The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

15 November 2002

Being objective about subjectivity

This is something I've pondered myself once or twice, with results so inconclusive they don't even deserve to be called "results". From Lactose Incompetent:

There are days when I feel that, if I had it all to do over again, I'd specialize in English Lit, hoping that in some way I'd learn how to read critically, to distinguish good writing from bad using more subjective criteria than "I like this" and "I don't like...that".

I can usually distinguish bad writing — give me ten minutes and I'll give you paragraphs full of it — but spotting good writing is a trickier business. Not as tricky, however, as producing it:

Perhaps I'm merely suffering from America's Cult of the Individual, that each person should choose their own path, make their own choices, decide their own destiny. My writing style is a hodge-podge of bits lifted from authors I enjoy, blended into a sassy compote with my own speech pattern.

I wish I had the temerity to describe what I write as having "style".

But I do understand the "hodge-podge" bit: sometimes I think I'm doing the prose equivalent of Peter Schickele's Quodlibet, in which every single musical phrase is lifted from some other, presumably better work.

Posted at 7:46 AM to Almost Yogurt


I like this post.

Posted by: Anna at 5:53 PM on 15 November 2002

I like it, too. Of course, the problem with writing in public is that some twit is sure to come along and say something like, "Oh, that's really very nice, but you know it should be, 'each person should choose his or her own path, make his or her own choices, decide his or her own destiny...." etc. Don't you just hate it when they do that?

Posted by: John Rosenberg at 6:08 PM on 15 November 2002

I understand why it's being done, but it still sounds stilted and artificial, and I'll go to considerable lengths to reword something to avoid that particular construction.

Or I'll say, "Well, screw it," and use the feminine pronoun as the default. Obviously this won't work everywhere - "Each NFL player must report to her training camp no more than 15 lb overweight" creates some really disturbing visuals, at least to me - but if the sentence is sufficiently genderless, why not?

Posted by: CGHill at 6:34 PM on 15 November 2002

I have a good friend who writes a lot, and well (at least the content is good), who almost always uses feminine pronouns, but he does it for political/ideological reasons. Drives me up the wall. I keep telling him that good writing is transparent, letting the reader see the content without distractions. His "she" and "her" all over the place where they don't belong reminds me of those bumper stickers announcing that "My Kid is an Honor Student At...," i.e., look what a smart and great parent I am. Like wearing a campaign button proclaiming that "I'm a sensitive liberal!" In real life, whenever confronted with a construction of the sort we're discussing, what I actually do is say (to myself) "the hell with it" and just use the "his" -- each person should choose his -- and just take the feminist/pc barbs as the cost of doing writing....

Posted by: John Rosenberg at 9:41 PM on 15 November 2002

God forbid anyone should accuse me of being sensitive.

I am apparently bothered more by this linguistic construction than you are, but far less than your "See how liberal I am!" friend. I can live with that, I think. I gave up trying to polish my prose to the nth degree of grammatical rectitude right about the time I realized that I was going out of my way to conspicuously avoid splitting infinitives.

And in a hundred years, for all I know, "everyone will carry their own books" may be accepted as Standard English. I figure a language that can stand two definitions of "sanction" that are almost polar opposites of one another can deal with pronouns that don't quite match in number.

Posted by: CGHill at 9:54 PM on 15 November 2002

Try being an 8th grade English teacher. "Everyone can carry their own books" would thrill me to death. Imagine how many times I see "Everyone can carry there own books" or even "Everyone can carry they're own books". (I lie not).

As a teacher of young teenagers who have been introduced to the computer since the cradle, I have seen that the computer's primary function for them is to see how many IM's they can juggle on the screen at once. Email and IM's have a language of their own. When these kids spend hours in front of a screen typing to their friends in the same fashion that they USED to spend hours on the phone, something has to give; that something is usually the ability (not even the desire) to write coherently with structurally correct sentences. I wouldn't foist even one of the hundreds of papers a month through which I have to labor on the most hardened criminal in prison. It would be considered cruel and unusual punishment.

Posted by: Vickie at 6:52 AM on 16 November 2002

It goes beyond 8th grade. Way beyond. The Code Warrior was pleased to unveil his new design for the front page of the corporate site, and there was an announcement that preorders for something or other were being taken, and "Get your's now!" I pointed this out, and he said that originally he'd left out the apostrophe, but it just didn't look right.

Admittedly, the skills required to make a good Web design and the skills required to make a good English paragraph have scant overlap, but geez.

Posted by: CGHill at 8:35 AM on 16 November 2002

I have a very instrumental justification for the principled position I affect on grammatical correctness: it's simply one more means of striving for transparency, of not doing something that will cause readers to stumble over how I say what I'm trying to say. It's true that fewer and fewer people care about grammatical niceties, and even many of them aren't bothered by some things that would offend a purist. BUT, some people will notice if your commas are scattered incoherently across the page or if your pronouns don't match their antecedents, and the simply fact of their noticing interferes with their reading. On the other hand, no person who mangles their (sic) pronoun agreements will be bothered by your handling the matter correctly. They are oblivious to such issues. Thus, if you're not as careful as you can be a few people, your most careful readers, will notice, and if you are you won't offend the many who don't care. (Qualification: this last point assumes you take care to avoid pedantic sounding constructions.)

Now, hopefully....

Posted by: John Rosenberg at 3:02 PM on 16 November 2002

Being the non-hopeful type by nature, I would never open up with "Hopefully...", but the point is taken.

Maybe seventy people read this bit of Web weirdness on a semi-regular basis; I believe that if I posted something way below standard, I'd hear from at least sixty of them wanting to know what the hell I was thinking when I came up with that.

Posted by: CGHill at 4:37 PM on 16 November 2002

Once you get a certain tune in your head.... Here's it's sung by Dr. (Howard) Dean, the Democratic Doctor now making house calls on future delegates, in WaPo today:

"It will take somebody who stands up and says what they think and not what they think voters want to hear."

I, for one (maybe for several), am delighted Dr. Dean speaks their mind and says what they think.

Posted by: John Rosenberg at 7:37 PM on 17 November 2002

"I am large, I contain multitudes." - Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

(Or is that Song of Ourselves?)

Posted by: CGHill at 9:30 PM on 17 November 2002

Plural and possessive.

That's my pet peeve. It will make me absolutely bugnuts to see apostrophes in the wrong places, or missing from the right places.

Thanks for the link. I like your temerity.

Posted by: lactose incompetent at 7:20 PM on 19 November 2002

Talk about (as I did) not being able to get the grammatical tune out of your head: Once you start
noticing this stuff, you tend to see it everywhere,
as demonstrated here. (Alas, you must read down to the very bottom to see the relevance of that post to this discussion.)

Posted by: John Rosenberg at 2:18 PM on 20 November 2002