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· English Style's Logical Character — William Shakespeare ·

My comp students last week were tweaking characters. I mean they were learning to match grammatical subjects stylistically to persons in their essays. It's a stylistic trick Joseph M. Williams recommends, calling it his "first principle of clarity" (and he is right) — for as Williams claims, readers typically watch people, and all skilled writers usually try to keep persons up front syntactically.

Take my "comp students," adding as well my "I," "they," "Joseph M. Williams," "he," "readers," and "all skilled writers." They are all characters — and if you're like my noon class, you're already good at spotting them.

Last week we divvied them up into two helpful types, called the "rhetorical" and the "logical." The first — the words "I," "You," "One," and "We" — are those "topic-independent personal pronouns rhetorically governing reader-writer relations." They let us be as formal or informal, familiar or distant, as we might wish, serving typically to keep readers in tow.

By contrast, personal nouns come next, naming only those folks we might logically associate with whatever subject we're exploring. But my students ran into trouble Friday. We were all brain-storming their kinds — singular and plural, common and proper — when to my surprise, asked to name the most famous of our writers, they stumbled. Consider:

Danielle Steele? John Grisham? Stephen King?

Older.

Edgar Allen Poe? · Winking Will ·

No.

Homer?

Doh!

Hmm?

He's having his 441st birthday tomorrow, and his name is William Shakespeare.

OH!

If you've also forgotten this, I have a memorable quote just for the occasion:

They had not skill enough your worth to sing;
     For we, which now behold these present days,
     Have eyes to wonder, but lack tongues to praise. Sonnet 106, 'When in the chronicle of wasted time'

And so goes my English teaching today.

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· Historical Drudge Report — Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary ·

"Lexicographer*, a writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words."

So did Samuel Johnson after eight years of hard work mark himself aptly in his great Dictionary published on April 15, 1755. Though its appearance came late by six years, what's the difference, especially for those given to lasting work? For when it's done well, work can bring official or even officious credit-takers to account. Consider Johnson's way with Philip Stanhope (Lord Chesterfield):

 · Samuel Johnson's Dictionary · Is not a Patron, My Lord [he pointedly sneered], one who looks with unconcern on a Man struggling for Life in the water and when he has reached ground encumbers him with help. The notice which you have been pleased to take of my Labours, had it been early, had been kind; but it has been delayed till I am indifferent and cannot enjoy it, till I am solitary and cannot impart it, till I am known, and do not want it.

You've got to admit, Johnson had style (Grub-Street honesty, I'd call it). But he was also attentive to what it takes to work truly in others' debt. Consider how he wrote of John Milton's Paradise Lost, considering that Johnson's dictionary was not our first:

The highest praise of genius is original invention [Johnson judged]. Milton cannot be said to have contrived the structure of an epic poem, and therefore owes reverence to that vigour and amplitude of mind to which all generations must be indebted for the art of poetical narration, for the texture of the fable, the variation of incidents, the interposition of dialogue, and all the strategems that surprise and enchain attention. But, of all the borrowers from Homer, Milton is perhaps the least indebted. He was naturally a thinker for himself, confident of his own abilities, and disdainful of help or hindrance: he did not refuse admission to the thoughts or images of his predecessors, but he did not seek them. From his contemporaries he neither courted nor received support; there is in his writing nothing by which the pride of other authors might be gratified, or favour gained; no exchange of praise, nor solicitation of support. His great works were performed under discountenance, and in blindness, but difficulties vanished at his touch; he was born for whatever is ardous; and his work is not the greatest of heroic poems, only because it is not the first. Samuel Johnson, 'Life of Milton,' Lives of the English Poets, 2 Vols. (London/New York: Dent/Dutton [Everyman's Library]), I, 113-114.

Of such work, one sees no private or personal account taken just for itself, however much one sees the real measure of its judicious certainty. Maybe it's for this reason that Adam Kirsch, by chance writing in Slate in 2003, happily concluded with this thought:

Finally, Johnson's own writing is a model of style. Instead of Fowler or Strunk and White, writers might want to turn to Johnson for lessons in good writing — above all, how to convey the most information in the fewest and clearest words. Johnson's dictionary may not be perfect, but it's still the greatest work of literature in the reference section.

*"I am not so lost in lexicography," Johnson also wrote, "as to forget that words are the daughters of earth, and that things are the sons of heaven."

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· My 1982 Richard Mitchell Interview ·

You might recall my December post on Richard Mitchell. Honoring The Underground Grammarian, it noted beyond our mutual fondness for old presses the summer, 1982 interview I did at his home in Pitman, New Jersey. Mark Alexander, keeper of Mitchell's official web site, has just transcribed our talk, publishing it in parts at his own blog, Witnit.

My interview, included in its entirety, was part of a larger project called "A Penny for Your Thoughts: Dialogues on Literacy." Mitchell's remains the deepest of the twenty-plus I did that summer. I'm glad it has now found its proper home at Alexander's fine site.

Except for the last, the section titles are Alexander's:

1The Purpose of Language

2What is Literacy

3The Purpose of Writing

4Why We Read

5Language is Metaphor

6Making Statements

7Honest and Dishonest Writing

8Illusory Limits

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