Sunday, October 2, 2011

Proscription Drugs

I believe that we, as human beings, like to simplify things.

The truth is, we live in a complex world.  The laws of physics that we know about are far beyond what most of us can comprehend, and most physicists agree that we don’t know all of them yet.  The intricacies of the human body are no less baffling to all but the most learned biochemists and neurologists and geneticists, and, there again, there are still mysteries which counfound even them.  History is full of factual ambiguity; philosophy is full of moral ambiguity; literature is full of contextual ambiguity ... is it any wonder that we need to find a way to reduce things, simply to cope with living in the universe we find ourselves in?

Of course, the danger when simplifying is that we may oversimplify.  I’ve discussed before how we “know” that there is no black and white in the world, and yet stubbornly persist on perceiving most things in absolute terms such as “true” and “false.”  (In fact, you might even go far as to say our view of balance is itself a paradox.  But that’s straying too far afield from my point.)  Let’s take a field at random ... oh, let’s say ... English grammar.

How many of you out there know that it is wrong to split an infinitive?  Go on, raise your hands proudly and be counted.  You know the rules of grammar, right?  You were taught this stuff in school.  Splitting infinitives is just one of those things which is downwright wrong.

Of course, “right” and “wrong” would be just like “black” and “white” ... right?  And we know there’s no black and white in the world ... right?

Now let me ask you this: for those of you who didn’t raise your hand about the split infinitive being wrong, why not?  Did you trot out that chestnut about the English language contantly evolving?  Don’t get me wrong, that’s true, but what it implies is that splitting infinitives used to be wrong, but now it’s okay.  And I’m not sure I agree with that.

Wikipedia, of course, is pleased to present us with a history of the issue, and the executive precis is that not only is there no rule against splitting infinitives today, there never has been.  Some folks came along and said they didn’t like it, and gave some great examples of instances where it really is quite awful to do.  But somehow we took “here’s a technique which is often abused and needs to be carefully examined” and turned it into “never do this!”  We oversimplified.

What brought this to my mind today was reading an online post from someone (whom I greatly respect) who dismissed a suggested wording change because it used the passive voice.  And we all know that passive voice is wrong, don’t we?  After all, Microsoft Word marks it as a grammar error, so it must be wrong.  Except it’s not.  Passive voice isn’t wrong.  It can be used very poorly, I’ll grant you that ... but isn’t that true of practically any grammatical construction?

This one in particular dates to the classic Strunk & White.  They gave us all sorts of great advice on how to write more clearly.  Except that most of it was pretty bad advice, unfortunately.  And, if you’re not the sort of person who’s so inclined to click on perfectly good links that I drop into my blog posts, let me quote you the most important sentence of the article, at least as regards the proscription on passive voice: “Of the four pairs of examples offered to show readers what to avoid and how to correct it, a staggering three out of the four are mistaken diagnoses.”  That’s right folks: in the section of Strunk & White that tells you why you shouldn’t be using the passive voice, only 25% of their “bad examples” are even passive themselves.  And this is a book that many people regard as definitive, in terms of grammatical correctness!

But, regardless of the correctness of the examples, the point is that even Strunk & White don’t say “passive voice is wrong.”  They say “it should be avoided, wherever possible.”  If you want my opinion, even that’s too strong a statement, but let’s overlook that for now.  How did we get to the point where, in a discussion about what the best wording for something might be, the very thought of using a passive voice construction is dismissed with such casual prejudice?  Not even worthy of consideration?

In another discussion (same web site, different interlocutor, far less respect), someone chastised me for ending a sentence with a preposition.  I cheerfully responded with the quote, commonly attributed to Winston Churchill (although most likely apocryphally), that that was “nonsense up with which I would not put.”  The response, given in some distress, was that Churchill was known to suffer from “mental illness” (which is utterly irrelevant, of course, whether true or not), followed by a plea to “save the language.”


Ending a sentence with a preposition is not only incontrovertibly wrong, but so utterly wrong as to spell the doom of the English language as a whole?

No, unfortunately, it’s not even wrong at all.  This “rule” stems from a fellow named Robert Lowth, author of A Short Introduction to English Grammar, and, once again, even he doesn’t say “never do it.”  He says, in fact: “This is an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to; it prevails in common conversation, and suits very well with the familiar style in writing; but the placing of the Preposition before the Relative is more graceful, as well as more perspicuous; and agrees much better with the solemn and elevated Style.”  See?  Not “wrong.”  Just “sounds better the other way.”  In his opinion.  As a clergyman.  Who wrote “an Idiom which our language is strongly inclined to” in a sentence about not ending things with prepositions.

I could even point you to several other lists of mythical grammatical rules such as these, as well as many others (don’t start a sentence with a conjunction, never use double negatives, etc), but the point is that, even when the proscription doesn’t reach the level of “rule,” we still can’t resist stating it as an absolute.

Let’s take the case of adverbs.  Mark Twain says “I am dead to adverbs ... they mean absolutely nothing to me.”  Graham Greene called them “beastly” and said they were “far more damaging to a writer than an adjective.”  Elmore Leonard has started a “War on Adverbs” and says “to use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin”; Stephen King apparently concurs when he notes that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs” and that by the time “you see them for the weeds they really are” it’s too late.  Because of these types of opinions, any number of web sites will tell you that you should never use adverbs or that you should ruthlessly expunge all of them from your prose.

Of course “never” is an adverb, as is “ruthlessly.”

For that matter, all four of the authors I quoted above, railing against adverbs, use adverbs themselves ... in fact, there are adverbs in all four quotes.  As with the proscription against the passive voice, the first problem with advising people to get rid of all their adverbs is that most people can’t identify them.  “Very” is an adverb, as is “always,” or “far,” or “sometimes,” or even “not.”  Imagine trying to write a piece of prose of any appreciable length without using the word “not.”  No doubt you could do it, as an exercise, but it would be painful, and your piece would most likely sound tortured in at least a couple of places.

Getting rid of all adverbs is such a patently ridiculous idea that some of the smarter know-it-alls have scaled back their advice.  “Not all the adverbs,” they hasten to clarify.  “Just the -ly ones.”  So, you know, just get rid of all those ”-ly” words.  Like, you know: friendly, silly, lovely, beastly, deathly.  Those sorts.

Except those are all adjectives.

Yes, that’s right: when J.K. Rowling was criticized for an overuse of adverbs, for the sin of putting one right there in the title of her final Harry Potter book, it was a bit of an embarrasment to realize that “Deathly” was actually an adjective, modifying the noun “Hallows.”  At least I hope that author had the good grace to be embarrassed over the faux pas.

In some cases the advice gets watered down to the point where people tell you to get rid of all your adverbs that end in -ly unless they make the sentence better.  But, at that point, the advice has little to do with adverbs, and should instead apply to every word in your prose.

Personally, I love adverbs.  Sure, overuse of them is bad.  Overuse of anything is bad: that’s built into the definition of “overuse.”  Blanket statements about expunging them (ruthlessly or not) are just moronic (even if they do come from one of my most treasured literary idols).

But, as always, it is our human nature to want to simplify the “rule” to make it easier to remember.  What’s simpler? “don’t overuse adverbs, or use them in cases where a stronger verb would serve the purpose equally well, or use them redundantly, or attach them too often to ‘he said’ tags”? or “don’t use adverbs”?  What’s easier to teach: “don’t split an infinitive when the number or quality of the words between the ‘to’ and the verb cause the infinitive itself to be weakened,” or “never split an infinitive”?  What’s the cleaner aphorism: “don’t use the passive voice when the agent is known and the active voice is stronger, unless you specifically want to de-emphasize the agent, but not merely as a means to avoid responsibility for the agent or to pretend that there is no agent at all” or “don’t use passive voice because MS Word underlines it in green”?

And so we take a complex but useful piece of advice and turn it into something simple and profoundly useless.  We take a reasoned approach that glories in balance (and occasionally even paradox) and make it black and white: do this, don’t do that.

It makes it much easier to be able to correct other people with all our mistaken impressions.

1 comment:

  1. This blog entry was enjoyed by me.

    Just to clarify, I wasn't rejecting a proposed wording change because it was passive voice; rather, I was trying to figure out what was bothering the other commenter about the current wording. I speculated that it was the passive construction, and suggested that maybe the active-voiced alternative would make him happier. (It didn't.)

    While the rules against splitting infinitives and ending sentences in prepositions strike me as arbitrary and absurd, I see the rationale for preferring active to passive. Passive voice certainly has its place, but when you have a clear subject to work with, active language usually takes fewer words and flows more naturally. The emphasis there is on "usually", though.