Monday, July 14, 2003


I just read Jacques Barzun's book Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers. It's in the Strunk & White tradition, and is generally delightful, if a bit tedious to read in one or two sittings. Some of my favorite passages:
pp. 59-60. I need not add that the allowable split of the infinitive is limited to inserting one word, and the shortest possible. Anyone who writes: "They wanted to, in a manner of speaking, eat their cake and have it too" is virtually deaf and blind to language and requires severe clinical treatment.
pp. 126-27. [T]he tone of courtesy, ever important, is often destroyed by usages copied from snappy journalism. The worst of these is the turning of descriptions into titles . . . , which are then stuck on to proper names. Thus it is widely believed that to write "Author Hemingway" is as legitimate as to write "Bishop Butler"; but that is not true. Certain names of occupations have become titles because the public duties attached affect society at large and must command certain kinds of response -- hence Doctor, Bishop, General, Senator, etc. But most employments do not carry such implications and it is uncivil to reduce a private person to what he may happen to be doing for a living: "Assistant Town Clerk Mary Jones was married yesterday at noon to piccolo-player L.C. Robinson." This is the tone of bureacratic regimentation, whether intended or not. If designations are needed, let them qualify the name, not box in the person: "Mary Jones, the attractive chief assistant to the Town Clerk, and L.C. Robinson, the well-loved piccolo player in the town band, were married yesterday . . . ." This gives her a chance to study medicine and him to take up the guitar.
p. 164. On the form accompanying a project submitted for a research grant, the scientist referee found a question that asked him: "How would you rate your estimate of its originality?" The answer he put down was: "My estimate is excellent; its originality is nil."


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