From The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White. Illustrated by Maira Kalman. Penguin Press, 2005.
Philosophers can often be classified in terms of their favorite parts of speech: there are those who believe that nouns designate the only reliable aspects of being; others, of a contrary view, who see those nouns as simply unkempt nests of qualities; and all are familiar with the Heraclitean people who embrace verbs as if you could make love to water while entirely on land. I have personally always preferred prepositions, particularly of, and especially, among its many meanings, those of possession and being possessed, of belonging and exclusion.
From William H Gass’s essay “The Aesthetic Structure of the Sentence.” Collected in Life Sentences.
‘How can you tell if somebody’s sad?’A quick smile. ‘You mean whether someone’s sad.’
A smile back, but still earnest: ‘That improves it a lot. Whether someone’s sad, how can you tell so you’re sure?’
Her teeth are not discolored; she gets them cleaned at the dentist all the time for the smoking, a habit she despises. Hal inherited the dental problems from Himself; Himself had horrible dental problems; half his teeth were bridges.
‘You’re not exactly insensitive when it comes to people, Love-o,’ she says.
‘What if you, like, only suspect somebody’s sad. How do you reinforce the suspicion?’
‘Confirm the suspicion?’
‘In your mind.’ Some of the prints in the deep shag he can see are shoes, and some are different, almost like knuckles. His lordotic posture makes him acute and observant about things like carpet-prints.”
“How would I, for my part, confirm a suspicion of sadness in someone, you mean?’
‘Yes. Good. All right.’
‘Well, the person in question may cry, sob, weep, or, in certain cultures, wail, keen, or rend his or her garments.’
Mario nods encouragingly, so the headgear clanks a little. ‘But say in a case where they don’t weep or rend. But you still have a suspicion which they’re sad.’
She uses a hand to rotate the pen in her mouth like a fine cigar. ‘He or she might alternatively sigh, mope, frown, smile halfheartedly, appear downcast, slump, look at the floor more than is appropriate.”
“But what if they don’t?’
‘Well, he or she may act out by seeming distracted, losing enthusiasm for previous interests. The person may present with what appears to be laziness, lethargy, fatigue, sluggishness, a certain passive reluctance to engage you. Torpor.’
‘They may seem unusually subdued, quiet, literally “low.”
—From David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest.
“Literary Composition” by H.P. Lovecraft
(First published in the January, 1920 issue of The United Amateur)
In a former article our readers have been shewn the fundamental sources of literary inspiration, and the leading prerequisites to expression. It remains to furnish hints concerning expression itself; its forms, customs, and technicalities, in order that the young writer may lose nothing of force or charm in presenting his ideas to the public.
A review of the elements of English grammar would be foreign to the purpose of this department. The subject is one taught in all common schools, and may be presumed to be understood by every aspirant to authorship. It is necessary, however, to caution the beginner to keep a reliable grammar and dictionary always beside him, that he may avoid in his compositions the frequent errors which imperceptibly corrupt even the purest ordinary speech. As a general rule, it is well to give close critical scrutiny to all colloquial phrases and expressions of doubtful parsing, as well as to all words and usages which have a strained or unfamiliar sound. The human memory is not to be trusted too far, and most minds harbour a considerable number of slight linguistic faults and inelegancies picked up from random discourse or from the pages of newspapers, magazines, and popular modern books.
Types of Mistakes
Most of the mistakes of young authors, aside from those gross violations of syntax which ordinary education corrects, may perhaps be enumerated as follows.
Of all blunders, there is hardly one which might not be avoided through diligent study of simple textbooks on grammar and rhetoric, intelligent perusal of the best authors, and care and forethought in composition. Almost no excuse exists for their persistent occurrence, since the sources of correction are so numerous and so available. Many of the popular manuals of good English are extremely useful, especially to persons whose reading is not as yet extensive; but such works sometimes err in being too pedantically precise and formal. For correct writing, the cultivation of patience and mental accuracy is essential. Throughout the young author’s period of apprenticeship, he must keep reliable dictionaries and textbooks at his elbow; eschewing as far as possible that hasty extemporaneous manner of writing which is the privilege of more advanced students. He must take no popular usage for granted, nor must he ever hesitate, in case of doubt, to fall back on the authority of his books. Continue reading “H.P. Lovecraft’s Advice to Young Writers”
More from Walt Whitman’s essay “Slang in America”:
Language, be it remember’d, is not an abstract construction of the learn’d, or of dictionary-makers, but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes, of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground. Its final decisions are made by the masses, people nearest the concrete, having most to do with actual land and sea. It impermeates all, the Past as well as the Present, and is the grandest triumph of the human intellect.
From Walt Whitman’s essay “Slang in America,” :
Slang, profoundly consider’d, is the lawless germinal element, below all words and sentences, and behind all poetry, and proves a certain perennial rankness and protestantism in speech. As the United States inherit by far their most precious possession–the language they talk and write–from the Old World, under and out of its feudal institutes, I will allow myself to borrow a simile even of those forms farthest removed from American Democracy. Considering Language then as some mighty potentate, into the majestic audience-hall of the monarch ever enters a personage like one of Shakspere’s clowns, and takes position there, and plays a part even in the stateliest ceremonies. Such is Slang, or indirection, an attempt of common humanity to escape from bald literalism, and express itself illimitably, which in highest walks produces poets and poems, and doubtless in pre-historic times gave the start to, and perfected, the whole immense tangle of the old mythologies. For, curious as it may appear, it is strictly the same impulse-source, the same thing. Slang, too, is the wholesome fermentation or eructation of those processes eternally active in language, by which froth and specks are thrown up, mostly to pass away; though occasionally to settle and permanently chrystallize.
Roy Peter Clark, in his excellent guide to practical writing The Glamour of Grammar, offers the following advice on two of the trickiest homophones in the English language, lie and lay —
Here’s the simplest way to remember the difference: lie means “to recline”; lay means “to place.” As in “I lay the cushions on the floor so I can recline in comfort.” (You can use the vowel sounds as a memory aid: lie/recline; lay/place.)
Confusion sweeps in when we move from the present tense to the past. Alas, the past tense of lie happens to by lay: “When I heard the news, I lay on the bed in disbelief.” And the past tense of lay is laid, as in “The bank robbers laid their weapons on the ground.”
Clark then gives us the following helpful examples that distinguish the principal parts of these tricky irregular verbs —
Lie: Today I lie on the bed. Yesterday I lay on the bed. I have lain on that bed so many times there are holes in the mattress.
Lay: Today I lay my cards on the table. Yesterday I laid my cards on the table. I have laid my cards on the table so many times that I was bound to win.
Significantly, Clark uses lie and lay as part of a larger discussion about how a writer can master irregular verbs. He suggests that learning the principal parts of these verbs and understanding the distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs will help writers to communicate more clearly. (The Glamour of Grammar is a fantastic book, by the way, and would make a vital addition to the libraries of experience and inexperienced writers alike).
So, ready for a quiz? One of our favorite blogs, Ironic Sans, compiled every use and misuse of lay and lie from the first three seasons of Mad Men. You’ll have a moment after hearing a character use or misuse lay or lie to decide if he or she has done so with grammatic fidelity. After that, a graphic (and sound) will let you know if the word has been used correctly. Good luck!
“Honoring the Subjunctive,” a very short story by Lydia Davis, from The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis —
It invariably precedes, even if it do not altogether supersede, the determination of what is absolutely desirable and just.