Monthly Archives: February 2015

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.

Give and Take

One of the reasons one reads papers like the New York Times is to read good writing. And one of the reasons one might check in on the Opinionator Blogs is to read the occasional series on the art of writing,  “Draft.

The piece by John Kaag, “The Perfect Essay,” is worth a look. He offers a reminder about what we often call “criticism”:

First off, it hurts. Genuine criticism, the type that leaves an indelible mark on you as a writer, also leaves an existential imprint on you as a person. I’ve heard people say that a writer should never take criticism personally. I say that we should never listen to these people.

Criticism, at its best, is deeply personal, and gets to the heart of why we write the way we do.

Sensible advice about giving (and receiving) criticism.

Hyphens and Dashes

What is the difference between a hyphen and a dash and when should I use them?
What is an “em dash” and what is an “en dash” and how do I use them?

1. hyphen (-) : Mac and PC: hyphen key: The hyphen connects compound words.

There are permanent compounds that have found their way into the dictionary (henhouse, makeup, notebook).

  • Kilowatt-hour, mass-produce, ill-favored, tie-in, toll-free call, two-thirds. A food-loving back-to-the-land generalist who became obsessed with fermentation

There are also examples when using a compound adjective before a noun.

  • A fast sailing ship. Or, a fast-sailing ship

2. en dash (–) : Mac: Option + – = – / PC “Alt” and type “0151.” The en dash connects things that are related to each other by distance.

  • Seven–ten days
  • You will find the article in the May–September issue of Scientific American
  • According to Frank Hanks, there should be a reference to what Edward Said calls “Orientalism” (147–48).

Or combining open compounds (note prefix connected to proper noun):

  • North Carolina–Virginia border
  • a high school–college conference
  • Post–Civil War

3. em dash (—) : PC “Alt” and type “0151” / Mac: Shift + Option + – = —. Em dashes may replace commas, semicolons, colons, and parentheses in apposite phrases, to indicate added emphasis, to interrupt or change thought:

  • “The Incompletion figured in the dash—is life” (McHugh 113)
  • Dickinson’s use of the dash—a mark of punctuation a reader encounters throughout her work—requires careful scrutiny
  • There is little room for error—whether one is consuming French fries or pork rinds.

(The practice of using two hyphens for a dash, although acceptable, is a holdover from the days of typewriters).

A Primer for Users of the Colon

Here are ways of using a colon one can find by looking for different uses in writing in print and on the web. The examples are my own:

1. Following a statement (most often an independent clause) that introduces a quotation, an explanation, an example, or a series

  • Professor Fienberg considers an example of this kind of narrative strategy in the prose works of Mary Roth: (introduce a quotation)
  • There is little doubt that the athletes knew exactly what to do following the competition: hydrate, eat carbohydrates, and get plenty of rest (an explanation)
  • The proper ingredients are essential to making an authentic burrito: beans, rice, onions, cilantro, and tomatoes (a word or group of words that rename a noun or a pronoun)

2. So far so good: he would begin again first thing in the morning (after an element which is not an independent clause, but merely a fragment)

3. Dear Professor Garrity: (After salutation in a formal letter)

4. Genesis 1:1 or Judges 16: Sampson (Between the chapter and verse numbers in a biblical citation)

5. Reclaiming Nostalgia: Longing for Nature in American Literature (Between the title and subtitle of a book or article)

6. 3:00 a.m. (Between numbers or groups of numbers in expressions of time. Though the British convention is to use a period instead of a colon: We left the pub at 5.45 in the morning. And the use of 24-hour time does not include the colon: our shift begins at 0730 and ends at 1700.)

7. 1:5 (in ratios)

8. Messenger: Occasions drew me early to this city,
And as the gates I entered with sun-rise,
The morning trumpets proclaimed
Thorough each high street. Little I had dispatched. . . .

(To separate dramatic characters from dialogue in a script. from John Milton, Samson Agonistes)

9 . Date: December 30, 2013
To: Dr. Frank Smith
From: Dr. Julio Fernandez
Re: Fall 2012 Plagiarism Cases

(In the header to a memo)

10. Without hesitation, and with a surprising lack of decorum, the bishop chastised the small group behind the pew: “There are reasons why you are to be held accountable and I will explain them to you when you have left the church grounds. (an independent clause introducing a quotation or spoken text in a dialog. If the introductory text is not an independent clause, use a comma instead.)

Style Conventions for the Colon

Should there be one or two spaces following a colon?

  • Word processing software makes the answer one. However, if you choose two, be consistent.

Where does a colon go after quoted text?

  • When a colon appears after quoted text, put it after the closing quotation mark.

Do I start the text following the colon with either an upper-case or lower-case letter?

  • It depends who you ask. The Associated Press and MLA say to include the capital letter. The Chicago Manual of Style tells you to capitalize only when what follows the colon is a quotation or where two or more sentences follow the colon. Again, be consistent with the option you choose.

A.R. Ammon: the Colon

If Anything Will Level With You Water Will

Streams shed out of mountains in a white rust
(such the abomination of height)
slow then into upland basins or high marsh
and slowing drop loose composed figurations
on big river bottoms
or give the first upward turn from plains:
that’s for modern streams: if sediment’s
lithified it
may have to be considered ancient, the result of
a pressing, perhaps lengthy, induration:
old streams from which the water’s
vanished are interesting I mean that
kind of tale,
water, like spirit, jostling hard stuff around
to make speech into one of its realest expressions:
water certainly is interesting (as is spirit) and
small rock, a glacial silt, just as much so:
but most pleasurable (magma and migma) is
rock itself in a bound slurp or spill
or overthrust into very recent times:
there waterlike stone, those heated seekings &
goings, cools to exact concentration, I
mean the telling’s unmediated:
the present allows the reading of much
old material: but none of it need be read:
it says itself (and
said itself) so to speak perfectly in itself.

—A.R. Ammons

Notes on the Semicolon

“If there is aught of good in the style, it is the result of ceaseless toil in rewriting. Everything comes out wrong with me at first; but when once objectified I can torture and poke and scrape and pat it till it offends me no more.”

—William James, Letter to Sarah Whitman

In our last class session we were talking about the anxiety that accompanies the use of punctuation. Does a comma go here? Should I include a comma to separate the second and third item in a series? And so on. I also pointed out the vehement positions people take when it comes to punctuation. That an occasional piece of writing on a comma generates over three hundred comments  says something about our relationship to marks on a page.

But what about the semicolon? Why does this mark of punctuation generate so much turbulence? Noah Lukeman suggests that because semicolons are never necessary there will always be a link between its use and whether or not it needed to be used.

images-2Here is a classic statement (in a classic text on style) about the proper use of the semicolon that appears straightforward: “If two or more clauses, grammatically complete and not joined by a conjunction, are to form a single compound sentence,” say William Strunk and E. B. White, “the proper mark of punctuation is a semicolon” (The Elements of Style 5-6). But then, let’s say, you start reading one of my favorite writers, the philosopher and psychologist William James. Here are a couple of examples from James in his chapter “Will” near the end of his The Principles of Psychology. James is making the case (following Carl Lange) that emotion follows, rather than causes, its bodily expression:

Common-sense says, we lose our fortune, are sorry and weep; we meet a bear, are frightened and run; we are insulted by a rival, are angry and strike.

I sit at table after dinner and find myself from time to time taking nuts or raisins out of the dish and eating them. My dinner properly is over, and in the heat of the conversation I am hardly aware of what I do; but the perception of the fruit, and the fleeting notion that I may eat it, seem fatally to bring the act about.

One can hear in these examples the “aught of good,” as James puts it, “the result of ceaseless toil.” His style is quite distinctive, actually, and readers of James are grateful for his willingness to “torture and poke and scrape and pat it till it offends me no more.” Or, let’s say I pick up The Varieties of Religious Experience and read:

Good-humor is a philosophic state of mind; it seems to say to Nature that we take her no more seriously than she takes us. I maintain that one should always talk of philosophy with a smile.

 Or have a look at another example, this one from The Will To Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy,

Science, like life, feeds on its own decay. New facts burst old rules; then newly divined conceptions bind old and new together into a reconciling law.

Or, finally, a series in a passage from James’ essay “The Moral Equivalent of War”:

A great nation is not saved by wars, it is saved by acts without external picturesqueness; by speaking, writing, voting reasonably; by smiting corruption swiftly; by good temper between parties; by the people knowing true men when they see them, and preferring them as leaders to rabid partisans and empty quacks.

One conclusion to draw from this series of examples is that the use of the semicolon is, alas for some of us, a situational decision.

Looking for a bit more uncertainty to cultivate your punctuation anxiety? Consider Kurt imagesVonnegut’s often-quoted quip about the semicolon in A Man Without a Country (2007). “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.” These lines from Vonnegut are quoted by Ben Dolinck in his 2012 Times Opinionator Blog post, “Semicolons: a Love Story.” Of course accomplished writers use semi-colons—in fact, in addition to William James, none other than E. B. White uses them beautifully in his essays, as Mary Norris notes in her  “Semicolons; So Tricky” in the New Yorker.

As with most things linguistic, and again more’s the pity, rules for usage are at once invariant and variant. You can stick with Strunk and White. Or you can read and pay attention to how writers actually use semicolons. You might also want to have a look at Matthew Inman’s “How to Use a Semicolon: The Most Feared Punctuation on Earth” on the Oatmeal Blog.