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· Pointed Takes on Style Delineated ·

· "We Hold These Truths" on the First-Person Plural ·

"Only presidents, editors and people with tapeworm have the right to use the editorial 'we,'" Mark Twain once said — apparently ending discussion on the pronoun "we." We beg to differ here, since whatever I might say plurally you might of course interpret singularly, and vice versa. One doesn't have to be George W. Bush to know as much since, whether Texan or not, you-all and we-all are both, of course, "plural."

Take, for instance, these uses of the first-person plural "we":

The Principal Uses of the Pronoun "We"

  • "We" as a familiar rhetorical agent, including writer and reader ("We must, of course, both agree").
  • "We" as the spokesperson for a group, "the editorial we" ("We [The National Review, The Nation, AARP] endorse presidential candidates").
  • "We" as a representative of a group, possibly excluding the reader ("We Republicans," "We Democrats," "We Geezers").
  • "We" as humankind ("We are all doomed").

Now don't get me wrong. Like President George W. Bush, we might, by law, be pluralized someday into office — moving from obscurity into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue through a rare vote count in an election. But anyone might still agree that we might have a long way to go, especially when measured stylistically by the most honored of American presidents, Abraham Lincoln.

Consider, for instance, these two paragraphs from a student essay on "The Gettysburg Address" — an essay analyzing President Lincoln's subtle shadings of the plural pronoun in his dedication of a battlefield cemetery (a rhetorical task sometimes, I think, of necessity falling upon presidents):

Lincoln's second paragraph not only locates the ceremony temporally and geographically in the midst of "a great civil war" and on "a great battlefield of that war," but in relation to an ambiguously specified "we," a pronoun referring to a much larger audience than that physically present. The word is enormously complex, for its most obvious referent initially shifts from all the citizens of the nation only to those present in Lincoln's audience. To illustrate, the first instance of "we" in his second paragraph ("we are engaged in a great civil war") refers to the nation as a whole, while the second, third, and fourth instances ("We are met on a great battlefield," "We have come to dedicate . . . ," and ". . . we should do this") refer only to Lincoln's own battlefield audience.

Admittedly, Lincoln's contraction of pronominal reference is a subtle one, yet his subtlety is what effectively blurs the referencing of "we" so that, on the one hand, "we" — the audience — might be present not just at the ceremony but at a genuine war (the great "testing"), and on the other, so that "we" — citizens — might also be present at the ceremony (hearing Lincoln's words and sharing his grief). The effect of such pronominal contraction is essentially to mythologize the ceremony, to make it much larger than life, to expand its importance beyond that of any single ceremony, any single battle, perhaps any single war. Obviously, Lincoln's final sentence ("It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this") becomes thereby a powerful, sympathetic acknowledgment not only of his own mourning, but also that of his audience and that, equally, of his entire American nation.

Having heard George W. Bush's lengthy State-of-the-Union speech last week, we might ask if anyone serves us now as a good president, editor, or "tapeworm" even. Happily, with Thomas Jefferson still, we might all fittingly say: "We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . "

Properly speaking (sotto voce), it is, of course, our challenge.

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· My Students Find "Interesting" Punctuations ·

"There are some punctuations that are interesting," said Gertrude Stein, "and there are some that are not." Stein's judgment, quoted from Joseph M. Williams's Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, I have long found helpful in my teaching. The marks we silently take for granted, I've discovered, make for useful classroom conversation.

Typically, after introducing my students to the two chief means of grasping punctuation ("regulatory" and "syntactical" I call them), I turn everyone loose diligently looking for "interesting" punctuations. My students take to the task well, finding in what they have first read for pleasure larger lessons in compositional technique.

For fun I have thought to share two such finds. Each comes from a now-dated class textbook handy for reference, Lynn Bloom and Edward White's Inquiry: A Cross-Curricular Reader. You, too, might find my students' punctuations "interesting."

Begging what I call "regulatory" questions, the first comes from Mike Rose's short essay, "'I Just Wanna Be Average'":

We were talking about the parable of the talents, about achievement, working hard, doing the best you can do, blah-blah-blah, when the teacher called on the restive Ken Harvey for an opinion. Ken thought about it, but just for a second, and said (with studied, minimal effect), "I just wanna be average." That woke me up. Average?! Who wants to be average? Mike Rose, 'I Just Wanna Be Average,' Inquiry: A Cross-Curricular Reader, eds. Lynn Z. Bloom and Edward M. White, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993, 72-73.

You can imagine my students' response. They like, of course, Rose's hyphenated boredom ("blah-blah-blah"), his paused, adjectival aside ("with studied, minimal effect"), his one solecism ("wanna"), and, mostly, his equivocal end-punctuation on "Average?!" "But is that right?" they ask, and I reply: "But of course! Was Rose here following some stuffy, single-minded grammarian's 'pointing rule'?"

My students take even more, however, to John Updike's "syntactical" stretch in his fine autobiographical essay, "At War with my Skin":

My mother tells me up till age six I had no psoriasis; it came on strong after an attack of the measles in February of 1938, when I was in kindergarten. The disease — "disease" seems strong, for a condition that is not contagious, painful, or debilitating; yet psoriasis has the volatility of a disease, the sense of another presence coöcupying your body and singling you out from the happy herds of healthy, normal mankind — first attached itself to my memory while I was lying on the upstairs side porch of the Shillington house, amid the sickly, oleaginous smell of Siroil, on fuzzy sun-warmed towels, with my mother, sunbathing. John Updike, 'At War with My Skin,' Inquiry: A Cross-Curricular Reader, eds. Lynn Z. Bloom and Edward M. White, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1993, 50-51.

You can imagine my students' take. After traversing Updike's semicolonized lead sentence ("Svc; svc" is his pattern), they "gasp" inquisitively at a writer's deft style dashing their hopes for some subject-verb closure in his longer second sentence ("S — svc; svc — vc, c, c, c"). "Can Updike do that?" they ask, amused by his lengthy, comma-filled sentence ending. "Well, he did, didn't he? It's a stretch," I say, "but — hey! — if your old skin is rather inelastic, why not limber up your syntax? For Updike it's verbal gymnastics."

Students of course get my point, as they get, too, Victor Borge's in a still more stylish take on punctuation, happily recorded (even if without his accompanying story) partially online. Do enjoy.

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· From Substance to Style: G. H. Lewes Takes on Immanuel Kant ·

I've the task here of introducing students to Immanuel Kant. You can imagine their groans: "What," they ask, "was this dude really on?" "You expect us to understand him?"; "We mean, like, 'He's boring!'" While I sympathize, I feel at least compelled to induce some into believing, even as the French sometimes say: "Le style le moins noble a purtant sa noblesse" — "The least noble of styles has nevertheless its own nobility." Most students scoff: "Don't give us that stuff; the French even eat their greasy fries with a fork!"

So what of English speakers? Well, we're of course betwixt-and-between, typically adopting Kant's essentially smart intellectual substance while necessarily abusing his style. Consider the mid-Victorian writer George Henry Lewes. His The Principles of Success in Literature (1865), published in The Fortnightly Review, catches well the spirit of Kant's words while abusing his often drab style. Take this from Lewes' sixth chapter, "The Laws of Style":

The aims of Literature being instruction and delight, Style must in varying degrees [Lewes writes] appeal to our intellect and our sensibilities: sometimes reaching the intellect through the presentation of simple ideas, and at others through the agitating influence of emotions; sometimes awakening the sensibilities through the reflexes of ideas, and sometimes through direct appeal. George Henry Lewes, 'The Laws of Style,' Representative Essays on the Theory of Style, ed. William. T. Brewster, New York: Macmillan, 1913, 229.

Lewes' vocabulary, "intellect" and "sensibilities," "ideas" and "emotions," is lifted, of course, right from Kant's three great classic critiques of reason, practicality, and judgment, but used in the direct service of literature, not of philosophy. Yet as to Kant's own prose style, Lewes himself disparages it as do most of my smart students. Take this brief passage from Lewes' fifth chapter, "The Principle of Beauty":

Bacon, . . . having an opulent and active intellect, spontaneously expressed himself in forms of various excellence. But what a pitiable contrast is presented by Kant! . . . not simply unwise, he was extremely culpable in sending forth his thoughts as so much raw material which the public was invited to put into shape as it could. . . . he might have been induced to recast it into more logical and more intelligible sentences. George Henry Lewes, 'The Principle of Beauty,' Representative Essays on the Theory of Style, ed. William. T. Brewster, New York: Macmillan, 1913, 223-224; below, 222.

Before you gloat with my students, however, do at least consider this happy exchange from Friday afternoon's English 101 class:

Styles to the Class:

I spent a whole hour arranging my words in the passage I shared with you yesterday.

A Student to Styles:

Well, you've got too much time on your hands.

To which G. H. Lewes' reply is:

Styles to the Class again, quoting Lewes:

[M]en who will spare no labour in research, grudge all labor in style; a morning is cheerfully devoted to verifying a quotation, by one who will not spare ten minutes to reconstruct a clumsy sentence.

Whether researching or writing, I do have, it seems, Lewes' point made expressly for my own style.

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· Returned from California Sun to Washington Snow ·

I've just returned home to what the romantic poets have sometimes styled the "fierce art" of a hard snow storm. After driving from Washington to California and back, I pulled into my garage late Saturday night with renewed respect for John Keats' old weather line, "O for a beaker full of the warm South."

Naturally, San Diego was everything I had hoped for, sunny days spent partially out-of-doors, romantic street-side dining on each of three nights there, and MLA sessions graced indoors with sparkling, occasionally stilted, literary wit and wisdom. The Modern Language Association chose well its 2003 Convention.

But 2004 has already begun with a blast of frigid air here, an icy spirit having bumped my three classes back two days now and making me think (bundled up in my fleece and Merino wool) only of Emerson's romantically compensatory take on

The Snow-Storm

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o'er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden's end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier's feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

Though I like Emerson's point, sometimes I'd rather have Percy Bysshe Shelley's more famous line, one riding on the prophetic spirit of a single thought trumpeted at the end of Ode to the West Wind:

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

At least I'm glad to announce (from the local TV news) a warming wind now rising from the far South Pacific.

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