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.

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.