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· Pointed Takes on Style Delineated ·

· Unto This Last ·

No, today's title today isn't a fashionable allusion to John Ruskin, though you might think so. It's my reference, rather — a day in advance of its glad approach — to the end of my quarter.

"What do you mean?" Well, at term's end, I count down the days remaining in my classes always like this from fancy to plain:

  • Antepenultimate Day: Not the last day of class, but the third day from it.

  • Penultimate Day: The second day, naturally, from the last day of class.

  • Ultimate Day: The very last day of class.

  • Final Day: The day that any class takes its final.

  • Last Day: The day my own grades must go in.

I'm glad today to say I'm nearing "This Last."

Of course, if you missed Unto This Last, luckily I do happen to have a makeup quiz.

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· On Figuring Tropical Turns ·

Today I mowed my lawn for the first time this spring. The day was apt since, though not the vernal equinox exactly, it was yet near enough to count for it. February 29th has thrown me off some, making my own turns on my lawn here, if not literally representative of a first rite of spring, then figuratively of a deferred attempt to get at one. So it goes with my verbal stylings generally.

I say this since my own traipsings — back and forth on my lawn prompted by our rising sun — do seem themselves like the sun's turnings back and forth between the fabled Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn. Reflecting mediately on the matter, but not quite exactly, inclines me like the old sun today — really from a precession of our orbiting earth — to take account of where I am.

And where is that, pray tell? Well, mostly traipsing back and forth and forth and back in recurring patterns known, quite rightly in our langauge, by one of three common phrases from Greek, Latin, and English,

  • Tropics of Discourse
  • Figures of Speech
  • Turns of Phrase

The only trouble I'm having — besides the literal fact that my machine gave up the ghost today — is what to do with the residual matter of compos(t)ing my grass clippings.

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· Twain, James, Mencken, and the Colloquial Style ·

I've been reading Terry Teachout's biography of H. L. Mencken, The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken. Noting his achievement in crafting a colloquial style, Teachout claims Mencken's primary model was Mark Twain, "the perfect model — perhaps the only possible one — for the racy prose with which he would make his name":

How he stood above and apart from the world [Teachout recalls Mencken saying in Happy Days, his memoir], like Rabelais come to life again, observing the human comedy, chuckling over the eternal fraudulence of man! What a sharp eye he had for the bogus, in religion, politics, art, literature, patriotism, virtue! What contempt he emptied upon shams of all sorts — and what pity! In Terry Teachout, The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken, New York: Harper-Collins, 2002, 35.

Since I have abused Mencken's prose — in Conservative Soul Substance: H. L. Mencken on Style — I've thought to modify my claim by noting here (quite plainly in the interest of fairness) that Mencken might also have chosen as his secondary model Henry James.

Now don't get me wrong; I understand that Mencken once sneered at James's writing:

Isn't it wobbly with qualifying clauses and subassistant phrases [he asked]? Doesn't it wriggle and stumble and stagger and flounder? Isn't it 'crude, untidy, careless,' bedraggled, loose, frowsy, disorderly, unkempt, uncombed, uncurried, unbrushed, unscrubbed? Doesn't it begin in the middle and work away from both ends? Doesn't it often bounce along for a while and then, of a sudden, roll up its eyes and go out of business entirely? In Terry Teachout, The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken, New York: Harper-Collins, 2002, 89.

Of course, since I too have scoffed at Jamesian style — in Indirection in the King's Road: Edith Wharton on Henry James — I thought maybe to split the difference by also claiming that James's work no less than Twain's was indeed itself "colloquial" — an odd claim, but defensible.

My clue comes from chapter three of Richard Bridgman's book, The Colloquial Style in America (1966), "Henry James and Mark Twain." Bridgman rightly defends the view that, in its dialogue at least, James's prose shines with stresses, repetitions, and fragmentations commonly characteristic of American colloquial speech. The difference between Twain and James, of course, remains Twain's substantive reference to things, and Henry James's to consciousness, but stylistically, as Bridgman himself notes,

despite such persistently opposing views, we can justifiably assert in the formal characteristics of repetition, interrupted phrasing, isolation of the word, accentuated peculiarities, and patterns of sound Henry James and Mark Twain corroborated and re-enforced one another's efforts. Each arrived at his stylistic peak through the faithful management of dialogue, followed by partial or wholesale importation of colloquial features into the narrative prose. Each dramatically advanced the movement toward an American prose by his efforts to purify the language of the tribe. Richard Bridgman, The Colloquial Style in America, New York: Oxford, 1966, 130.

 · Reflections · It is perhaps interesting to claim that H. L. Mencken, author of The American Language (1921), might himself have been merely half-inspired. For as Teachout himself admits (p. 75), "Mencken's inability to find anything but hot air in Henry James indicates the limits of his education as exactly as it does the breadth of his ambition."

But again, as hinted above, Mencken didn't really care for the cool, airy reflections of "bucolic college professors."

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· Write, Right, Wright, Rite ·

I'm up to my neck in homonyms today. I'm not, I confess, considering San Francisco-style weddings, or anything subject to pending constitutional amendment. Rather, as Shakespeare says, I'm giving myself to the marriage of minds, minds truly fit to the task of forming written words "stylishly." As I tell my students, it's a smart, fourfold task.

"Write, Right, Wright, Rite," I tell them. They get a kick, of course, out of my injunction since I can pose as a sadly repeating, redundant, reverberating punster. Whenever they all get around to asking what I mean, I simply say, "Check out my definitions":

  • Write, (rīt), v.t., to form or inscribe (words, letters, symbols, etc.) on a surface or screen, especially with a pen, pencil, or computer.

  • Right, (rīt), adj., specifically in accordance with fact, reason, or some set standard; being correct in thought, statement, or action.

  • Wright, (rīt), n., a worker, maker, creator; a person who makes or constructs: used chiefly in compounds, as, cartwright, or, even, word wright.

  • Rite, (rīt), n., any formal, customary observance or procedure, often expressly or implicitly religious.

Here I'll make my way straight to my principal point, which, if you think about it, is but the plain styling of a single sentence: Do Correct Work Religiously.

 · Jonathan Swift · Naturally, the full conversion of all workers to the work is at times difficult, though they do take to it when (with Jonathan Swift) they maybe see its sharp point: "proper words in proper places."

I should perhaps let you decide what our busy bee ("at right") is doing.

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