“We must write for our own time”

December 15, 2016

A few words from Sartre:

A book has its absolute truth in its own time. It is lived like a riot or a famine, with much less intensity of course, and by fewer people, but in the same way. It is an emanation of intersubjectivity, a living bond of rage, hatred, or love between those who have produced it and those who receive it. If it gains ground, thousands of people reject it and deny it: we all know very well that to read a book is to rewrite it. At the time it is first a panic, an escape, or a courageous affirmation; at the time it is a good or a bad action. Later, when the time has died, it will become relative; it will become a message. But the judgement of posterity will not invalidate the opinions men had of it during its lifetime. . . .

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He/she finds his/her pronouns a problem

November 3, 2015

kim newman - nightmare movies - horror on screen since the 1960sI’ve been stop-start-reading the revised edition of Kim Newman’s Nightmare Movies, a gift from my brother; it’s an encyclopaedic and thoroughly enjoyable account of Horror on Screen Since the 1960s, as the subtitle has it.

One chapter traces the development of the haunted house genre in film and literature, and upon reaching the landmark release of Rosemary’s Baby it offers an eye-catching usage:

There is no ghost, except the angry shade of Beethoven invoked by the unseen pianist’s stumbling attempts to get through Für Elise, but the Bramford [Rosemary’s apartment building] does have a Past. Ira Levin refined the parallel plot, a device that has been used in most subsequent haunted house films. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to his/her new home, he/she does a little detective work and pieces the place’s evil past together from newspaper morgues, friendly occultist know-alls, and ageing eyewitnesses.

This use of his/her . . . he/she I found a bit halting and self-conscious. It took me out of the text, and not simply because I attend closely to pronoun use. Instead of conveying the author’s intent discreetly, it’s orthographically conspicuous enough to be distracting. Especially because it’s repeated: one instance might sneak by, but two is a pattern that draws unwanted attention.

I’m going to rework the line in question a few times, so I’ll give each version a number. Here’s the original again:

1. While the protagonist is being overwhelmed by the supernatural forces clinging to his/her new home, he/she does a little detective work…

He/she and his/her are more equitable than generic he and his (which I see depressingly often), but they still give men precedence of position. S/he avoids this, but only by fragmenting she and leaving readers with something weird-looking and effectively unpronounceable. Simple reversals (she/he) are occasionally used, or the slash may be replaced by a conjunction: she or he, he or she.

But there’s another problem. All of these options implicitly adopt a gender binary that excludes people who do not identify as either he or she (see my post on Mx). Writing manuals and style guides commonly note that he/she is awkward or clunky, particularly when repeated, but they seldom acknowledge its politics. One of the reasons I support singular they is that it circumvents this restrictive paradigm.

In Newman’s text, however, simply replacing his/her and he/she with singular their and they could mislead readers into thinking that the new home is the (plural) supernatural forces’, not the (singular) protagonist’s:

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Pompous language is a weapon

November 5, 2014

People have different motivations for using gobbledygook instead of plain language. They may wish to sound impressive and assume, incorrectly, that fancyisms trump familiar words. They may use it as a technique of avoidance or obfuscation, if they want to hide the truth or are unsure of what they’re talking about. Or it might simply be habit or convention, as I said of advise in business communication.

Don Watson elaborates on this in his admirable polemic Gobbledygook: How Clichés, Sludge and Management-Speak Are Strangling Our Public Language (US title: Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language):

Corporate leaders sometimes have good reason to obscure their meaning by twisting their language into knots, but more often they simply twist it out of habit. They have forgotten the other way of speaking: the one in which you try to say what you mean. Instead they welcome their audience and proceed immediately to put them in a coma by announcing their intention to spend the next half hour outlining the company’s key strategies and initiatives going forward, and their commitment to fill capability gaps and enhance sustainable growth for the benefit of all shareholders

Even when we use it as a shield against our own uncertainty, pompous language is a weapon, an expression of power. Part of it is a mistaken effort to elevate the tone. Beneath pomposity rests the assumption that she who elevates the tone will herself be elevated; with luck, beyond scrutiny. The risk, which the truly pompous never see, is that an opposite effect is achieved or the tone moves sideways into unselfconscious parody.

Don Watson - Gobbledygook aka Death Sentence - book coverOn the matter of saying what you mean, Tom Freeman describes a writer going into Writing Mode instead of just putting their ideas in a direct and ordinary way. This is a common problem among aspiring or unskilled writers: they strive for impact in all the wrong ways, such as packing their prose with overelaborations and formal synonyms. Whether through habit, naiveté, diffidence, or lack of faith in simplicity, the result for readers is the same.

Two other things worth mentioning in brief: You probably noticed Watson’s use of she as a generic pronoun – throughout Gobbledygook he alternates between she and he for this purpose. A few writers do, and while I would favour singular they, the alternating style is at least more equitable and inclusive than defaulting to he, as too many writers continue to do. And did you see that unhyphenated unselfconscious? I approve. Oh yes.


Gender-neutral ‘henchpersons’

January 2, 2014

Discussions about gender-neutral language generally centre on usage issues that recur frequently: singular they, generic he and man, generic guys, Ms/Mrs and other forms of address, suffixes such as –ess, –ette and –trix, and common terms like chairman/chair(person), spokesman/woman/person, and fireman/firefighter.

Other items crop up less often: one such is henchman. That it’s relatively rare even in the niche of sexism in language is evidenced by its omission from Casey Miller and Kate Swift’s Handbook of Non-Sexist Writing, which includes a fairly thorough thesaurus (the Hs include handyman, heiress, heroine, horseman/woman, hostess, housewife/husband, huntress, and husbandman).

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Ms., Mrs., and Missing options

August 19, 2013

Ms. was coined as a title for women analogous to Mr. for men, implying nothing about marital status. In this respect it is crucially unlike the traditional forms Mrs. and Miss.

In a recent post, linguistlaura says a friend of hers faced the choice of Mrs. or Ms. – no Miss – in a website’s dropdown menu. This, Laura writes, undermines the point of having Ms., because:

if it’s used in opposition to Mrs., then it implies ‘unmarried’, becoming synonymous with Miss. For it to retain its purpose, it has to be the only option (with Mrs. and Miss not available) or the Mrs./Miss system must be available: both options must be present.

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Singular they, you, and a ‘senseless way of speaking’

January 29, 2013

It’s enough to drive anyone out of their senses – G. B. Shaw

Every fool can do as they’re bid – Jonathan Swift

I like singular they, and I use it often. Most English speakers do, without even thinking about it. There may be times when alternatives are preferable, but singular they/their/them generally works very well, and the grammatical objections to it are specious. Other objections – based on aesthetics, feelings, or dubious authority – are weaker still.

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‘Nice’ in Northanger Abbey

March 9, 2012

Oh! it is a very nice word indeed! – It does for everything. (Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey)

Nice is often held up as an example of semantic drift: its meaning has changed often, and radically, since it entered English in the 13thC from Old French nice “simple, silly, foolish”, from Latin nescius “ignorant”.

Etymonline sketches the sequence, while the Shorter OED’s entry is shown in plain form here with quotations for each sense. The 14th and final adjectival sense in the OED, dating from the early 18thC, is the general-purpose expression of approval we’re most familiar with:

Agreeable, pleasant, satisfactory, delightful, generally commendable; (of food) tasty, appetizing; (of a person) kind, considerate, friendly; iron. (very) bad, unsatisfactory. colloq.

This usage has long been criticised for being vague, overused, and colloquial. Partridge, in Usage and Abusage, called it “an indication of laziness”, while Fowler blamed the word’s own good fortune, and women, for ruining it: “the ladies”, he wrote, had “charmed out of it all its individuality & converted it into a mere diffuser of vague & mild agreeableness.” Woe is mankind!

Nowadays, nice is used mostly in speech and fiction, as the following at-a-glance genre graph in COCA (1990–2011) shows. You can click through for examples in each category.

Comparatively few instances of the word are found in academic texts, and many of these are acronymic or dialogue uses.

Fowler said people limiting nice to its “more proper” (i.e., older) senses were doing the language a favour. He would presumably have sided with Henry Tilney in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey (1817), who teased Catherine Morland over her modern-leaning use of the word:

   ‘But now really, do not you think Udolpho the nicest book in the world?’
   ‘The nicest; – by which I suppose you mean the neatest. That must depend upon the binding.’
   ‘Henry,’ said Miss Tilney, ‘you are very impertinent. Miss Morland, he is treating you exactly as he does his sister. He is for ever finding fault with me, for some incorrectness of language, and now he is taking the same liberty with you. The word “nicest,” as you used it, did not suit him; and you had better change it as soon as you can, or we shall be overpowered with Johnson and Blair all the rest of the way.’
   ‘I am sure,’ cried Catherine, ‘I did not mean to say anything wrong; but it is a nice book, and why should not I call it so?’
   ‘Very true,’ said Henry, ‘and this is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk, and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! it is a very nice word indeed! – It does for everything. Originally perhaps it was applied only to express neatness, propriety, delicacy, or refinement; – people were nice in their dress, in their sentiments, or their choice. But now every commendation on every subject is comprised in that one word.’
   ‘While, in fact,’ cried his sister, ‘it ought only to be applied to you, without any commendation at all. You are more nice than wise. Come, Miss Morland, let us leave him to meditate over our faults in the utmost propriety of diction, while we praise Udolpho in whatever terms we like best.’

The passage plays astutely on the word’s polysemy, while the reference to Johnson is, well, a nice coincidence. Today I saw a page of Isaac Watts’s Logick which Johnson had marked up to quote in his Dictionary: “Nor have we either Senſes or Inſtruments ſufficiently nice and accurate to find them out.” The word nice, exemplifying one of the usages of which Fowler later approved, was duly underlined.