…bonfire on the tarmac…”

246: “…a crowd gathered on the tarmac…”

248: “…looking out at the tarmac.”

254: “…armchairs with the views over the tarmac.”  

276: “…from which he could see almost the entire tarmac.” 

 

How can we know the difference between the regular tarmac and the “entire tarmac?” How can we envision what “he could see” if we can’t define tarmac? So much of a narrative involves allowing the reader see what our characters see. Emily occasionally uses such terms as runway, so she must know that some places on the surface of an airport are NOT tarmac…. Where then is tarmac as distinct from runway? Where did she get the word tarmac? How did this monster zombie grow so large and destructive in her otherwise lovely text?

 

It gets worse.

 

277: “Garrett was absorbed in watching two children playing on the tarmac….” 

 

280: “Thinking of a boy standing on the tarmac….” 

 

309: “A liquid movement below on the tarmac….” And this instance is particular sad, because the paragraph containing it was otherwise beautiful and fell to pieces on this word alone.

 

So yes, one word can destroy a book. The last third of her novel was ruined by the fact that she had snatched a word out of common parlance and never thought to ask what (if anything) it meant. George Orwell wrote about this failing in his lovely little book Why I Write. Here’s some of what he said:

 

“… modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier–even quicker, once you have the habit–to say In my opinion it is a not unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences, since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious.” He concludes by saying that this writer’s “brain is not involved as it would be if he were choosing his words for himself.”

 

So you can’t talk about airports and airplanes if you don’t know the words that apply to airports and airplanes, the knowledge of which would allow you to choose to say what you mean instead of gumming together words you simply happened to overhear somewhere. Journalists say tarmac to make it sound as if they know something about aviation when, in fact, they don’t. Emily is relentless in her pursuit of this false delight and seemingly unaware as she does so.

 

Page 281: “From the tarmac, the concert was a smudge of light in Concourse C.” 

 

Next page: “…four people with binoculars watching the tarmac….” 

 

Ahh, one or two tarmacs, perhaps. But this book, ostensibly about a community in an airport, crashes after a hopeful voyage of more than 200 pages on the shoals of the one word by an author who has the potential to be terrific at her craft. 

 

Yet the injury seems endless. Page 332: “Clark looks up at the evening activity on the tarmac….” 

 

We can perhaps gain some insight into how the editors at Knopf missed this catastrophe in such a good novel. They also missed the low-hanging fruit in other areas as well. Emily mistakes presently, meaning soon, for at present, meaning now: (page 46) “with the location of the sixth presently in question…”

 

And on page 191: “a makeshift structure that would cut the wind and hopefully look like a pile of trash….” My conclusion is that no one at Knopf read the book very closely.

 

Likewise on page 290: “…but she was too nauseous to move.” The mistake is repeated again on page 321: “He felt nauseous.” She means, of course, nauseated. 

 

Again (page 317) “He’d laid awake until sunrise….” He’d lain awake is correct. 

 

I make such obvious mistakes myself. All writers do, no matter how skillful. I used to think the word enormity referred to size, not wickedness. We hope our editors and friends will catch and correct us in these blunders. We need eternal vigilance. Writing is not for the faint of heart. We have to look at every word. Look and then look again.

 

 

 

 

A Galaxy of Errors

NASA has a wonderful web site that will send you a new photograph of something in the cosmos every day. I love it. Sadly, scientists are some of the worst writers in the wider universe. At the Santa Fe Institute and elsewhere, I try to help them when I can. But I believe that people would enjoy and trust science much more if scientists would admit that they need that help and stop trying to write their own explanations. Here’s a recent example from NASA’s APOD project.

 

https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/image/2002/ldn1622MinXie.jpg

 

Explanation: The silhouette of an intriguingdark nebulainhabits this cosmic scene. Lynds’ Dark Nebula (LDN) 1622 appears against a faint background of glowing hydrogen gas only visible in long telescopic exposures of the region. In contrast, the brighter reflection nebula vdB 62 is more easily seen, just above and right of center. LDN 1622 lies near the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy, close on the sky to Barnard’s Loop, a large cloud surrounding the rich complex of emission nebulae found in the Belt and Sword of Orion. With swept-back outlines, the obscuring dust of LDN 1622 is thought to lie at a similar distance, perhaps 1,500 light-years away. At that distance, this 1 degree wide field of view would span about 30 light-years. Young stars do lie hidden within the dark expanse and have been revealed in Spitzer Space telescope infrared images. Still, the foreboding visual appearance of LDN 1622 inspires its popular name, the Boogeyman Nebula.

 

Authors & editors: Robert Nemiroff(MTU) &Jerry Bonnell(UMCP)

 

The word intriguing in the first sentence is ill-advised. It usually suggests spying or wrong-doing. The author means to say the object in the photograph is interesting. The sentence itself says nothing, except to point out that in the photograph we find something that is in the photograph and it’s called a “dark nebula.” This is a dead sentence.

 

The second sentence goes on to name the thing in the photograph: Lynds’ Dark Nebula 1622, which is no more helpful, because we don’t know what it is or the identity of Lynds, perhaps a person. In fact, Beverly Lynds is the source of the odd word, which happens to be her name. She cataloged nebulae, and her compiled work, published in the early 1960’s, forms a standard reference. Hence the number 1622, which is not a date but a reference to her catalog.

 

We do learn in that second sentence that the lighter background is hydrogen, presumably at some high temperature, since it is “glowing.” The author has the word only out of place. “only visible in long telescopic exposures of the region” should be “visible only in long telescopic exposures of the region.” But since all images on this web site are from telescopes, we have unneeded words. And since we can’t see what’s in the photograph without the photograph being of “the region” at which we’re looking, we have even more unnecessary words. Cut, cut, cut all your nonsense.

 

Better: “This dark nebula, known as 1622 from a catalog compiled by Beverly Lynds, appears against a background of glowing hydrogen gas that is visible only in photographic exposures of long duration.” 

 

The next sentence is baffling even to the trained eye: “In contrast, the brighter reflection nebulavdB 62is more easily seen, just above and right of center.” 

 

Better: “Nebula vdB 62 appears as a brighter spot above right of center.” The author has used an unnecessary comma.

 

The text gets worse from there, including this sentence that makes no sense at all. I won’t attempt to rewrite it, since we don’t know what many important terms mean.

 

“LDN 1622 lies near the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy, close on the sky to Barnard’s Loop, a large cloud surrounding the rich complex of emission nebulae found in the Belt and Sword of Orion.”

 

“near the plane of our Milky Way Galaxy”

“close on the sky to…” 

“Barnard’s Loop…” 

“complex of emissions nebulae…” 

Confusion mounts. Exhaustion sets in. Why bother with science when it’s so confusing? 

 

The final sentence:

 

“Young stars do lie hidden within the dark expanse and have been revealed in Spitzer Space telescope infrared images. Still, the foreboding visual appearance of LDN 1622 inspires its popular name, the Boogeyman Nebula.”

 

This is troublesome: “and have been revealed in Spitzer Space telescope infrared images.” It should be: “and have been revealed in infrared images from the Spitzer Space telescope.” 

 

There is no need to tell the reader what to feel. And we can eliminate redundancy.

 

“Still, the foreboding visual appearance of LDN 1622 inspires its popular name, the Boogeyman Nebula.”

 

Eliminating the crackpot word foreboding does nothing to weaken the message and does something to strengthen the sentence. 

 

Even better: “Still, the appearance of LDN 1622 inspires its popular name, the Boogeyman Nebula.”

Active is Better Than Passive

“It was in this kitchen where meringues were launched onto seas of créme anglaise, perfectly seared slabs of foie gras were drizzled with fig reductions, and salads of waterecress and endive were expertly tossed with olive oil and sea salt.”

 

from Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019

 

This sentence begins with trouble, because it has no subject. The structure “It was in… where…” is awkward if not nonsensical. “Meringues were launched…” makes matters worse by having self-flying meringues with no captain at the helm. And piling up the verbs “to be” afterward merely takes the reader farther astray on the misguided journey.

 

The author is writing about her mother and her kitchen, so her mother, Malabar by name, presents an obvious candidate to be master of this sentence and to provide its active element. The sentence could actually become beautiful with Malabar in charge. In fact, just a couple of sentences earlier, Brodeur writes, “Here, at the very last house on a winding road to the bay beach, the kitchen was command central and Malabar its five-star general.” So she had her metaphor in hand already when she stumbled.

 

We writers cannot always see all of our mistakes. That’s what our editors are for. Adrienne Brodeur is a good writer, and someone at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt should have been looking out for her.

Rewriting

Writing is not writing, it’s rewriting.

 

Check your work for nonsense. 

 

These quotes are taken from the medical files of patients in real hospitals.

 

“The baby was delivered, the cord clamped and cut, and handed to the pediatrician, who breathed and cried immediately.”

 

“The skin was moist and dry.”

 

“Patient was alert and unresponsive.”

 

“When she fainted, her eyes rolled around the room.”

 

“Bleeding started in the rectal area and continued all the way to Los Angeles.”

 

 Check your spelling.

 

“The lab test indicated abnormal lover function.”

 

“While in the emergency room, she was examined, x-rated and sent home.”

 

“I saw your patient today, who is still under our car for physical therapy.”

 

“Exam of genitalia reveals that he is circus sized.”

 

 Say what you mean and mean what you say.

 

“The patient lives at home with his mother, father, and pet turtle, who is presently enrolled in day care three times a week.”

 

“She is numb from her toes down.”

 

“Exam of genitalia was completely negative except for the right foot.”

 

“The patient was to have a bowel resection. However, he took a job as a stockbroker instead.”

 

“The patient suffers from occasional, constant, infrequent headaches.”

 

Read and re-read your work.

Orwell and Socrates Want You to Make Sense, Not Nonsense

In 1946, Orwell published an essay called “Politics and the English Language,” in which he bemoaned the “mental vices” that had put the language into decline. He said that the English language, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

 

That is why deep learning is important no matter what method of acquiring information we use. The Socratic method tends to force deep learning on the student, because the effort of memorization ensures that everything resides within, while the use of debate ensures a critical questioning of everything that we think we know. A person with deep learning won’t accept just anything. He learns to recognize malicious nonsense for what it is. Expert performance in writing requires curiosity and a critical mind.

 

But because Socrates was not a practitioner of reading and writing, he couldn’t see the subtle ways in which it might be used and useful, even for the kind of learning that he was after. Lev Vygotsky, born in 1896 in Belarus, founded a branch of psychology known as cultural-historical psychology. He viewed writing as every bit as dynamic as speech, perhaps more so, and fully capable of creating the same sort of dialog that Socrates used. It can create that dialog inside the writer. The effort of writing and rewriting, over and over, gradually refines the text so that it can become as sharp and deep as Socratic dialog. When approached in that way, with great effort, writing can lead to what Socrates called “virtue,” the handmaiden of truth. But both the Socratic dialog and expert writing are hard work.

 

Maryanne Wolf is the director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts University. She wrote that “Reading is… enriched as much by the unpredictable indirections of a reader’s inferences and thoughts, as by the direct message to the eye from the text.” She expressed her concerns not unlike those of Socrates and of the Sanskrit scholars in the fifth century BCE, who were also against writing. We are at a similar turning point as we make the transition from a world of rich voluminous texts to a world of digital imagery, video and audio clips, and fragmentary messages that have no dramatic structure. (Dramatic structure imbues a text with the emotional valence that makes it durable in memory.) Most of those new channels through which we receive information serve to shatter attention, not to drive a coherent narrative. This shattering of attention began with radio and television (or perhaps much earlier if we include ancient cave art as a contrast to reality). In those broadcasts the narrative is constantly interrupted by advertisements. The effect has grown dramatically with the use of the Internet. And as in the time of Socrates, there are those who believe that this new technology is going to make us stupid.

 

It is now well known among neuroscientists that certain parts of the brain can rapidly recast their networks of neurons in response to whatever we practice doing. Learning to read, for example, changes the visual cortex, among other areas. Instead of interpreting the lines and angles of the letters, we develop new networks of neurons that are devoted to recognizing whole words and instantly connecting them with their meaning, their mental models and emotional labels. Reading also forces us to practice paying deliberate attention. To comprehend what we read requires disengaging from whatever else we are doing and diving into the text. And reading with deep concentration and comprehension activates the brain broadly, across many different areas, in a complex recursive process that not only allows us to understand what is on the page but that calls up the whole universe of our own knowledge, experience, inference, and imagination. When reading a good book, you may say, “I felt as if I were there.” If you felt that way, you were there.

 

Surfing the Internet, sending text messages, watching videos, or downloading music does none of that. I enjoy those activities and find them useful. But they are also brief and fragmentary exercises. We’re adept at learning what we practice. With enough practice, we begin to learn a new way of approaching the process of acquiring and using information, one that skims the surface without the need for understanding or even emotion. With our brains thus altered, we begin to do everything a little bit differently. We learn that we can have answers instantly, and we gradually give up analytical thought. This can have catastrophic effects when we attempt to choose our leaders in this frame of mind.

 

Because the Internet allows us to do many things quickly and simultaneously, we learn both to hurry and to distribute our attention over many unrelated matters. Rather than regarding the world with a deep curiosity and a critical eye, we begin to accept what is presented unquestioningly. If we drive a car, we are not walking. And to walk is to be human. It is our most ancient legacy. To drive is, well… A dead end.

 

Already the influence of the Internet can be seen in television, which scrolls news across the screen and uses pop-up ads. Magazines have fragmented their text and graphic design into bite-sized bits that at their best disrupt deliberate attention and at their worst make no sense at all. Newspapers now feature capsule summaries so that people don’t have to read the articles. The headlines in the New York Timeshave lost all meaning as far as news is concerned. And signs and instructions everywhere have been stripped of words in favor of icons. (I saw a street sign pointing to the library. It had no words on it, only a silhouette of a man reading a book. Presumably, this was intended to direct illiterate people to the library.)

 

Obviously, there are clear benefits of having instant access to a universe of information. As a writer, I find that in an hour I can do research that would have taken me a week or a month to do just a few years ago. But every new advantage comes with unintended consequences. Just as a sedentary life will erode our strength, the shattering of our attention by brief bursts of unrelated information will influence the way we think. With the Internet at my fingertips, I begin to feel as if I know everything. But I have to be careful to separate what I know from what I can look up, lest I, as Socrates put it, “appear to be omniscient and… generally know nothing.”

 

   Technology is already changing the way people read and learn. A five-year survey was conducted at University College London to find out how people use two popular research sites, one operated by the British Library and one by a British educational consortium. The study showed that researchers are skimming, not reading deeply. They quickly move from source to source, reading a page or two. They don’t return for an in-depth look at the work. The report said, “It is clear that users are not reading online in the traditional sense; indeed there are signs that new forms of ‘reading’ are emerging as users ‘power browse’ horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins. It almost seems that they go online to avoid reading in the traditional sense.”

 

Wolf argued that the Internet is weakening our ability to think deeply, interpret text, and make the rich mental connections that lead to real learning and new insights. She wrote that the beauty of reading is that it allows us to “reach beyond the specific content of what we read to form new thoughts.” She worries, probably with reason, that the Internet is going to rot the minds of her children.

 

Every new technology comes with a cost. Even something as simple as the clock changed the way people use their minds. As Joseph Weizenbaum, a computer scientist from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, observed in his book, Computer Power and Human Reason, clocks led people to reject their direct experience of the world. For example, we eat at meal times rather than when we’re hungry. 

 

    In the face of these inventions, the quest for inefficiency becomes a noble aspiration. Looking up a word in a dictionary is different from looking it up on the Internet, because the way a book is structured forces you to browse, exposing you to all sorts of words that you had no intention of finding. The same is true of browsing the stacks in a library. You discover books that you didn’t know existed and remember ones that you had forgotten. You take detours, find dead ends; and all the while your brain is working. At what, you cannot tell. But that very process of exploration in pursuit of a goal is an essential part of developing a rich interior life and a critical faculty that will keep you from accepting nonsense as the truth, even as the effort informs and enriches your writing.

miSFIts

Real writers are miSFIts. If you are a real writer, you are an eternal outsider. You make it your life’s work to get inside and describe what you see. But the very intention to describe sets you apart. None of those people who really belong intend to describe where they belong. They are living it. We are peering in through the peephole of our craft. 

 

So real writers are destined to be alone, belonging nowhere, because they–we–can never be true insiders. The real world is always at a distance, on the end of a stick, and the stick is the pencil with which we write our descriptions. 

 

I spell the word miSFIts with those funny capital letters, because I’ve been writing a book about the Santa Fe Institute, and it is a home for misfit scientists who could never be insiders at conventional academic institutions.