Tuesday, July 29, 2014

How to improve writing (no. 50)

From Jim Elledge’s Henry Darger, Throwaway Boy (New York: Overlook Press, 2013), a biography of the outsider artist and writer Henry Darger:

My copyeditor, [redacted ], has sharp eyes and caught an embarrassing amount of mistakes — all mine — and my thanks go out to her.
That should be number, not amount. Garner’s Modern American Usage explains the difference:
The first is used with mass nouns, the second with count nouns. Thus we say “an increase in the amount of litigation” but “an increase in the number of lawsuits.” But writers frequently bungle the distinction.
I wondered briefly whether the sentence I’ve quoted is meant as a joke. I don’t think so, because the writing in Throwaway Boy is too often careless and ungainly:
[M]aking mistakes in the three R’s or breaking classroom rules weren’t his only, and not even his major, problem.

Many smaller, yet devastating, [fires] broke out every week in residential neighborhoods all over Chicago because of someone’s carelessness with the wood stoves on which everyone in those days cooked and heated their homes.
Homes — or houses and apartments — must have been smaller then. A better way to say what this sentence wants to say, avoiding its silliness and reducing the number of prepositional phrases:
Smaller but still devastating residential fires were frequent in Chicago, often caused by carelessness around the wood stoves used for cooking and heating.
Carelessness around the wood stoves used for cooking and heating led to small but devastating fires in Chicago neighborhoods.
Elledge’s picture of Henry Darger as a throwaway boy, abandoned to institutions and fending for himself in horrific circumstances, is well-researched and persuasive. Elledge’s claims about Darger’s sexuality are less persuasive, partly because Elledge too often treats speculation as fact. Throwaway Boy engages its reader despite its author’s insistence, and despite its too often careless writing.

Related reading
All OCA How to improve writing posts (Pinboard)
Henry Darger and Vivian Maier

[Why omit the copyeditor’s name? I don’t think a copyeditor can be held responsible for mistakes in a writer’s prose. This post is no. 50 in a series, “How to improve writing,” dedicated to improving stray bits of public prose.]

comments: 4

Stefan said...

Your (and Mr. Garner's) explanation of the amount/number distinction made me think of Rand Paul's recent comment about voting rights: "I want to be known as a Republican who got more people to vote, not less."

Michael Leddy said...

Elaine and I have developed the unfortunate habit of saying “Fewer” in unison every time we hear this mistake on the news.

I will avoid all wisecracks about Rand Paul getting people out to vote — for the other side.

The Arthurian said...

Michael, I thought of your blog when I read this from economist David Glasner the other day.

Michael Leddy said...

Wow. We all make mistakes (I misspelled “Foucauldian” in a post a few days ago, and it took me more than a day to catch it), but Wow.