Dammit Jim, I’m a writer, not a mathematician

Q Geekery, Writing 4 Comments

Writing is subjective.

What’s that mean?  Well, it’s simple really.  Writing changes based on preference, audience, and a whole host of other variables.  It’s not some rigid thing that can be tightly defined within a given set of rules.  2 + 2 does not always equal 4 in the realm of the subjective.

In our High School years, we’re handed books like The Elements of Style or On Writing Well, and told that they are gospel.  Sacred laws which cannot be broken if we are to succeed in communicating to the masses.

Here’s the thing though; the English language is a living, breathing thing.  It grows, it changes, and it likes to be complicated.  For that reason, the stuff you’ll find in those books is not objective science, but opinion.  Oh, those opinions are definitely educated, and a lot of the content includes truly sound advice.  The point is, none of it is sacred or infallible.

Let me ask you a question.  Do you think “fix” or “loan” can be a verb?  Yes?  Well, then you disagree with the venerable Strunk and White.  In fact, I shouldn’t have used “venerable” in the previous sentence either, since all adjectives are evil.

You get the idea.  Stunk, White, and Zinsser all present some solid ideas that one can build upon to grasp writing in the English language.  Be concise and clear.  Do not use extra words.  Use direct and active language.  You get the idea–these are all good things.

However, I like putting “however” at the beginning of a sentence from time to time.  Sometimes being passive is okay.  I think people can fix or loan things, and I don’t like saying “persons.”

I’ve studied English for a long time, and I will continue to do so until some time after my death.  That’s a lot of studying.  What I’ve learned to do is pay attention to more ephemeral things in my writing.  I look at cadence, structure, flow, subtext, word-choice, and a host of other things that are hard to define.  This intrinsic difficulty in definition is exactly why basic education in English tends to avoid teaching them.

It’s really easy to hand someone a book that says all adjectives should be avoided.  It’s pretty damn hard to try to explain, “well, sometimes they’re okay.  You just have to know when and how to use them.  And no, I can’t tell you every case in which you should or should not use an adjective, so good luck.”

Why compile these thoughts in the form of a blog post?  Well, because I think it’s important to keep the fluid nature of writing in mind.  I think too many people forget that.  So, the next time to pass judgement on a piece of writing that includes some words ending in “ly,” try to figure out WHY they are there, rather than assuming it’s bad juju.

I, in all of my pretentious writerhood, have spoken.  Make of it what you will, and go read something!

Comments 4

  1. Quinton – you make some good points here. I find myself reteaching students daily who have learned outdated grammar rules. Many of them are nineteen years old (thus their high school teachers were still passing on antiquated grammar rules)! All teachers and writers need to continue studying the ever-changing English language.

  2. I’m glad I went to a poorly funded public school, and learned to write based on what I like to read, rather than the rules of stodgy old rule makers. And screw E.B. White for making me cry every time I get to the part in “Charlotte’s Web” where Wilbur names the 3 spiders who were too small to fly away. Makes me cry even thinking about it. Damn it. Here I go again…

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