Tuesday, July 24, 2007

More Richard Mitchell

From Richard Mitchell's Less Than Words Can Say.
Here is a most appropriate example of naming disguised as telling. These are the unconsciously ironic words of some people who imagine that they are going to do something about the writing skills of schoolchildren:
It is necessary that schools and school districts emphasize the importance of imparting to students the skills and attitudes which are the underpinnings of a comfortable, confident, successful producer of all forms of written matter, including prose, poetry, and practical narrative and descriptive and interrogatory writing (e.g., letters, applications, requests for information, reports, etc.).
This, after many months of deliberation, was one of the most important conclusions of an advisory committee of experts on reading and writing. They have, in effect, decided that the schools should teach the students how to write. The elevator man, of course, could have told you that. If you don’t have an elevator, you could have gotten the same information from the taxi driver or the man who reads the meter. This is by no means to denigrate the achievement of the committee; what has always been perfectly obvious to all the rest of us actually is a tremendous breakthrough for educators, and they are much to be congratulated for having so largely transcended their training. However, they have still a little more transcending to do. * * *

Prose that clouds responsibility also diminishes humanity. When Churchill said, “We shall fight on the beaches,” his grammar said for him, and to all of us who share that grammar: “I, a man, speak these words out of the thoughts of my mind, and I mean them.” * * * The writer of our passage would probably have said: “It may become necessary that we emphasize the importance of imparting to ourselves the skills and attitudes which are the necessary underpinnings of successful engagers in all forms of combat on the beaches.” Englishmen are plucky, but not that plucky. After such words they would simply have surrendered.

Naming without telling is equally an evasion of responsibility. We can talk about components, elements, factors, sets, subsets, translations, and transformations only because we do not expect to be called to account for our words. The more of these words we use, the better we can bewilder the reader or even bamboozle him into the conviction that we must know what we are talking about, thus putting off, perhaps forever, the day of reckoning.

Notice how that happens in the passage just cited. What should the schools—and the school districts—actually do? They should emphasize. That’s what it says—that’s the verb that goes with the schools and the school districts. And what should they emphasize? They should emphasize importance. Importance? What importance should they emphasize? They should emphasize the importance of imparting! Can we ask “imparting what?”? No, not yet. First we must ask “imparting to whom?” So we ask it. We are answered that they should emphasize the importance of imparting to students. Ah! All of a sudden some human beings appear. Unfortunately, however, they will turn out to be superfluous, because there just isn’t anyone around in the schools and school districts except students to whom to do that imparting whose importance is to be emphasized. So we go on. Now we can ask “imparting what?” Imparting skills and attitudes, of course. What skills and attitudes? Skills and attitudes which are underpinnings, naturally. Underpinnings of a producer. What else did you expect? What kind of a producer? A comfortable, confident, successful producer. And so on. The thirty-fourth and thirty-fifth words of this sentence are “written matter.”

Someone here has taken great pains not to say something. Even “writing” is avoided. We hear, instead, about “written matter,” which presumably includes clay tablets and the “Hot” and “Cold” labels on faucets.



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