Sunday, March 22, 2015

Geoffrey Pullum on On Writing Well

Geoffrey Pullum has a new target: William Zinsser’s On Writing Well. Pullum writes about the book in a Language Log post, “Awful book, so I bought it.” His complaints concern Zinsser’s advice about verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. Pullum charges Zinsser with “passivophobia” and gleefully points out Zinsser’s use of adverbs and adjectives, the very words, Pullum says, that Zinsser dismisses as mostly unnecessary:

It’s the old story of do as I say, not as I do. You and I are told that we won’t be good writers unless our adjective and adverb count is close to zero, but Zinsser is a professional so he doesn’t have to worry: he can use them at will, sometimes two out of every five words, without incurring criticism.

On Writing Well does recommend the active voice: “The difference between an active-verb style and a passive-verb style — in clarity and vigor — is the difference between life and death for a writer.” Writing about student essays, Pullum has said much the same thing:
Certainly, reading an unbroken procession of agentless passives that could have been actives is like being hit on the head over and over again with a mallet labeled “I REFUSE TO TELL YOU WHO THE RESPONSIBLE PARTY IS.” And it’s boring! Theories will be discussed; grammars will be compared; aspects will be assessed; problems will be analysed — beam me up, Scotty! There is only one form of sentence construction down here!
The only difference between Zinsser and Pullum: Pullum says the problem with the student essay is not the passive voice but “the writer’s tin ear.” But what makes it possible to accuse that writer of having a tin ear? I think it would be that writer’s overreliance on the passive voice.

Pullum has made the no-adverbs, no-adjectives charge against The Elements of Style as well. With Zinsser, as with Strunk and White, the charge is absurd, and it relies on selective quoting that wouldn’t pass muster in a freshman composition class. Pullum quotes Zinsser as saying that “Most adverbs are unnecessary” and that “Most adjectives are also unnecessary.” Let’s look though at more of what Zinsser says. About adverbs:
Most adverbs are unnecessary. You will clutter your sentence and annoy the reader if you choose a verb that has a specific meaning and then add an adverb that carries the same meaning. Don’t tell us that the radio blared loudly; “blare” connotes loudness. Don’t write that someone clenched his teeth tightly; there's no other way to clench teeth.
And about adjectives:
Most adjectives are also unnecessary. Like adverbs, they are sprinkled into sentences by writers who don’t stop to think that the concept is already in the noun. This kind of prose is littered with precipitous cliffs and lacy spiderwebs, or with adjectives denoting the color of an object whose color is well known: yellow daffodils and brownish dirt. If you want to make a value judgment about daffodils, choose an adjective like “garish.” If you're in a part of the country where the dirt is red, feel free to mention the red dirt. Those adjectives would do a job that the noun alone wouldn’t be doing.

Most writers sow adjectives almost unconsciously into the soil of their prose to make it more lush and pretty, and the sentences become longer and longer as they fill up with stately elms and frisky kittens and hard-bitten detectives and sleepy lagoons. This is adjective-by-habit — a habit you should get rid of. Not every oak has to be gnarled.
William Zinsser never suggests that a writer aspire to adjective- and adverb-free prose. And what On Writing Well offers is not “mendacious drivel about passives and modifiers” but sound advice about lifeless sentences and dopey overwriting. But you wouldn’t know that if you were to trust Geoffrey Pullum.

Related posts
Pullum on Strunk and White
More on Pullum, Strunk, White
Hardly (adverb) convincing (adjective)

[“Not every oak has to be gnarled”: what a delightful sentence.]

comments: 3

The Crow said...

(Micheal wrote: [“Not every oak has to be gnarled”: what a delightful sentence.])

Delightful sentence, indeed. :)

I immediately thought of my red oak in the back yard. It's about eighty years old and still reaching for the sky. I wondered how old it has to become before it will be gnarled?

Michael Leddy said...

That oak’s parents must have told it to avoid clichés. :)

Diane Schirf said...

I once opened a Stephen King novel to find a weasel gnawing on something. "No, no, no!" I said. "Mustelids don't gnaw! Rodents gnaw!" You must get the basics like verbs right as well. :)