Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Minor Heresies of Modern Style

University of Missouri writing teacher Scott Garson takes a look back at a classic essay by George Orwell to see what lessons it still has for students today.

Have you reread Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" recently? The awesomeness of that essay is undiminished. The relevance to college writers? Up for debate.

Orwell's argument goes something like this: you don't write carefully enough. You don't bother choosing the words you use for their meanings. Instead, you channel "ready-made phrases" — ones that will "construct your meanings for you" and even "think your thoughts."

Sounds Orwellian, right? Orwell was alarmed. Bad writing didn't just offend his good taste; bad writing was bad. It was a vice. If you wrote badly, you took on "a reduced state of consciousness" which was ultimately "favorable to political conformity."

I love this man. He was right in all sorts of ways.

When I'm being practical, though — and most teachers of college writing are that — I sometimes lose my sense of why certain parts of Orwell's fight should be fought.

I'm talking about grammar and style. The manual writers are still teaching these subjects in accordance with precepts found in Orwell (and in White's update of The Elements of Style, which was written at about the same time). Open a contemporary manual and you'll find Orwell's aversion to expansiveness and use of the passive voice. In place of "Dying Metaphors," you'll get a chapter on cliché. Instead of "Pretentious Diction," there'll probably be something on wordiness.

I like and use most of what's there in such manuals. Most. Not all. Here's some of the stuff I tend to neglect nowadays, and here's why.

Issues of Case and Agreement

My mother is a grammaticaster. That's a great, dead word from Webster's Second for somebody who's a stickler in the grammar department. If a door was left open — and if my brother or I tried to say, "It wasn't me!" — my mother would forget about the air-conditioning bill and call back, "It wasn't I."

I know. The pronoun isn't the object of the verb. But even if I had unlimited time, is this a thing I'd want to stress with my students?

My next example will provoke more ire. If I get a sentence like the following one from a student, I no longer mess with it: "Somebody left their wallet on the table." No, I won't teach people to write this way. But neither can I justify making the case for 'his or her,' when it sounds so stupid to them, or for 'his,' which is so clearly sexist.

I'd argue that learning to trust the ear is more important for novice writers. Grammar, in situations like these, is more like diction. If I take a hard line, I risk alienating students from work they should think of as theirs.

And in this instance, at least, I count on Orwell's support. "Correct grammar and syntax," he writes, "are of no importance so long as one makes one's meaning clear."

Use of Active Voice

So I haven't really parted with Orwell yet. I'll begin meekly, with a caveat. He uses the fourth of his six 'rules' to warn us about use of the passive voice. He doesn't give reasons, but I've always understood him to be saying that passive voice enables the sort of Latinate obsfucation he's against.

Fair enough.

But to stigmatize the passive voice, in its entirety? Isn't that, like, totalitarian? If I write a sentence in the passive, I may have good reasons: I want to emphasize what's emphasized. I like the rhythm in the context of the paragraph.

Passive voice is still taught as a problem (note voice!). In my classrooms, I focus on active voice, and I teach it as an argument about writing.

Concision and Imagery

I've been putting this section off, I think. This is the one that would really get Orwell looking at me and thinking bad things.

At one point in "Politics," he lists off some of the questions that "a scrupulous writer, in every sentence he writes, will ask himself" in order to avoid the spectacular awfulness of the passages on display in the essay. "What words will express [what I'm trying to say]? What image or idiom will make it clearer?... Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?... Could it be put more shortly?"

Two ideas here: that writing should be concise, and that there should be imagery in writing. Fresh imagery. Concrete imagery. As a writer, I've held to these ideas for a long time. If, as a teacher, I've strayed from them, it has to do with the relativity of genre.

Is all writing the same? Would the things that make one kind of writing 'good' make all other kinds good also?

I'm a fiction writer. When I read fiction, I appreciate concision and fresh, concrete imagery. They're tactics, and if used together they go a long way towards forming an aesthetic. Think of Hemingway (who was close to his heyday in 1946, when "Politics" was written). Hemingway's concision — especially in his stories — is legendary. As for his insistence on fresh, concrete imagery, I could point the oft-quoted line from A Farewell to Arms: "Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names or rivers, the numbers of regiments and dates."

Orwell turns his attention to abstract words too. Here are a few that get frowned upon: 'phenomenon,' 'objective,' 'constitute,' 'eliminate,' 'exploit.' Such words, he writes, are "used to dress up a simple statement and give an air of scientific impartiality to biased judgements."

My response? Sure! But — uh — why does he have to be so negative about it? If we take for example the kind of writing we're mainly asking students in college to produce — the academic critical essay — we might say that, for this particular form, a word like 'constitute' or 'eliminate' might give a writer authority, might make the argument more convincing. All of which is desirable, of course. All of which ends up saying 'A.'

I think our students understand this stuff better than we might think. It's easy to slap them for 'reaching' for words, or for getting a bit expansive in their language, but consider their motives. They're trying to carry authority within a genre they're starting to understand. We can teach them the values in Hemingway, but what are we teaching? Students might get confused.

Probably I'm overstating a little in the interest of making an argument. Are you reading in heaven, George Orwell? Let me repeat that. Probably I overstate. Probably we're not far apart, you and I.

Yo, George! You're still the man!

Scott Garson teaches writing at the University of Missouri. He edits Wigleaf, an online journal of very short fiction, and has stories in or coming from American Short Fiction, New York Tyrant, Hobart, Quick Fiction and others.

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Monday August 17th 2009, 10:10 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
That was wonderful, Scott! You hit a few nails on their heads, in my opinion.

I could suggest one other caveat (I feel a little abashed using the word "caveat" in light of some comments on previous articles) to insisting on correct grammar: grammar isn't good when it calls attention to itself. It's just wrong to say, "It was I" now because the construction makes the reader/listener stop. To many ears it now seems to be wrong. It no longer seems correct to anyone but grammaticasters.

Twenty years ago I heard Richard Lederer speak about grammar and word usage in a plenary session at a conference for technical writers. Afterwords I went to the podium and asked him if we could now be excused from using "I" in the predicate nominative position.

Lederer laughed and told me that St. Peter was sitting at the gate of heaven. A man approached and St. Peter asked, "Who is there?"

The man replied, "It is I."

"Oh no," St. Peter replied, "Not another technical writer!"
Monday August 17th 2009, 11:20 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
I've been waiting for that "It is I." issue.

I'm pretty much of a stickler, but I like to revert in my head to the French for this one, "C'est moi."

My parents fought us on that utterance, too, but it just didn't take.

It's conversation. Conversation is less formal anyway, and the spoken word is the precursor of what will be 'official' when 'official' catches up.

Some of the spoken we frown upon, but like the author of this article, I wouldn't fuss about the 'me'. In fact, I like it.

I think we need to give the spoken language time to settle, to stick around long enough to become 'acceptable' and 'correct'. But for 'me' I think the time has come!
Monday August 17th 2009, 8:46 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
I really enjoy articles like this.
Our ability to share the nuances of life with others is a precious gift.
When I hear the increasingly slurred speech of many youth today, I wonder if we are losing the gift of speech.
Is it laziness? Or perhaps it's just teens trying to find their identity among their peers?
Whatever it is, some of the sound of "modern" speech grates on my ears.
And speaking of ears, it IS all in the sound of the rhythm and flow of good speech. When I hear a true Britisher speak, I feel a deep satisfaction in their crisply articulated and novel idioms.
Scott, keep up the good work. Some day I'll be a writer, too. My 78 years have informed my cache of experience, and now I hope to pursue my dream of sharing it all!
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 1:17 AM
Comment by: fiona , chris . (powys United Kingdom)
I am happy to find a reference to The Wire in correspondance,my friends in uk do not get The Wire.I find it shakesperian insomuch as I don't understand every word or phrase vs.a vs.local idiom or uk vs.usa.But you always understand the drama or humour of the situations.Incidentally appreciation of Orwell is fading in uk,on matters political and grammatical.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 10:40 AM
Comment by: George C.
This guy teaches writing? Orwell is "awesome." Please. What a poorly constructed article. Imagine how proud the University of Missouri and its English Department must be.
Tuesday August 18th 2009, 10:52 AM
Comment by: Jane B. (Winnipeg Canada)Top 10 Commenter
George C., did we read the same article? I got the impression that he appreciated Orwell, just that he had some disagreements.

Surely, we can disagree about some things without disparaging the writer or the institution.

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