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Saturday, February 23, 2013

Conventional Wisdom

The perpetually astute Vance Maverick in a comment on this blog compared the belief in the inefficacy of adverbs and adjectives to the conservative belief in "small government." In other words, this belongs to a curious kind of folklore impervious to empirical evidence. There is a kind "folk grammar" pitched together from a little Orwell, a little Elements of Style, a little half-remembered what-my-English-teacher-told-me. This is a folk-grammar not of the folk, but of the highly educated academic or the cranky auto-didact. There's an odd puritanism, too, this idea of being able to do without superfluous verbal ornamentation or foreign loan words. Those long words might confuse people! I'm all for concision and elegance, but I also believe there's room for some baroque exuberance. And there's a kind of confusion between truly excellent writing and the mere avoidance of rookie mistakes like using the passive voice in every sentence as default.

Here is Guy Davenport reviewing a biography of Stephen Crane:
Stephen Crane is an intractable subject because so much of his emotional life is an impenetrable surface. Benfey has hard weather of it with the love affairs, and even with Cora, who remains a blur. Only Conrad’s account of knowing Crane (the preface to Beer’s biography) gives us any sense of what the man was like, and Conrad’s words are so finely nuanced, so ironically reserved, and so obviously shaped for effect, as to be a Conrad story, a kind of “Secret Sharer” in a different key. One hopes that Max Beerbohm was tempted to make a drawing of Conrad telling Crane, all of a long evening, Balzac’s La Comédie humaine. What other writer would have asked to have it told, and what other writer would have obligingly told it?
Davenport is one of my favorite prose stylists; look at the mileage he gets out of three parallel adverb / adjective combinations, or from the echo of intractable / impenetrable. I haven't bolded words like "any" or "other," or the adjective in titles like "secret or "humaine," just the straightforwardly descriptive and restrictive adjectives.


Andrew Shields said...

"Folk grammar" is a good way to put it. With the gentle nudge that it has about as much value as "folk etymology."

Still, I do like (and even myself write) "folk music." :-)

Thomas said...

"But, to speak practically and as a writer, unlike those who call themselves no-adverb men, I ask for, not at once no adverbs, but at once better adverbs. Let every man make known what kind of modifier would command his respect, and that will be one step toward obtaining it." (Henry David Thoreau, "On Grammatical Disobedience")