Saturday, January 24, 2009

Okay, You Heard the Man...

'Use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English ...'
--Mark Twain. For earlier mentions of the immortal bard, you can go
here and here.


At 10:45 AM, Blogger Pat Washington said...

What drives me nuts, John, is that this is NOT the way that writing is taught in most schools. Ugh. If you could see what my son has to put up with in English class....

I taught a Writing Workshop in my home a few years back for homeschool students and they LOVED it. None of this "write an essay with a beginning paragraph, a middle paragraph, and and ending paragraph in which you restate your beginning paragraph, using different words. [ugh!] Each paragraph should have at least 5 sentences, including a topic sentence...."

My son loves to write because, first, he sees me writing and enjoying it and, second, when I homeschooled him, I had him keep a journal, and we did fun writing exercises together. Yes, children need to learn writing structures, including proper punctuation, grammar, syntax, etc., but these devices should help a person communicate his particular message effectively, not hinder him. Far too many times, students start out with the STRUCTURE ("3 paragraphs, 5 sentences each" rolling over and over in their head), and then try to make their message fit that mold. And it makes them write like crap.

That's my rant of the day. :-b

At 4:17 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

The good news is that most people learn to discount what they learned in school about writing. The problem generally is that writing is taught in schools by non-writers, which is like me teaching someone the cello even though I don't play it myself, but just learned some theory out of a book. The dirty little secret is that we mostly learn to write by doing lots of reading of good stuff. And then by lots of trial and error.

At 8:31 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Twain on changing styles of writing to suit the times:

“We have heard a discussion to-night on the disappearance of literature. That’s no new thing. That’s what certain kinds of literature have been doing for several years. The fact is, my friend, that the fashion in literature changes, and the literary tailors have to change their cuts or go out of business. Professor Winchester here, if I remember fairly correctly what he said, remarked that few, if any, of the novels produced to-day would live as long as the novels of Walter Scott. That may be his notion. Maybe he is right; but so far as I am concerned, I don’t care if they don’t.

Professor Winchester also said something about there being no modern epics like Paradise Lost. I guess he’s right. He talked as if he was pretty familiar with that piece of literary work, and nobody would suppose that he never had read it. I don’t believe any of you have ever read Paradise Lost, and you don’t want to. That’s something that you just want to take on trust. It’s a classic, just as Professor Winchester says, and it meets his definition of a classic—something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read.”

At 12:59 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Twain's definition of a classic is indeed a classic definition, as it were.

But I think Twain would also agree that using the right word for the purpose is also for the best. Sometimes that's the plainest, simplest word. Sometimes it's not. It's always about finding the right word. Something he himself was very good at.

As for teaching writing, I agree: the best way to learn is to read lots of good writing, and learn from that reading.

At 8:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the things I stress when teaching my students writing skills is not to stack up 50-cent words when a nickel word will do. No "utilize", just "use", etc.

And to Art's point, finding the right word for the given situation is really the sum total of good and memorable writing. Takes a long time to perfect that skill.

At 12:36 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I think Twain would indeed agree with that, Art, as I do also. And Miles you've hit on one of the more egregious awful words in the entire language: utilize. I can't imagine a context in which that's ever the best word to use.

At 2:07 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

It depends how you utilize it.


Sorry, couldn't resist.

At 2:08 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

To follow up on Miles' point, one piece of advice I've often used in poetry critique groups is as follows: If you can say it in a haiku, say it in a haiku. Don't write an epic when a short lyric will do.

Of course, you can imagine how poorly some poets take advice like that. You'd think one had told them to eat their cat.

At 2:32 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Yes, I'm somewhat agnostic about length, and more focused on quality, with the crucial proviso that either long or short pieces need to have no fat, no filler, and no words that aren't doing any work. Lincoln famously needed only 271 words to get his meaning across in the Gettysburg Address, and those words have echoed in history ever since, because they were just the right ones, the most well-chosen words.

At 6:20 PM, Blogger Geoff Schutt said...

I love sentences, period. Long sentences, short sentences -- as long as they're good sentences, and have something to say, and perhaps with a new way of saying what they aim to do ... well -- I love sentences, period.

This said, it's always good to keep the wisdom of the previous masters close at hand.

So, to Mark Twain, I say: "Indeed."

At 6:55 PM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

The wisdom of the masters, indeed. And few have ever been more masterful than Twain.

At 10:16 PM, Blogger Serr8d said...

A comment you left on Erin O'Brien's site:

He is truly a repugnant, reptilian little shit. Why anyone takes that clown seriously is beyond me. But yes, I do also tune in occasionally, just to stay informed about what idiot things he's spewing into the atmosphere.

You, a mendouchous twatwaffle.

Work with those words, asshat.

At 11:28 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

It's "mendacious," BTW.

At 7:42 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

I was discussing Rush Limbaugh in that comment on Erin's blog, and this fellow who's joined us from Tennessee (one immediately deduces from his blog) is a major Rush fan. What can I say? Rush (a.k.a. King of the Idiot Culture) is not the most popular guy among thinking people.

At 8:26 AM, Blogger Serr8d said...

No, 'mendouchous' is correct. You can add the 'e' after the 'h' if it makes you feel any better.

John, you felt the need to immediately join in with the rest of that cadre of mendoucheous leftards who obviously haven't listened to any of Limbaugh's award-winning (did I mention he gets a 20M audience share, weekly? how does that compare to, say, Air America?) shows on whatever radio station airs him in lovely and gracious Cleveland, Ohio.

Rush is part of the loyal opposition, something that you obviously want to curtail in your quest for single-party dominance here in the U.S.A. (to emulate China's or Venezuela's governments, no?).

And, no, I seldom get a chance to listen to Mr. Limbaugh. But when a newly-immaculated president calls him out by name during a weekend news cycle, that sort of thing draws attention.

Your man, BHO, has some growing up to do. BHO, instead of calling out Rush, a private citizen who has a successful radio talk business, and telling the GOP they had better STFU and go along with his awful trillion-dollar bailout plan without debate, should ready himself for something he's never experienced before: some OPPOSITION that he can’t silence. BHO's days of whiny media-whoring rhetoric are coming to an end. It's time for BHO to put on the big-boy pants and do what he was elected to do. Get used to some real opposition, and, Grow Up!

Sorry, the unicorn ride is over.

(BTW, see this chart and tell me what effect more newly-printed money is going to have on our economy. Got inflation yet?)

At 8:49 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"You'd think one had told them to eat their cat."

I lked that line, Art. It actually reminded me of a Twain response. In addressing a contingent intent on closing the public schools to save money, Twain replied, "It's like feeding a dog on his own tail. He'll never get fat. I believe it is better to support schools than jails."

At 11:35 AM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks, I was thinking of Twain, so a Twain-like analogy came out. I like it when that happens. One could do far worse than to follow in Twain's footsteps.

As for Rush, he lost his last remaining shred of credibility when he was exposed as a pill-popping pain-drug addict. Considering all his rhetoric on the topic, it proved once and for all the hypocrisy of his brand of hatemongering anti-intellectual fear-baiting claptrap. I have to call it claptrap because it doesn't even deserve the label of rhetoric or discussion.

Sorry, John, if that feeds the flamewar fires. Some idiocies, as Twain often opined, cannot be left to fester but must be attacked in return. I often return with pleasure to Twain's wonderful "On the Decay of the Art of Lying."

At 11:36 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Dear Mr. Tennessee (sorry, you don't name yourself in your blog, so I'll use that instead),
Where to begin? First of all, I believe I did already say that I do listen to him occasionally, if only to be educated on what the Cro Magnon right is saying and thinking in this country, just as any liberty-loving person would have been well-advised to study closely what the brown-shirted National Socialist thugs were saying and doing in Germany in the mid-'30s. Because extreme political rhetoric often morphs into bad political results.

As for the number of listeners he has, well, that only proves there are at least 20 million very foolish, misguided people in the U.S., which I think we already knew. There are also millions of people who drink and then drive, millions who abuse drugs, millions who foolishly gamble away the rent money at the blackjack table and millions who are hateful to their neighbors. If 20 million people jumped off a cliff to their death, I'd refrain from following that behavior as well (though, like the Rush phenomenon, I'd be eager to study it and understand it). So you'll have to come up with a better argument for his good qualities than the number of his listeners.

As for Rush being a private citizen, well, that may be technically true, but when you choose to be such a public person as to engage in the public square in the way he does, then you have to take the bad with the good. When you heap abuse and condemnation on people for a living in the most public way possible, via the publicly owned airwaves, I'm not sure how you can logically complain when your targets lob it right back. That doesn't make much sense at all. Obama is not my guy, but I am glad that he's giving the brown-shirted radio bully (our contemporary version of Father Coughlin) a small taste of his own medicine. Bully for him, I say.

Finally, as to your odd suggestion that Obama's election heralds a one-party rule in America, I suggest you study history a little. America has pretty reliably swung between the two major parties in approximately 30-year cycles for a very long time (a theory that historian Arthur Schleshinger first identified more than a half century ago), and will no doubt continue to do so. I'm old enough to have witnessed several cycles of backers of each newly dominant party imagining that their party's momentary upswing meant the end of the two-party system in America (and remember that Republicans imagined their own dominance in perpetuity only a few short years ago), but that NEVER lasts. The seed's of one side's cyclical demise are planted shortly after the first moments of their new dominance, and the cycle continues.

As to your final point, about the worrisome economic imbalances caused by printing too much money, I share your concerns. But again, a little recent history should be our guide. The most recent two-term Democratic president left the country's ledger in remarkably good shape, by having the discipline to pay down public debt. Our most recent Republican president shredded that ledger completely, in large part by cutting taxes on the portion of the population best able to afford it. That's one of the biggest reasons that the public sentiment shifted toward the Democrats, and rightly so.

At 11:42 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Thanks for that additional point, Art, which you posted literally as I was posting mine above. And no, I don't want to avoid engaging in debate here, but rather wish to encourage it. I chose to ignore this fellow's name-calling the first time (his charming epithet "asshat") and instead engage the substantive underlying issues he was raising, and was rewarded by his returning with some far more substantive arguments, which is the ideal way these things should and can unfold. In his defense, I began the epithets by calling Limbaugh a name I have almost never used in public or in any form of writing, so he was merely hurling it back. That too was a good reminder for me about how useful debates are best waged, by avoiding name-calling. Let's leave those to the kiddies and the ignorant of all ages. Light is always better than mere heat.

At 10:14 PM, Blogger Serr8d said...

"Let's leave those to the kiddies and the ignorant of all ages. Light is always better than mere heat."

After, of course, your Godwinesque "brown-shirted National Socialist thugs". It seems even elitist snobs get their jollies in sandboxes at times, eh, John?

Of course since Rush once 'popped pills' before he overcame his addiction and became sober, he should not be allowed to speak, nevermore. Just as anything Ted Kennedy did or said after he killed a lass while in a cowardly drunken state should be ignored as well. Good point, John.

You may be unaware that Barack Obama started this kerfuffle Friday, when he called out the leader of the 'Cro Magnon right', by name. Does that not elevate Rush to the level of the Presidency, or merely reduce Baracky to being just another mendoucheous talk-show critic?

Rush, today, offered up his own bipartisan Obama-Limbaugh Tax Stimulus plan. I'll give you time to lower yourself to cave-dweller level, and read the thing. You might find, while peering through your monocle, some very astute thoughts.

Not so bad, for a druggie.

(Oh, my name? You may call me My Lord, or Serr.)

(One more thing..before I learn you some Limbaugh, allow me to fill you in on Coughlin. Reverend Coughlin was one of the first political leaders to use radio to reach a mass audience, as more than forty million souls tuned to his weekly broadcasts during the 1930s. Not that they had American Idol, then.. Rev. Coughlin used his radio program to promote FDR and his early New Deal proposals, to issue anti-Semitic commentary, and later to rationalize some of the fascist policies of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. You know, those two Liberal Fascists.. He flamed out after disagreeing with Roosevelt over the New Deal.

Rush is a successful businessman who parleyed lifelong values and traditional conservative ideals into one of the most successful and long-running media empires in America. He could probably loan the New York Times some badly needed cash; as his last contract gave him $400 Million. But since you listen to him so much, you already knew all of that.. )

At 10:33 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

Hypocrisy is hypocrisy, no matter who engages in it. Merely dragging other names into the pool does not create innocence, or somehow make it all okay. It's not a defense to say nyah nyah they did it first. But that is classic anti-intellectual rhetoric, at which Rush excels.

The dynamic that is interesting to me is twofold: first, the attempt to tear down the argument by ridiculing the arguer not the argument—the classic ad hominem attack—which is usually a sign of not having a leg to stand on, in terms of facts; Rush knows this and uses it well; second, the replacement of one elite with another. Rush is inherently an elitist, and always has been. He's no "man of the people." What he is, is an expert manipulator of basal emotions. He appeals to emotions, not intellect. Although Rush himself is quite smart his position is anti-intellectual. That's the far right's pattern. Not that the far left doesn't use the tactic, too, on occasion. I don't particularly think anybody who uses that tactic has any right to defend themselves from attack, particularly in a public forum like Rush's use of the publicly-owned airwaves. When you set out the rules of the game, you are not exempt from the rules being used against you, too.

For whatever that's worth.

At 11:26 PM, Blogger Art Durkee said...

And for more on argument culture, David Denby has written a book on "Snark" which makes some interesting points. Here's an interview:

At 12:39 AM, Blogger John Ettorre said...

Well said, Art. Sorry, but I'm now officially bored by this subject. Rush Limbaugh, who calls himself an entertainer first every chance he gets, really doesn't deserve so much attention as this. Let him entertain those who are entertained by such tripe.


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