Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘language’

10 FEBRUARY, 2012

E. B. White on Why Brevity Is Not the Gold Standard for Style

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“Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound.”

The Elements of Style endures as one of the most important books on writing ever published, a quintessential guide to composition and form. Though Strunk’s stern and directive tone was somewhat softened by White’s penchant for prose, the tome remains a stringent upholder of standards of brevity and succinctness as the hallmarks of linguistic excellence. But even White, it turns out, was troubled by the absolutism of such rules. Buried in Stylized, Mark Garvey’s fantastic history of the Strunk and White classic, are a handful of never-before-published letters by E. B. White to readers of the iconic style guide, which reveal a more dimensional relationship with language.

In one, predictably, White remains true to the book’s overarching ethos, reminiscent of David Ogilvy’s famous 1982 memo on writing, and makes a case for clarity:

Dear Mrs. —

[…]

There are very few thoughts or concepts that can’t be put into plain English, provided anyone truly wants to do it. But for everyone who strives for clarity and simplicity, there are three who for one reason or another prefer to draw the clouds across the sky.

Sincerely,

E. B. White

But in different letter, White nods to the other side of the coin, in what might at first appear a contradictory and out-of-character defense of richer language by the crusader of conciseness but is, at its heart, a plea for balance and context over rigid rules:

Dear Mr. —

It comes down to the meaning of ‘needless.’ Often a word can be removed without destroying the structure of a sentence, but that does not necessarily mean that the word is needless or that the sentence has gained by its removal.

If you were to put a narrow construction on the word ‘needless,’ you would have to remove tens of thousands of words from Shakespeare, who seldom said anything in six words that could be said in twenty. Writing is not an exercise in excision, it’s a journey into sound. How about ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’*? One tomorrow would suffice, but it’s the other two that have made the thing immortal.

Thank you, thank you, thank you for your letter.

Yrs,

E. B. White

Embedded in White’s point about language I find a reflection of one of my core beliefs about life in general: that rules are excellent organizational tools and efficient reducers of cognitive load, but they are no substitute for contextual sensitivity and personal judgement.

For more gold from E. B. White’s private correspondence, escape into the highly addictive Letters of E. B. White, with a cherry-on-top foreword by the great John Updike.

* Thus begins the second sentence of one of the most famous soliloquies in Macbeth.

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03 FEBRUARY, 2012

A Brief History of The Elements of Style and What Makes It Great

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On depth in simplicity and beauty in plainness.

“I hate the guts of English grammar,” E. B White once famously proclaimed. Yet Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style is among the most important and timeless books on writing. With its enduring legacy and cultish following, it has inspired countless derivatives and homages, from a magnificent edition illustrated by Maira Kalman to a rap. The book has become a legend in its own right, its story part of our modern creative mythology — but, like a good fairy tale, it brims with more curious, unlikely, even whimsical details than a mere plot summary might suggest. Those are exactly what Mark Garvey, a 20-year publishing veteran and self-professed extreme Elements of Style enthusiast, explores in Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.

From how White, a former student of Strunk’s, resurrected the original text after Strunk’s death, to White’s thoughtful, stubborn, heartfelt, and often snarky correspondence with his editors and readers, including many never-before-published letters, to original interviews with some of today’s most beloved writers, including Adam Gopnik, Nicholas Baker, and Elmore Leonard, the slim but fascinating and wholehearted volume offers a rare peek inside the creative process behind one of the most iconic meta-meditations on the English language.

A large part of what made the Strunk and White collaboration so potent, it turns out, is the stark contrast between the two authors’ attitude towards the rules of language. Garvey writes:

E. B. White described Strunk’s voice on the page as being ‘in the form of sharp commands, Sergeant Strunk snapping orders to his platoon,’ and it’s true, the professor seems to spend much of this time in an imperative mood: ‘Do not break sentences in two,’ ‘Use the active voice,’ ‘Omit needless words.’ It’s a natural enough idiom, considering his day job; Strunk sounds teacherly, though he’s not without humor.

White’s voice, on the other hand, is that of the writer, the practitioner of long experience whose sympathies favor the artistic side of the enterprise.

But, above all, Garvey captures the intangible essence of what makes The Elements of Style as much a subject of workshops as it is an object of worship:

True believers have always felt something more, an extra dimension that has likely been a fundamental source of the book’s success all along: As practical as it is for helping writers over common hurdles, The Elements of Style also embodies a worldview, a philosophy that, for some, is as appealing as anything either author ever managed to get down on paper. Elements of Style is a credo. And it is a book of promises — the promise that creative freedom is enabled, not hindered, by putting your faith in a few helpful rules; the promise that careful, clear thinking and writing can occasionally touch truth; the promise of depth in simplicity and beauty in plainness; and the promise that by turning away from artifice and ornamentation you will find your true voice.

Rigorously researched and infectiously narrated, Stylized is an exquisite labor of love, a love that honors one of the most quintessential paragons of creative labor in modern literary history.

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17 JANUARY, 2012

Babel No More: Inside the Secrets of Superhuman Language-Learners

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What a Chilean YouTube disaster and a busy Manhattan restaurant have to do with the limits of the human brain.

Nineteenth-century Italian cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, a legend in his day, was said to speak 72 languages. Hungarian hyperpolyglot Lomb Kató, who taught herself Russian by reading Russian romance novels, insisted that “one learns grammar from language, not language from grammar.” Legendary MIT linguist Ken Hale, who passed away in 2001, had an arsenal of 50 languages and was rumored to have once learned the notoriously difficult Finnish while on a flight to Helsinki. Just like extraordinary feats of memory, extraordinary feats of language serve as a natural experiment probing the limits of the human brain — Mezzofanti maintained that “god” had given him this particular power, but did these linguistic superlearners really possess some significant structural advantage over the rest of us in how their brains were wired? That’s precisely what journalist and self-described “metaphor designer” Michael Erard explores in Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners — the first serious investigation into the phenomenon of seemingly superhuman multilingual dexterity and those who have, or claim to have, mastered it, and a fine addition to our favorite books about language.

To understand the cognitive machinery of such feats, Erard set out to find modern-day Mezzofantis, from an eccentric Berkeley-based language learning guru and hyperpolyglot — hyperglottery, Erard notes, begins at 11 languages — to the Lebanese-born, Brazil-based one-time Guinness record holder for 58 languages, who proceeded to embarrass himself on Chilean national television by not understanding a simple question by a native speaker. In the process, Erard scrutinizes the very nature of language, its cultural role, and where it resides in the brain, weaving a fascinating story about our most fundamental storytelling currency.

To grasp the power of language learning as a social facilitator, one need only stroll into a busy Manhattan restaurant, where mapping the native origin of the staff and patrons might produce a near-complete world atlas. Erard marvels:

It’s amazing that the world runs so well, given that people use languages that they didn’t grow up using, haven’t studied in schools, and in which they’ve never been tested or certified. Yet it does.”

(For some related fascination, see David Bellos’ Is That a Fish in Your Ear?, which delves into what translation reveals about the human condition.)

And in an age where geography and nationality have been shuffled the forces of globalization, ubiquitous connectivity, cheap travel, and the Internet, understanding how language lubricates our social interactions is crucial to making sense of our place in a global world. Erard observes:

Ideas, information, goods, and people are flowing more easily through space, and this is creating a sensibility about language learning that’s rooted more in the trajectories of an individual’s life than in one’s citizenship or nationality. It’s embedded in economic demands, not the standards of schools or governments. That means that our brains also have to flow, to remain plastic and open to new skills and information. One of these skills is learning new ways to communicate.”

(The Daily Beast has an excerpt to give you a taste of Erard’s signature blend of absorbing storytelling and rigorous research.)

Captivating and illuminating, Babel No More is as much an absorbing piece of investigative voyeurism into superhuman feats as it is an intelligent invitation to visit the outer limits of our own cerebral potential.

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