Sunday, January 21, 2018

Oliver Kamm on The Elements of Style

Oliver Kamm, writing in The Sunday Times, exhorts his reader to “ditch the style guides and stop worrying about passives.” And he points to a usual suspect:

The prohibition on using the passive voice is, you see, very much a 20th-century phenomenon. As far as I know, it originated with The Elements of Style (1918) by William Strunk, an American volume that in a 1959 edition revised by the celebrated children’s author E.B. White has sold more than ten million copies. According to Strunk: “Many a tame sentence can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a transitive [verb] in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.”
Except that isn’t what Strunk wrote. From the 1918 Elements:
Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a verb in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.
That advice follows Strunk’s injuction to “use the active voice.” Strunk has more to say about this injunction:
The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive. . . .

This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.
He offers a pair of examples:
The dramatists of the Restoration are little esteemed to-day.

Modern readers have little esteem for the dramatists of the Restoration.

The first would be the right form in a paragraph on the dramatists of the Restoration; the second, in a paragraph on the tastes of modern readers. The need of making a particular word the subject of the sentence will often, as in these examples, determine which voice is to be used.
The Elements of Style, in all editions, offers no prohibition on the passive voice. The book does offer the reminder that the active voice, again and again, works better. Student writers whose essays refer to theses that “will be argued” and poems that “will be analyzed” and topics that “will be discussed” can benefit, always, from that reminder.

Kamm catches Strunk using the passive voice — “Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic” — and concludes that Strunk didn’t know much about grammar. But the passive voice, “frequently convenient and sometimes necessary,” as Strunk says, works well in that sentence, in which emphasis falls on sentences as things to be operated upon and improved. To recast the sentence in the active voice — “A writer can make many a tame sentence of description or exposition lively and emphatic” — seems no improvement, suggesting a slightly comical image of a writer as a manic mechanic, fixing sentence after sentence.

Oliver Kamm follows Geoffrey Pullum and Steven Pinker in claiming that The Elements of Style prohibits use of the passive voice. It doesn’t. Which is not to say that The Elements of Style is free of problems: I think it has many. But fair is fair, except when it isn’t.

Related posts
Pullum, Strunk, and White
Pullum on On Writing Well
Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style
Pinker on Strunk and White
The Elements of Style, my review

[Does Kamm mean to be dismissive in describing E.B. White as a “celebrated children’s author”? Not essayist and New Yorker writer? Fans of Tom Waits might recognize “manic mechanic.”]

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Was or were ?


[Dustin, January 20, 2018. Click for a larger view.]

Fitch, you need to read this blog post: If I were, if I was. Know the difference!

See other Dustin strips for literally and figuratively, “rocket surgery,” your and you’re, and phrasal-adjective punctuation.

[Is it too late in the day to be reading the comics?]

Julius Lester (1939–2018)

The writer and cultural critic Julius Lester has died at the age of seventy-eight. The New York Times has an obituary.

Here is an excerpt from a brilliant essay, “Morality and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” (1984):

Twain’s notion of freedom is the simplistic one of freedom from restraint and responsibility. It is an adolescent vision of life, an exercise in nostalgia for the paradise that never was. Nowhere is this adolescent vision more clearly expressed than in the often-quoted and much-admired closing sentences of the book: “But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and sivilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before.”

That’s just the problem, Huck. You haven’t “been there before.” Then again, neither have too many other white American males, and that’s the problem, too. They persist in clinging to the teat of adolescence long after only blood oozes from the nipples. They persist in believing that freedom from restraint and responsibility represents paradise. The eternal paradox is that this is a mockery of freedom, a void. We express the deepest caring for this world and ourselves only by taking responsibility for ourselves and whatever portion of this world we make ours. . . .

It takes an enormous effort of will to be moral, and that’s another paradox. Only to the extent that we make the effort to be moral do we grow away from adolescent notions of freedom and begin to see that the true nature of freedom does not lie in “striking out for the territory ahead” but resides where it always has — in the territory within.

Dorothy Malone (1924–2018)

The actress Dorothy Malone has died at the age of ninety-three. The New York Times has an obituary. Long before she moved to Peyton Place, Malone worked in a Los Angeles bookstore.

From the Saturday Stumper

A clever clue, from today’s Newsday Saturday Stumper, 36-Down, eight letters: “Senior partner.” No spoilers; the answer is in the comments.

Today’s puzzle, by Andy Kravis, is not especially tricky, but it offers few toeholds. Finishing a Saturday Stumper is always cause for minor self-congratulation.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Just a thought

Children restrained, taunted with food: I wonder if so-called blanket training is a partial explanation of what went on in David and Louise Turpin’s house. Just a thought.

Filing a complaint

Look: it’s Jeremias, one of K.’s two assistants. But he looks older, wearier. Why?


Franz Kafka, The Castle, trans. Mark Harman (New York: Schocken, 1998).

The complaint: K. cannot take a joke.

Related reading
All OCA Kafka posts (Pinboard)

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Brian Wilson, A student

Not from The Onion: the grade of F that high-schooler Brian Wilson received for his song “Surfin’” has been changed to an A. No word on whether Mike Love (who went to a different high school) will have any of his grades changed.

Thanks, Rachel.

Sardine art

The Smithsonian American Art Museum has Michael Goldberg’s Sardines. Not on display.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has Joe Brainard’s Sardines. Also not on display.

Someone given to making bad puns might say that in Brainard’s collaged drawing the word becomes fish. Looking at Goldberg’s painting should make that pun clear. See also Frank O’Hara’s poem “Why I Am Not a Painter.”

Related reading
All OCA sardine posts (Pinboard)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Eberhard Faber letterhead


[You really should click for a much larger view.]

Sean at Blackwing Pages and Contrapuntalism passed on this scan of the Eberhard Faber letterhead, complete with telephone exchange name, cable address, diamond star trademark, and two-digit postal code. And trailing clouds of graphite, a bright, sharp no. 2 Mongol.

This letterhead gives new meaning to the phrase “leaden sky.”

Thanks, Sean, for sharing this find.

Related reading
All OCA Mongol and pencil posts (Pinboard)

[Notice that the postal code has been typed in: codes for large cities were first used in 1943.]