Thursday, June 22, 2006

E. B. White revisited: Part 1

"All right, have it your way -- you heard a seal bark!"

In the post I linked to in covering the NYT story about Language Log, Geoff Pullum is right about writing, mostly right about adjectives, and dead wrong about E. B. White, one of the great American humorists and a marvelous writer -- and the man who rescued his buddy James Thurber’s cartoons from the trash bin and oblivion.
He is right, of course, that the so-called experts condemn the adjective. If you want to see what the very worst of the usage and style recommenders say, it is always a good idea to turn to Strunk and White's “The Elements of Style” first. Sure enough, on page 71 of the 4th edition, they say: "Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs." As usual, moronic advice, and impossible to follow. And in the very next sentence they use adjectives themselves, of course. (An indecisive disjunction of adjectives, in fact: "weak or inaccurate". Well which is it? Be clear, they would say to you if you wrote that.)

What do these writing experts think they are doing trying to take something as subtle as how to write well and boil it down to maxims as simple as the avoidance of one particular grammatical category? Are they... Well, I'm really going to need an adjective to say this... Are they insane?

Look, you don't get good at writing by deleting adjectives. Writing is difficult and demanding; you can learn to get moderately good at it through decades of practice writing millions of words and critiquing what you've written or having others critique it. About 6% of those words will be adjectives, whether you write novels or news stories, whether they're good or bad.
Moronic advice? Impossible to follow? Tell it to Thurber, who didn’t need a single adjective to complete the silky perfection of his caption for the seal in the bedroom cartoon.

I imagine Pullum would say I am being too literal, that he wasn’t talking about a single, short sentence. Granted. But he is also being disingenuous in setting up E. B. White as some sort of literal-minded, pedantic “writing expert” whose views can easily be dismissed by a real-world language expert like Pullum.

White wasn’t a teacher. He was a writer. Part of what made his revision of “Elements of Style” such a breath of fresh air when it first came out was that it was not written by an academic, but by a writer, one of the great prose stylists of his time. And an ironist. Pullum is really missing the joke when he accuses White of hypocrisy in using adjectives to give advice about not using adjectives. Nobody was better equipped than White to see the humor in this paradox -- about as absurd as a seal in a bedroom -- and to play with it self-referentially.

I couldn’t agree more with Pullum’s larger point that language is a living organism and that trying to pin it down with inflexible rules can only backfire. I’m very fond of “Elements of Style,” but I can’t imagine turning something as essentially light and playful into a fetish. And to the extent that teachers use it too literally, that’s their problem, not White’s.


Mark Liberman said...

Thurber also made fun of White's obsession with arbitrary grammatical "rules": see

And White didn't follow his own prescriptions: see

The issue isn't whether White was a good writer or not. It's whether his prescriptions about how to write are accurate, sensible, coherent and generally worthy of the religious awe that some people aim their way.

Madison Guy said...

I think I've read most of the Language Log posts about E. B White's contribution to "Elements of Style," and I never see any reference to White's sense of humor, nor his obvious understanding of the essentially provisional nature of the "reminders" (not prescriptions) he offers in Chapter V, "An Approach to Style," which includes the offending "write with nouns and verbs."

This alleged writing martinet notes, near the end of the same chapter, "Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition, for, as an elderly practitioner once remarked, 'Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar.' "

Regarding any rules about writing with "religious awe" is a form of idolatry. Were White still around, I'm sure he would be the first to disown such false worshippers.