Unnatural acts



Suzzallo Library, University of Washington, Seattle

I still remember reading Steven Pinker’s book The Language Instinct in the old reading room of the Suzzallo Library. It was in 1994, and I was well along in a PhD program studying language and literature at the University of Washington in Seattle. The book takes as  its subject one of those basic questions we have been asking together this semester–in this case, how it is we might learn, speak, and understand language. At the time, I had been studying the philosophy of language, and was also reading writers working with the assumption that language is a cultural artifact that we learn, as Pinker put it, “the way we learn to tell time or how the federal government works” (18). But as Pinker would argue, a three-year old is “a grammatical genius,” and a “preschooler’s tacit knowledge of grammar is more sophisticated than the thickest style manual or the most state-of-the-art computer language system, and the same applies to all healthy human beings, even the notorious syntax-fracturing professional athlete and the, you know, like, inarticulate teenage skateboarder” (19). As a recovering professional athlete and, further back, a professional skateboarder, I did not take any offense. For I found myself engaged by a more biologically grounded theory of language acquisition written by a cognitive neuroscientist with a knack for speaking about language to anyone interested in how language works. Little did I know at the time that with two children on the way I would get a first-hand education in language as a kind of instinct that is hard wired into the human genome.

“Writing is an unnatural act.” The sentence that opens chapter 2 of the The Sense of Style (derived from a passage in Darwin’s 1871 The Descent of Man) appears in the earlier book as well. “Man has an instinctive tendency to speak,” Darwin says, “as we see in the babble of our young children, whereas no child has an instinctive tendency to bake, brew, or write.”  Writing is also above all–and this is where the plot thickens, as we discussed today–“an act of pretense.” What we talked about was the problem all writers face: we must imagine our audience. We must create a clear conception (a fiction) of who we might be speaking to (or who, as Pinker puts it, we are pretending to speak to when we commit words to a page). Your recipients are both invisible and inscrutable, even if you define them as a group. There is no body (no sparkle in the eyes, no gesturing with the hands, no vocal range, no posture). But there is mind. And so we are back at Pinker’s simple definition of style: “the effective use of words to engage the human mind” (2). All of this might even take you back to our earlier question about the author and the persona that we cannot help but make whenever we are writing ourselves into words.

Quotation Marks

For years I have enjoyed the idiosyncratic ways signage works. When I was living in India, for example, I kept a series of blog posts called “Signs of India.”


High above the capital city of Leh in Ladakh


Parking garage, Symbiosis Law School, Pune

Among the most perplexing patterns in signage closer to home is the myriad uses of quotation marks. Once you notice this, the world will never look the same. For years, Bethany Keeley-Jonker has been having a lot of fun with the ways we use quotation marks. Her “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks is great fun. She has also published a book that will make you laugh out loud again and again: The Book of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks: A Celebration of Creative Punctuation (Chronicle 2010).

bathrooms    outside wouldyou

On Monday next week Bethany will give a talk, “Blogging as Hobby, Business and Social Action in a Changing Media Environment,” at 4 in Morrison 204. Please consider coming to hear her speak. And on Tuesday, Bethany, who is currently an assistant professor of Communication Arts at Trinity Christian College in Palos Heights, Illinois, will join us as we continue our discussions of language and style.

What is Style?

Ok, you think, with more than ten weeks studying language and style, I have a few answers to that question. And in fact, you then think to yourself, I just read the “Prologue”  of Steven Pinker’s most recent book, The Sense of Style, in which he says that the word style is, after all, no less than “the effective use of words to engage the human mind” (2). Wait, what?

Pinker first says what his book is not: a reference manual or a remedial guide. Rather he envisions his audience, in his words, “people who know how to write and want to write better” (7). That would describe well most college students (and to be sure every student in this class). For you all know how to write. And if indeed you are interested in the second part, writing better, then you will appreciate Pinker’s departure from the prescriptive approach to language that underwrites most style manuals. Here is how he describes the approach that by now you will surely recognize. “Language is not a protocol legislated by an authority,” he writes, “but rather a wiki that pools the contributions of millions of writers and speakers, who ceaselessly bend the language to their needs and who age, die, and get replaced by their children, who adapt the language in their turn” (3).

In his “Prologue” there is a helpful answer to the question of why we might need another style guide, in his formulation, a style guide for the twentieth century:

Today. . . . We have an understanding of grammatical phenomena which goes well beyond the traditional taxonomies based on crude analogies with Latin. We have a body of research on the mental dynamics of reading: the waxing and waning of memory load as readers comprehend a passage, the incrementing of their knowledge as they come to grasp its meaning, the blind alleys that can lead them astray. We have a body of history and criticism which can distinguish the rules that enhance clarity, grace, and emotional resonance from those that are based on myths and misunderstandings. By replacing dogma about usage with reason and evidence, I hope not just to avoid giving ham-fisted advice but to make the advice that I do give easier to remember than a list of dos and don’ts. (7)

For Pinker, style is the effective use of words to engage the mind. He argues that style matters because we all spend too much time trying to make sense of language that is neither engaging nor worth anyone’s valuable time. Style is also a tool for earning trust, too. The example Pinker offers is a technology executive explaining why he rejects applications riddled with errors. “If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use it’s, then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with” (qtd. in Pinker 9). Ultimately style, finally and not incidentally, gives pleasure to a reader.

On Tuesday we will talk about your initial responses to Pinker and his thinking in the “Prologue” as well as in Chapter 1 “Good Writing: Reverse-Engineering Good Prose as the Key to Developing a Writerly Ear.” As we prepare for your discussion leading in small groups, please come to class with no fewer than three passages for the class to discuss. I would like to step back and see what you can do before adding my own sense of what Pinker might help us to see.

Asking Basic Questions

“Eat Food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” This message, written by Michael Pollan, encapsulates in a simple form his recommendations for eating well. It also accurately summarizes the contents of one of Pollan’s books, In Defense of Food. Christopher Johnson, similarly, offers a “micromanifesto” that resonates with the purpose of this class. “Pay attention to the language around you in the spirit of appreciation and curiosity” (28).

Attention and curiosity take on many forms, and in this case it is basic questions about language and meaning. You will remember, for example, the exciting but somewhat disarming question by Stanley Fish we considered at length. “So,” he asks, What is a sentence, anyway?” Johnson helps focus on the basic questions as well. How do words summon such complex ideas and feelings? Why do some phrases sound right and stick in our minds? How can we be creative when we follow linguistic convention? How do our forms of speech relate to the way we live? Johnson calls these kinds of queries “thinking like a linguist.” He goes on to explain that that such thinking really begins with asking “questions about things that seem obvious.”

Johnson’s third chapter, “Meaning,” offers a layperson micro-history of how people have thought about words and language. Gottlob Frege, Charles Sanders Peirce (whose work happens to be at the center of my own doctoral dissertation), Ferdinand de Saussure, Roman Jakobson, Paul Grice, Michael Reddy, George Lakoff—these are a few of the people he mentions who have shaped how we think about language. From these philosophers and linguists we can think about “connotation” and “denotation,” describe our own thinking about language with the “conduit metaphor,” or explore the conceptual basis of language use through “conceptual metaphor.” We can ask, with Peirce, “How can one thing stand for another?” We can describe signification in functional terms using the terms iconic (similarity), indexical (correlation), and symbolic (codes or conventions).

So here is the basic question we will be thinking about this week: “What is meaning?” You will remember that we have already talked about in class. I called attention to the ways we talk about reading using the phrases “reading deeper” or “reading between the lines.” You will remember that I suggested how these metaphors express a way of thinking about language that determines how we think about meaning. And my point was that these ways of thinking do not take us very far in answering the basic question about meaning. Here is how Johnson asks you think about the question of meaning. “Word meanings are made out of concepts, and concepts aren’t discrete entities. They exist in networks of interrelatedness” (35). So, as Johnson will go on to say, in the case of the meaning of a word, we are talking about concepts associated with verbal forms. “To put it simply,” Johnson says about concepts, “they’re not things, they’re occurrences” (36). Simple, for sure. But a place to move from as well.



From Michigan to New Hampshire

Dear class,

Vermont had a good run in the USA hockey national tournament! No losses in regulation. Four wins. And two overtime losses—the second a double-overtime loss in the quarterfinals that earned us a bronze medal in the tournament.

My hope is that the cancelled class on Thursday has provided you with time and space to prepare for our work this week. Please see the Spring Break Checklist to make sure that your work is up to date. Also, I will be reading your Week 10 and week 11 blog posts this evening to prepare for class. I’m especially interested to read your thoughts on Fish and Johnson.

The Course Schedule lists all of the work you are doing this week as we continue talking about the art of writing little. There is much to learn from Christopher Johnson’s Microstyle. My hope is that you are finding the remarkably rich mine of materials for thinking and for writing!

  • On Tuesday we will be talking about and working on a range of short forms from the materials in Microstyle you have read (section 3 to section 18, or pages 66-89 and 160-178). We will also be working from the “six-word stories” you have posted on your blog using the advice Johnson gives in his book. (See page 67 for a useful example.) Have fun with these!
  • On Thursday we will be working in class on exercises based on the readings on conceptual metaphor and poetic patterns. Read 90-159 to prepare for the in-class work.

See you tomorrow!

Spring Break Checklist

This checklist will help if your blog is not up to date. All of the prompts below are on the schedule or the classwork page. Thank you for organizing your exercises by title and date. Also, make sure that you complete the sentence exercise that was due during our conference week. The guidelines are on the schedule page and are also included below.

Style Journal
You are required to write a blog post on style each week. These short essays (in the form of a blog post) are due each Monday. You should have a minimum of seven posts by the time you leave for spring break.

In Class Work
Exercise on building sentences using subordination and coordination 1) Build examples of the subordinating style (“Hypotaxis”). Begin with a “when clause” and build a sentence 2) Build a sentence with the basic  “although . . . yet” structure. Build three or four sentences, of different kinds, using coordination.

In-Class Exercise on Conciseness This class session is dedicated to practicing the art of conciseness: reducing the unnecessary words (redundancies, metadiscourse, qualifiers, and so on) to create more concise and direct prose. All of the writing below was written by a student for one of my classes or for one of my class projects. Cut and paste the original assigned to your group into a document. Work individually on a second version of the original. Compare your revisions in groups and produce a final version that we will read aloud in class.

In-Class Exercise on Discourse: Identify a speech or discourse community and analyze the specific ways language is used by members of that particular social group or community. Identify a speech or discourse community. Look closely at the language used by the group and build a descriptive account of the significant features and stylistic resources of members of that group. Post your account on your blog with a title that makes clear to a reader the discourse community that you have identified and are describing.

Exercise on Sentence Construction Starting out with one of the brief sentences, expand the sentence until it can expand no more. See if you can get to 20. Your sentence needs to be grammatical, and make sense, but other than that, you can add any information you choose. Likely, the sentence will end up telling its own rather complete story. Once you have composed your sentences, publish them on the “Exercises” page of your blog.

Thirteen Ways of Using a Comma: Compose your own paragraph with each of the thirteen comma uses in the sequence you compiled in completing the practice exercise on page 191 of Style and Difference. Post the paragraph, with a title and date, on the exercises page of your blog.

Two Four Six Eight: Write a paragraph that makes use of the following marks of punctuation: Two different examples of a comma (the speed bump); Two different examples of a period (the stop sign); Two different examples of a semicolon (the bridge); Two different examples of a colon (the magician). Your paragraph will use the examples correctly, and will be written with an emphasis of clarity and style. That is, each use of punctuation should be appropriate to the sentence and the paragraph. Describe each of the uses after the paragraph. Post the paragraph and commentary, with a title and date, on the exercises page of your blog.

Homework Assignments (“For Next Time”) from the Schedule page
Post a paragraph or excerpt from a writer whose style you admire and a paragraph that appears to you to have very ineffective or poor style

Post a brief answer to question 18 on page 273 of Style and Difference

Answer the last question on page 43 in A Dash of Style (it asks you to use the principles you’ve just learned and apply them to one page of something you have written—either a creative piece or an academic paper.) Post the original and the revised version on your blog

Find something you have written and analyze one page for sentence variety. How many different kinds of sentence styles do you see, or are they mostly subject/verb/object? You don’t need to revise—just analyze

Do the exercise under “Practice” on page 191 in Style and Difference and post on your blog

Using a page of your own writing, choose one of the exercises on pages 85-86 in A Dash of Style and complete it and post the assignment prompt and the result on your blog

Do the exercise on page 109-10 in A Dash of Style and post on your blog. Write a brief reflection on your experiments with the colon. What have you learned by doing these exercises?

Do the exercise on page 202-203 in Style and Difference and post on your blog

Locate, on your own, a poem you find interesting and discuss the choices the author made regarding the stanza breaks. What is the effect of the stanza breaks in particular places in the poem? How might this principle be applied to your own writing, even if you are not writing poetry?

Locate a piece of writing (either by a published writer or yourself) and, using Gorrell’s ideas in this chapter, discuss how emphasis and rhythm is achieved (or, if it is not, show how it could be.) Post the example and your discussion on your blog.

Do the exercise on pages 74-75 of Style and Difference and post the results on your blog

Take a page from something you wrote or are currently writing and apply the principles of conciseness to it and post the results on your blog with a brief commentary about the changes you have made and why

Read Part Four, “A Few Good Rules” in Style and Difference (225-261) and post on the “Exercises” page of your blog three examples of public writing (published writing, online writing, signs, etc.) that violate these rules/principles. If you have trouble with this assignment, read the chapter “Break the Rules” (154-59) and browse the chapters that follow in Christopher Johnson’s Microstyle for useful examples of rule breaking.

Find a sentence that you consider to be “good” or “effective” (or “amazing,” whatever term suits you). Then post on your “Exercises” page a description of how to read and appreciatewhat the sentence is doing. You will be writing a few of these, and so I recommend that you have a look at how Fish does this kind of descriptive analysis. For example, look at his writing on pages 90-97. We can learn from Fish, too, about the vocabulary we can develop to do this kind of work. Learning to read sentences as “performances” is difficult to do at first; but you will get the hang of it and, I hope, learn to enjoy this kind of reading

Read Fish “The Subordinating Style” (45-60) and “The Additive Style” (61-88). As I say above, attend to (and learn from) how Fish sees and describes these sentences and then 1) choose a sentence you admire that exemplifies the subordinating style. Write your own 300-500 word descriptive analysis of the sentence and 2) choose a sentence you admire that exemplifies the additive style. Write a 300-500 word descriptive analysis of the sentence

Sentences and Sardines

What is the relationship between forms of writing and forms of thought? This question has preoccupied the literary critic and legal scholar Stanley Fish for decades. In the 1970s Fish was among a group of thinkers interested in what is called “Reader-Response” criticism and he was a significant theorist of the idea of “interpretive communities” that we were working with a couple of weeks ago.

A professor and a public intellectual, Fish also writes for a non-academic audience. In fact, I recommend that you read a three-part essay that Fish wrote for the New York Times in 2009 titled “What Colleges Should Teach.” Among the more interesting things about these articles is the comment stream. Fish has a way of framing questions and problems that provoke people–startling them like a school of sardines. The three pieces make a case for an approach to teaching writing in colleges and universities.

What is a Sentence, anyway?

The most honest answer to this question: it depends upon who you ask. Most reliable definitions will surely get around to using the words “subject” and “predicate,” or will talk about a complete thought, or will say something about clauses and relationships. Or, if you happen to be Stanley Fish, and you are writing a book about how to write and read sentences, you might define the sentence as 1) “an organization of items in the world” and 2) “a structure of logical relationships” (How to Write 16). Ok, you say.

The other way to define the sentence would be to turn to a poem, in this case the poem “Permanently” by Kenneth Koch that tells the story of how relationships come together to create what we call the sentence:

One day the Nouns were clustered in the street.
An Adjective walked by, with her dark beauty
The Nouns were struck, moved, changed.
The next day a Verb drove up, and created the Sentence.

Some times stories can help. Technical knowledge (or definitions) in the abstract, as Fish will go on to say in his chapter “Why You Won’t Find the Answer in Strunk and White,” often “yields only the illusion of understanding” (19). This is why when one has a definition in hand the next move will be classification. Here is a very partial list drawn up by Fish:

There are short sentences and long sentences, formal sentences and colloquial sentences, sentences that satisfy expectations and sentences that don’t, sentences that go in a straight line and sentences that surprise, right-branching sentences and left-branching sentences, sentences that reassure and sentences that disturb, quiet sentences and sentences that explode like hand grenades, sentences that invite you in and sentences that exclude you, sentences that caress you and sentences that assault you, sentences that hide their art and sentences that ask readers to stand up and applaud. (44)

What is it that you are trying to do, anyway? For once you figure out what you are trying to do then you will be ready to find the form that will be the answer to the question. It is up to you, as Edgar Allen Poe remarks in his 1846 essay “The Philosophy of Composition” (1846):

Of the innumerable effects or impressions of which the heart, the intellect or (more generally) the soul is susceptible, what one shall I, on the present occasion, select?

Form ever follows function

In the March 1896 issue of Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine the architect Louis Sullivan published “The Tall Office Building Artistically Reconsidered” in which he famously formulates his credo for the modern architect:

Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing nun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. Where function does not change, form does not change. The granite rocks, the ever- brooding hills, remain for ages; the lightning lives, comes into shape, and dies, in a twinkling. It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law

This heady and flighty prose statement offers a reminder that when we make things—and our work as writers is making things with words—we are always to some degree considering the relation between form and function

Last week I asked you to think through forms of language (in particular, the essay) and the functional opportunities and constraints of the digital space in which we are working (the web log or “blog”). This thinking through will happen as you are working on your writing, for sure; but we will also be studying and talking about how others have used this digital space effectively (or not). My initial instructions on the form of the blog post were relatively simple: each entry will have a title, be dated, and provide you with an opportunity to share with your reader what you have learned (or are learning) about style. What have you discovered that all of us would agree is worth knowing about language/style? What have you realized that causes you to say to yourself, “how did I not know that?” How might you take the reader from the simple to the complex, the commonplace to the exceptional?

A couple of weeks ago we talked through your observations about our blogs (see the Classwork page) to a list of advice for a wood-be blogger in this course. (Thank you, Shannon, for keeping notes!). As we look ahead to your individual conferences with me, I recommend that you consider the following as you curate your blog and begin thinking about your next weekly blog post or two.

Be interesting: your idea(s) matter more than anything Make sure there is a point to the post, a reason that an informed reader would want to read your post. Remember that conversational and so-called “informal” writing can also be smart writing. Draw on the words of other authors, quote or link to sources, practice embedding, bridging

Be thoughtful One of the words we used (but that needs more thought) is a conversational tone that, as I found myself insisting, is not necessarily informal. Again, one can write informed informal prose that is smart, engaging, even exiting to read. My friend and collaborator Sean Meehan, a professor at Washington College in Chestertown, Maryland, was among those who helped me to see the usefulness of describing blogging as a conversation on his course blog Comp|Post

Make Connections Experiment with embedding what you are saying in your reading, that is, in the writing of others; learn how to make hyperlinks (in place of the less elegant URL); organize blocks of text using paragraphs but also using bullet lists (we can talk about this and punctuation for visual simplicity / ease of reading; use italics (or parenthetical comments) and bold face type, when appropriate

Cultivate a Point of View Who are you? Where are you? What are you doing/ What are you thinking or feeling? What makes you interesting, worth talking with, or listening to? (More than a couple of you commented on the point of view Amelie has cultivated on her blog: The French Post: A French Girl Writing in English.)

Refine Tone (voice, persona) Conversational, strong, sharp, friendly are the terms you have been using: what do these terms mean? Is there humor? Why not cut the stuffy, “formal” tone. Loosen up the composition. But watch out for too informal as it can turn around and nip you quick

Be (stay) focused Say what you have to say. Though most strong blog posts could be developed more fully. In addition to development, then, think reduction. Consider the interesting discussions we had in our workshop on conciseness and apply some of the strategies we used to stay on point

Be professional You are publishing your writing. For this reason alone, your prose should be revised, revised, revised. Then (and only then) do you edit. It takes a lot of work to get things exactly right. I’m watching very closely, too

Give some thought to Titles Clever, catchy, eye drawing, informative, suggestive, substantive. Titles most often are the last thing you revise before you post. Most good titles are merely suggestions of better titles

Begin with Beginnings First sentences matter. And you have a lot of choices. (There are some excellent examples already up on the blogs). Try personal anecdotes, a “catchy sentence,” a quotation, a reference to another college class, an intellectual context, or a field of study

Choose a functional Theme Think about visually appealing themes and ease of navigation, adding media (images, screen shots) 

Consider Layout you have options: spacing, separating quotes, use of italics and boldface, use of design options on your blog (theme, text options, hyperlinks for embedding, widgets for sidebars or footers)

Check ’em Out

When your son reports that his LAX bro’ “ripped a shot top cheddar” (a “ched” shot) you are very likely going to find yourself adrift. Or, as our very own Jillian demonstrates in her post “Bros, care to LAX?” on her blog Inky Footprints, you can use the occasion to learn something about language and style. Below are some additional (and delightful) sites to visit on the web as you continue to refine your language instrument.

When Aaron Peckham created the web site Urban Dictionary in 1999 as a first-year college student studying computer science at California Polytechnic Institute he was interested in the difference between conventional dictionary definitions and the way people used language. One of the first definitions was “the man” defined on the web site as “the faces of ‘the establishment’ put in place to ‘bring us down.’” The Urban Dictionary is a crowd-sourced online dictionary of slang words and phrases that will keep you in the loop when someone says something like “cheddar” without a block of cheese in sight. Peckham’s dictionary of words and phrases features over seven million definitions. A Facebook or Gmail account will allow you to make a submission to the dictionary if you happen to be interested in contributing to our ever-expanding lexicon. All dictionary entries are then “crowd-sourced,” or reviewed and rated by volunteer editors and site visitors.

And, last week, I happened to find my way to A Way with Words, a public radio program about language concerned with history, culture, and family. Who knew, for instance, that a recent study finds that “some names crop up more frequently than others in certain professions. The name William is especially common among attorneys–and graphic designers include a higher-than-average number of Jessicas.” You can listen to episodes, podcasts, check out the “word wall,” and contribute to the discussion forum on the waywordradio blog.

But wait, there is more. The Double-Tongued Dictionary (formerly Double-Tongued Word Wrester) was a web lexicon of new words and fringe English compiled and edited by A Way with Words co-host Grant Barrett and volunteers since 2004. In 2012, the dictionary was merged with this website.

You may also want to spend some time exploring the terrain of Lexicon Valley, where Mike Vuolo, Bob Garfield, and the team at Slate Magazine’s Lexicon Valley podcast have launched a language blog that cross-publishes posts from contributors to Language Log, featuring the University of Pennsylvania’s Mark Liberman, the University of Edinburgh’s Geoffrey Pullum, and Ben Zimmer, addressing questions such as: Why do English speakers often begin sentences with a dangling, superfluous so? What makes the “historical present” such an effective storytelling tense? Is Bob Garfield a stone-cold misogynist because he finds “vocal fry” insufferable? Posts include Zimmer’s consideration of whether twerk should receive dictionary treatment, and his history of the interjection meh(from Yiddish to The Simpsons).

Have fun. Find material to inspire your own writing. Check ’em out.