You Got Style
· Pointed Takes on Style Delineated ·
February 7, 2005
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· Veni, Vidi, Vici, Ulysses S. Grant Style ·
Comp teachers always have similar advice: to "prefer" them. We're so moved by them that, when passives appear, we are seen to hang our heads low, or at the sight of linkers, often to fall into a deep, existential angst. You might recall symptoms of that behavior even here, in my On Parsing English Justice.
Today I thought to beg the collegial but not yet psychological help of a great Civil War historian, James McPherson. His essay on Ulysses S. Grant, "The Unheroic Hero" (The New York Review of Books, February 4, 1999), I've long used to help students assess such verbs. McPherson's examples are instructive, not only in literature, but in life.
McPherson claims Grant's greatest stylistic achievements are two: "triumph in war, and success in writing [a] book [Personal Memoirs] in a race against death." Both are in turn based on a similar reality: "words," McPherson notes, not only "produce action — they become action."
Consider Grant's field orders in the Champion-Hill campaign at Vicksburg (1863):
As McPherson explains, "[i]n the manner of Ceasar's Veni, vidi, vici, these sentences bristle with verbs of action: 'Move . . . engage . . . disencumber . . . select . . . feel . . . move . . . start.' Grant used few adjectives and fewer adverbs and then only those necessary to enforce his meaning: 'early dawn . . . engage at once . . . move with all possible dispatch . . . great celerity . . . every man.'"
Still more impressive was Grant's final battle against death. Fighting ruin and throat cancer, he rushed to finish his impressive Memoirs with a courageous command of language nowhere better shown than in a note, penned three weeks before his death, to his physician. Unable to speak, he wrote two short sentences every teacher might claim as the paradigmatic truth about verbs:
That life lesson, too, my own students have already begun to learn.Permalink
Yes, verbs carry action and strength in a sentence, a message reinforced by Strunk & White. What struck me about these orders from Grant, though, was a different quality: crispness.
I hadn't thought of that one, though I wonder if it's the effect or cause of other marks, like the crisp attire shown to General Grant in concession. At Appomattox, it's interesting to note that General Lee dressed better. To the victor, I suppose, belong all the soils.
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