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Wednesday, June 2, 2010


Geoffrey Pullum of language log is a master of a rhetorical strategy I will call "overstatement." See for example his post Worthless Grammar Advice from Harvard:

Oh, dear. Again and again and again, American professors with absolutely no background in English grammar insist that their 21st-century college students should study this unpleasantly dogmatic little work, written by men born in the 19th century. But the dictats given in The Elements of Style range from the redundant to the insane. Anyone who read the book again and again and again, and took its edicts literally, would do disastrous damage to their writing.

Most of those who dip into it come out with some signs of a nervous cluelessness about grammar: they get edgy around adverbs and prepositions and instances of the verb be, without exactly knowing why they feel like that, or what they should do about it.

Nothing here is overstated or hyperbolic in the factual sense: Pullum believes all this quite literally. What is overstated is in the provacativeness of the tone: unpleasantly dogmatic, insane, disastrous damage, nervous cluelessness. The justification here is that Strunk & White's book is so revered yet so nefarious that only that kind of tone will suffice. I find this technique just as effective as the case of understatement I analyzed in May. You can have a nice effect on your readers either way, by objecting to something outrageous in very measured tones, or by objecting to something seemingly unobjectionable with outrage. Both techniques make the reader aware of the writer's perspective and attitude.

Pullum, by the way, is a wonderfully comic writer, deploying hyperbole, sarcasm, feigned (or real) outrage, and other similar effects with unforgettable aplomb.

1 comment:

Vance Maverick said...

The trick is not to overdo it. No doubt we all have our reference points; here in San Francisco, my example is Mark Morford. Pullum by contrast has marvelous self-control.