Saturday, July 07, 2007

Richard Mitchell

I've just discovered -- and heartily recommend -- the scathingly witty works of Richard Mitchell, also known as the Underground Grammarian. (That first link has pretty much all his writings available for free). In the words of Time magazine, Mitchell "makes H.L. Mencken sound like a waffler." He wrote a newsletter and several books that took square aim at facile and unclear language -- and hence at facile and unclear thinking. Here's a typical example from an interview:
I can give a very convenient example of that because it was terribly striking to me at the time. This was already many years ago, and I was working on a commentary on a piece by some very silly boob, a professor of some kind of education. . . and he had written the following sentence: "The childhood years may be perceived as formulative."

Now I suppose he meant "formative," unless he was thinking of babies, you know, sucking on formula; I don't know, but probably he meant formative and that may even have been a typo, and it's not important, so I'm willing to concede him formative. Now he says then, "The childhood years may be perceived as being formative." Now, one would not think that there is a grammatical problem here, and unless one is paying a certain kind of attention to it, you go right by, but I was for some reason trapped by that modal auxiliary "may."

In the first place, what is the man saying, that we are formed in early childhood in some way? Well, that is not exactly a revolutionary notion. That, as a matter of fact, is a little bit too obvious to bother saying. Now that being so, having said such a banal and obvious thing, why does the man take great pains to say it as though he really hadn't said it?

Notice he doesn't say the childhood years are formative--they may, but it isn't even that they may be formative--they "may be perceived as being." He moves this perception away from himself.

It's almost as though he fears that later on someone will discover that they're not, and he can then say, Well, I didn't say they were, I said "they may be perceived as being formative." There is in this . . ., well, there is nothing else to call it -- mendacity.

Yes, this is a way of lying, and this is a way of doing another thing that seems to me very important in all considerations of literacy. This is another way of shrugging off responsibility.

When you and I speak to one another, of course, we take some responsibility, but when we write to one another, especially when we write in general to our fellows, we take on a tremendous responsibility, and if I write an article that I expect you to read, in effect I say, "Now just a minute, you sit down, don't do anything except listen to me; I am going to tell you something."

This is audacious; nevertheless, we do it all the time, and we must never forget its audacity because when I do ask that of you, I also now owe you something. I owe you, first of all, the best truth that I can tell you; I owe you also the courage out of which to tell it.

I do not really serve you properly when I give you mealy-mouthed mendacity, and when I myself try to evade responsibility even for the mildest of generalizations. It seems to me here there was an inescapable moral quality.


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