Monthly Archives: January 2015

Pause Here

“The Good Word: Language and How We Use it” is a series published on Slate and I heartily recommend Matthew J.X. Malady’s blogging in this series. His posts are interesting, and fun.

For this week, read “Will We Use Commas in the Future? Maybe.” The essay explores the ways we use (and have used) commas and asks whether we will continue to use them in the future. Another piece, “Fingerprint Words: the verbal tics that make up who we are–and how they spread to others” is good stuff as well.

Finally, on the NPR blog “Monkey See,” Linda Holmes’ “Going, Going, And Gone?: No, The Oxford Comma Is Safe … For Now ” takes on the most recent flare in the comma-in-a-series battle. As with most thoughtful commentators on this stylistic choice, Holmes offers up an example when style (in the case, the placement of a comma) does change the meaning of the sentence.

These essays are good models for your columns on language. We will talk about how these pieces of writing are working when we meet on Thursday. Read and take notes. Attend to how this writing is doing what it does.

The comments on the posts are both entertaining and instructive, too (when I first read these pieces I checked in on the Malady essay there were 212 comments and 316 on the Holmes) . . . . Who would think so many people were so concerned with grammar. . . . Food for thought. . . . Check ’em out!

In Thought

The blog post is a form of writing that raises interesting questions for writers. In a four-part essay on blogging written in the summer of 2012 the Bengali writer Amitav Ghosh makes the case for the blog as a distinctive form of digital writing. “The blog is to a much greater degree shaped by the tastes of its maker,” he suggests. “With the pressures of the Here-and-Now removed, it is also one of the few virtual forms that is no longer primarily utilitarian.” The blog post, he argues, is less determined by commercial and social utility of popular media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. The structure of the blog post is more like the essay, for it encourages an extended use of language.

It is interesting to think about what distinguishes the blog post, and the blog, as a distinct artifact, object, or genre. The blog first helped me work with words and images during a year living and working in India on my Far Field blog.


“Zhao Cangyun: Liu Chen and Ruan Zhao Entering the Tiantai Mountains” (2005.494.1) In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–

Of course making a text with words and images uses a traditional form of representation. With Ghosh, I have thought about the beautiful ancient Chinese Handscrolls that incorporate colophons and commentary, for example, or Medieval illuminated manuscripts.


Illuminated Manuscript: Histoire universelle. Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem (Acre), 1286-1291. Add. 15268, f.103 (British Museum)

The blog also changes the material conditions and economics of publishing as an enterprise. “If this process gets under way,” Gosh writes, “it will have far-reaching consequences:  there would be nothing for example, to prevent writers from creating unique versions of their books for special patrons – by including say, an extra chapter or character, or by changing a name or a setting (it is of course, a common practice for painters, sculptors, photographers and architects to tailor their work to the needs of specific patrons). This would transport us not only to the age of the illuminated book, but also to the age of the ‘recension’, when the meaning of a book had to be deduced by comparing variant versions of the text.” What is more, the blog form is open to revision by the author and so there are no limits to the process of revising and red-editing and curating the digital text.

Ghosh’s commentary frames digital writing as a complement (as opposed to a threat to or erosion of) our literary and cultural activities:

Nothing that I have said in these posts is intended to deny or diminish the strengths of the print media. The process of publishing in print consists of a collaboration between authors and a great number of others: editors, agents, book-designers, jacket-artists, proof-correctors and so on. Every one of these people puts something into the process and the finished works are, without a doubt, vastly the better for it. This process adds enormously to the quality, value and significance of books. That is why the institutions of print will not disappear: they are irreplaceable.

In the classroom, where the process of writing is the subject and the practice, might the blog help to emphasize the dynamics of thought as it takes form in words, phrases, and sentences? More than that, might the digital space in which these words appear reinforce the idea that thoughts are not really in us but rather that we are in thought?

On Thursday this week we will talk about your first weekly blog posts. These relatively brief essays (400-500 words) offer you the freedom to write about a specific question or issue related to language and/or style. Yet the blog post presents particular challenges for writers. So before we gather on Thursday, spend some time reading blog postings and taking some notes on how writers are making use of this form. Consider the style of the posts I am making here, read for style the posts of your classmates, browse the blog posts of others–and bring your notes to class.

The Voice Metaphor

When you have a moment (and of course we all have more of those than we might think) spend some time with the thinking of an accomplished writer in the New Yorker magazine, Louis Menand. His 2004 review of Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, “Bad Comma: Lynne Truss’s Strange Grammar” explores a series of interesting questions about style guides and usage. More specifically, his thinking aloud about the metaphor we use for writing “voice” is useful for us:

The uncertainty about what it means for writing to have a voice arises from the metaphor itself. Writers often claim that they never write something that they would not say. It is hard to know how this could be literally true. Speech is somatic, a bodily function, and it is accompanied by physical inflections—tone of voice, winks, smiles, raised eyebrows, hand gestures—that are not reproducible in writing. Spoken language is repetitive, fragmentary, contradictory, limited in vocabulary, loaded down with space holders (“like,” “um,” “you know”)—all the things writing teachers tell students not to do. And yet people can generally make themselves understood right away. As a medium, writing is a million times weaker than speech. It’s a hieroglyph competing with a symphony.

The other reason that speech is a bad metaphor for writing is that writing, for ninety-nine per cent of people who do it, is the opposite of spontaneous. Some writers write many drafts of a piece; some write one draft, at the pace of a snail after a night on the town. But chattiness, slanginess, in-your-face-ness, and any other features of writing that are conventionally characterized as “like speech” are usually the results of laborious experimentation, revision, calibration, walks around the block, unnecessary phone calls, and recalibration. Writers, by nature, tend to be people in whom l’esprit de l’escalier is a recurrent experience: they are always thinking of the perfect riposte after the moment for saying it has passed. So they take a few years longer and put it in print. Writers are not mere copyists of language; they are polishers, embellishers, perfecters. They spend hours getting the timing right—so that what they write sounds completely unrehearsed.

Does this mean that the written “voice” is never spontaneous and natural but always an artificial construction of language? This is not a proposition that most writers could accept. The act of writing is personal; it feels personal. The unfunny person who is a humorous writer does not think, of her work, “That’s not really me.” Critics speak of “the persona,” a device for compelling, in the interests of licensing the interpretative impulse, a divorce between author and text. But no one, or almost no one, writes “as a persona.” People write as people, and if there were nothing personal about the result few human beings would try to manufacture it for a living. Composition is a troublesome, balky, sometimes sleep-depriving business. What makes it especially so is that the rate of production is beyond the writer’s control. You have to wait, and what you are waiting for is something inside you to come up with the words. That something, for writers, is the voice.

A better basis than speaking for the metaphor of voice in writing is singing. You can’t tell if someone can sing or not from the way she talks, and although “natural phrasing” and “from the heart” are prized attributes of song, singing that way requires rehearsal, preparation, and getting in touch with whatever it is inside singers that, by a neural kink or the grace of God, enables them to turn themselves into vessels of musical sound. Truss is right (despite what she preaches) when she implies, by her own practice, that the rules really don’t have that much to do with it. Before Luciano Pavarotti walked onstage at the opera house, he was in the habit of taking a bite of an apple. That’s how he helped his voice to sound spontaneous and natural.

What writers hear when they are trying to write is something more like singing than like speaking. Inside your head, you’re yakking away to yourself all the time. Getting that voice down on paper is a depressing experience. When you write, you’re trying to transpose what you’re thinking into something that is less like an annoying drone and more like a piece of music. This writing voice is the voice that people are surprised not to encounter when they “meet the writer.” The writer is not so surprised. Writers labor constantly under the anxiety that this voice, though they have found it a hundred times before, has disappeared forever, and that they will never hear it again. Some writers, when they begin a new piece, spend hours rereading their old stuff, trying to remember how they did it, what it’s supposed to sound like. This rarely works; nothing works reliably. Sooner or later, usually later than everyone involved would have preferred, the voice shows up, takes a bite of the apple, and walks onstage.

These five paragraphs conclude the review. One of the things I find useful here is the attention to the way we use metaphor (talking about one thing in terms of another) to talk about writing. Much like when someone mistakes a preference for an actual quality by pronouncing that an essay by George Orwell, say, is “dry.” The challenge then becomes translating what we might otherwise prefer. Would that be “wet” writing?

John Ashbery, “Pride of Place”

Pride of Place

Past the gaga experiments
to ginger high school thriller days
I wheel fragile issues: a fight on there,
bulbous antennae, a herald
carved alone in the archer position—sweet!

We had a few people over to
celebrate the monotony of the new place.
Meatless meat loaf. Roger. Over to

you. I took a piece of plain foolscap,
my American University in Baku stationery,
sole thing to be underestimated here,
and set down just words that wrote something,
probably as close as I want to keep to it,

all the water and stringiness.
It feels like Sunday today
but it’s Saturday. What does Saturday feel like
on Sunday? Not that it’s that
hard to remember. I’d always be grinning and opened.
No protocol; heck, no manners
on flood watch. She’s one of the famed Gowanus sisters.
It hasn’t affected the weather yet.

Do you get a sense of white table settings,
the so-called vacant stare that afflicts them
as adults on a sit-down strike?

Listen up, tenderfoot. Who says you need to be awake
to appreciate poetry? The landlady, that’s who.

Where are they now?

-John Ashbery, The New York Review of Books LXI.2 (February 6 2014): 11.

The Field Guide


I spent most of my twenties wandering around in the mountains of California hiking, climbing and identifying high altitude flora. Ever since, I have loved the language of field guides. The field guide is a text written to help a user see the world anew–to identify plants and animals and rocks and other features of the natural world. The language of the field guide is striking.

More recently, I read a book on style by Francis Noel Thomas and Mark Turner, Clear and Simple as the Truth that uses the following examples from John L. Bull and John Farrand’s Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region (National Audubon Society 1977):

“Tufted Titmouse, including Black-crested Titmouse” (Parus bicolor)

Titmice are social birds and, especially in winter, join with small mixed flocks of chickadees, nuthatches, kinglets, creepers, and the smaller woodpeckers. Although a frequent visitor at feeders, it is not as tame or confiding as the chickadees. It often clings to the bark of trees and turns upside down to pick spiders and insects from the underside of a twig or leaf. The “Black-crested Titmouse” of Texas was until recently considered a separate species.

Voice: Its commonest call, sung year-round and carrying a considerable distance, is a whistled series of four to eight notes sounding like Peter-Peter repeated over and over.

“Northern Shrike” (Lanius excubitor)

Unusual among songbirds, shrikes prey on small birds and rodents, catching them with the bill and sometimes impaling them on thorns or barbed wire for storage. Like other northern birds that depend on rodent populations, the Northern Shrike’s movements are cyclical, becoming more abundant in the South when northern rodent populations are low. At times they hunt from an open perch, where they sit motionless until prey appears; at other times they hover in the air ready to pounce on anything that moves. –John Bull and John Farrand, Jr., The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region.

It is worth quoting at length Thomas and Turner’s description of how these two entries in the field guide exemplify what they call “classic style”:

A field guide, in its stand on truth, presentation, scene, cast, thought, and language, fits the classic stand on the elements of style perfectly. Its implied model is one person presenting observations to another, who is in a position to verify them by direct observation.

The reader is not in a library doing research, but in the field looking and listening. The guide, assuming this scene, cannot be written in a style that requires study or re-reading if it expects to be attended to. It strives to be brief and efficient. It seeks to present the birds it describes specifically and precisely enough for the reader to recognize them in the field.

The writing in a good field guide is certainly the product of deliberation and revision but sounds like ideal spontaneous speech, as if an accomplished companion in the field wanted to tell you something. There is a symmetry between writer and reader: although the writer knows more about the subject than the reader, the reader would know exactly what the writer knows had he seen what the writer has seen in the past. And the guide’s purpose is to put the reader in a position to achieve that parity.

The writer needs nothing from the reader. The writer’s purpose is purely the presentation of the truth. Neither writer nor reader has a job to do. The writer writes and the reader reads not for the sake of some external task–solving a problem, making money, winning a case, getting a rebate, selling insurance, fixing a machine–but rather for the sake of the subject–in this case, the birds–and for the sake of being united in recognizing the truth of this subject. The writer takes the pose of full knowledge, since nothing could be more irksome to someone in the field than a passage clotted with hedges about the writer’s impotence.

The entries in the Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Birds, Eastern Region, come as close to classic style in its pure form, with an actual scene fitting the classic model, as anything we have found. They are particularly remarkable for their unfailing refusal to draw attention to their prose. A phrase such as “not as tame or confiding” in the presentation of the tufted titmouse or a sentence like “Unusual among songbirds, shrikes prey on small birds and rodents, catching them with the bill and sometimes impaling them on thorns or barbed wire for storage” in the presentation of the northern shrike is a masterpiece of expression, but refuses to acknowledge that it is anything other than the one inevitable way to present the subject. The prose suggests the same clarity and inevitability as the complex and wonderful but unambiguous and uncontrived presence of the species it describes. There is no more suggestion of deliberation or effort in writing about the tufted titmouse or the northern shrike than there is in seeing one.

The passages in the Audubon Field Guide assume without hesitation that of course the reader is interested in birds. All details are presented at an equal level of importance. The entire passage is in close focus. The entry for the hairy woodpecker notes that it destroys insects such as wood-boring beetles, “which it extracts from holes with its barbed tongue. Like other woodpeckers, it hammers on a dead limb as part of its courtship ceremony and to proclaim its territory.” The speaker shows not the slightest diffidence or embarrassment about reporting that the call note of the hairy woodpecker “is a sharp, distinctive peek,” or that the western meadowlark and the eastern meadowlark “are so similar that it was not until 1844 that Audubon noticed the difference and named the western bird neglecta because it had been overlooked for so long.” The writer takes the stand that he is simply presenting truth and is being neither cute nor partisan when he reports that “The song of the Western Meadowlark is often heard on Hollywood sound tracks even when the movie setting is far from the bird’s range.” There is nothing self-conscious in his matching of language to thought, so there is no hint of fear or shyness in the way he puts his vocabulary to work in descriptions, such as the following account of the western meadowlark’s call: “rich, flute-like jumble of gurgling notes, usually descending the scale; very different from the Eastern Meadowlark’s series of simple, plaintive whistles.” The speaker never overshoots or undershoots, but always hits his mark. The tone is as it must be. There is nothing for the writer to be defensive about. (115-17)

This is an extended and sophisticated description. It will be helpful as you pay closer attention to how language works and begin developing your own descriptive vocabularies. We will also be coming back to so-called “Classic Style” as Steven Pinker refers to Francis Noel Thomas and Mark Turner’s book Clear and Simple as the Truth.

Right and Wrong

As we begin our work this semester, I recommend that you read Michelle Navarre’s “Cleary The Wrong Way to Teach Grammar” published last year in The Atlantic magazine. The essay takes up the question whether grammar lessons must come before writing or the learning of grammar through writing (and reading). Navarre, an associate professor and associate dean at DePaul University’s School for New Learning, notes the decades of study that demonstrate how teaching rules outside of context or use does not work well for most writers.

These kinds of conversations inevitably bring up approaches to teaching writing, and the ways that teaching writing in schools does and does not result in better writing. What we have discovered in more than a decade of work at Keene State College is that developing writers requires a sustained focus on writing—across all four years, and in as many classrooms and fields of study as possible. If we value writing, we need to give students authentic and challenging writing at every turn. This philosophy of teaching writing, it should follow, needs to shape elementary, secondary and post-secondary classrooms. Have a look at another essay in The Atlantic series, Peg Tyre’s 2012 essay “The Writing Revolution” for a case study at New Dorp High School focused on teaching analytic writing, every day, in virtually every class.

Finally, and not incidentally, The Atlantic series includes an essay by a secondary teacher, Andrew Simmons, whose “Facebook Has Transformed My Students’ Writing—for the Better,” offers a first-person anecdotal case for the value of social media in developing skills associated with storytelling and emotional authenticity in personal writing.

Your Blog on Style

All of the writing you complete in the course will be on a blog (an abbreviation of the phrase “web log”). The blog is a simple and elegant tool to present, archive, and make public your thinking and writing. The archive makes it possible for you to keep all of your writing in one place and reflect on the work you are doing as the semester unfolds. Making your intellectual work public, moreover, is an opportunity for you to write for a real audience–for me, your classmates, and anyone else who might be interested in writing with style.

The instructions for setting up your blog are below. We will spend time on the first day of class setting them up. Once you have a URL and a brief biographical statement on the “About” page of your blog please send the URL to

Setting Up Your Blog
We will be using a common content management system (Word Press). Go to and

  • choose an address, user name and password. The address should be *lastnameonstyle* like This.
  • choose Twenty Ten as the default “theme” of your blog
  •  create a title and a subtitle for your blog. Give these choices some thought. A good example from a former student is The Stylish C.

Your blog is required to have the following pages

  • About: Click Dashboard, and then Pages. Compose your bio. Then publish the page
  • Exercises (For your brief bio)

In class we will go over the basics of setting up a blog. And we can talk together, or you can set up a time to talk with me, if you have any questions about working in Word Press.

A note on themes: we will use the Word Press options as your first exercise in style. We will spend some time in class setting up your blog and stamping it with your own style. But I am interested in you thinking carefully about the way your ideas can be presented given the audience, purpose and goals of the writing you are doing. (Remember that the primary reader of your blog is me and ease of access to your writing is paramount.) You are welcome to choose any theme and to create pages and other features made available by Word Press. You can work with not only the verbal but the visual and graphic elements of the blog. The question is how you want to present your thinking about style.

Remember that the blog is a work in progress. You modify the theme or the options as you become more comfortable with Word Press.

Managing your Blog
All of the writing you complete in this course will be posted to your blog. The “Exercises” and the “Weekly Posts” pages explain exactly what you will be doing and the “Schedule” page lists all of the exercises and due dates.

I highly recommend a blog theme that allows a reader to access material without scrolling down the page. The “above the fold” links (usually in a sidebar on the left or right) will likely be “Recent Posts,” “Categories,” “Tags” (or a “Tag Cloud,”), and “Archives.” Here are some suggestions as you make choices about organizing content:

  • use Categories and Tags to organize your posts. These features will allow a reader to follow threads in your thinking and writing more readily across different posts. Most WP themes list the categories and tags in a sidebar or in a tag cloud
  • consider that I will be reading your blog a few times each week. Your classmates, too, will be checking in on your work from time to time. So make sure that your writing is organized (pages, categories, tags) so that it is easy to read. For example, a recent posts widget on a sidebar can make it easy to see what you are doing on any given week. Include dates at the top of your post or give the posts a date . Here is an example from one of my former students that shows how this works
  • build a list of relevant links. The “Blogroll” on your site might list sites with materials useful for students of Style

We will use some of our class time during the first week of class looking at the WP dashboard and the various features of the WP platform. However the best way to learn how to use WP is to experiment. As you will see, changing the look and organizational structure of your blog is easy to do

Customizing your Blog
We will talk about the difference between pages (as opposed to posts) and widgets (such as a tag cloud or a list of links that you can use to customize your page and make it easier for a reader to navigate). We can work on these choices in class. I also encourage you browse the Word Press Tutorials. The sixth page of the WP tutorial is about posting and will likely be the most useful to you at the beginning of this course. If you would like to add images to your site or to postings, read on to learn how simple this really is. The eleventh tutorial, titled “Insider Tips,” is helpful as well. The “kitchen sink” icon in the post/page editor, to take one example, reveals formatting options, enabling you to create headings and indent text, or to use the “paste from word” button that will carry over formatting from a word document.

Why a Blog?
E-mail, web pages, wikis, blogs, Facebook, social networks, twitter—much of the writing we now do takes place in a digital format. And while all of us are still working out the conceptual implications of these new technologies, the advent of digital writing has created pedagogical opportunities to think about (and with) the digital tools that we use to represent and understand ourselves, and the world.

Blogging offers significant opportunities for student writers:

  • Designing and managing a blog offers experience using one of the digital technologies used by readers and writers. Digital writing requires all of the knowledge and skill writers use in other formats in addition to the new ways digital writing blends modes of representation (visual and verbal) and creates opportunities for fresh conceptual and material connections;
  • A blog allows me to shift the motivation for writing from the assignment to the writer. In fact I might argue that one of the obstacles to becoming a more effective writer in school is the writing assignment itself: For more often than not, writing assignments motivate writing for a purpose other than one’s own. Your blog posts will therefore be more focused on questions and problems and less on assignments, on thoughtful (and creative) exploration of ideas as opposed to more mechanistic forms of response to the readings
  • The relatively short form of the blog entry encourages concise and purposive writing. Managing to say exactly what you need to say in fewer words will challenge you as a writer
  • The likelihood that the blog will actually be read will help you become more rhetorically aware—of the conceptual, linguistic, social, emotional and ethical concerns a writer must address to be effective with any audience
  • Writing in a digital format (a web log, or blog) enacts (and represents) the complex process of thinking and writing that takes place in a college-level course; and we will use your writing experiences, and the archive of writing that we create, to reflect on your learning process, and the role of writing in that process
  • Finally, from a standpoint of sustainability, a blog allows for drafting and composing and sharing your thinking without using reams of paper. While the resources to sustain the electronic networks consume vast amounts of energy, we will at least be using and recycling less paper