Fake Rules

Mary Ann de Stefano has an article in the current issue of The Florida Writer entitled “Fake Rules and What Really Matters”.  She begins by saying, “Many of those so-called grammar and punctuation rules that people are pushing in online forums are not really rules at all. (No matter what your high school English teacher told you.)”  The article is light-hearted and I quote from it here.

Ms de Stefano is an independent editor with over 30 years of experience in publishing and consulting.  She works one-on-one with writers, organises writing workshops and designs author websites.

Mary Ann de Stefano

“If writers are not debating about the serial comma and the number of spaces after a period in online discussions, they’re often railing against the use of the ‘singular they’ in modern usage.  (The serial comma is a comma placed before a conjunction – usually ‘and’ or ‘or’ – in a list of three or more items.  For my part, I use serial commas and two spaces after the end of a sentence, although my publisher doesn’t approve of the latter.)  Critics say that ‘Somebody used the milk and they didn’t put it back in the refrigerator’, should be written, they say, as, ‘Somebody used the milk and he or she didn’t put it back in the refrigerator.’  The former construction, they say – even though it is less awkward and perfectly understandable – is evidence of a decline in our educational system.  But the fact is that the singular they has been used for hundreds of years by the likes of Chaucer, Lewis Carroll, Walt Whitman, Shakespeare, Jane Austin, Oscar Wilde, and many more famous authors.  You may not like the singular they, but it is not wrong to use it, except, perhaps, in formal writing.

“Another tenaciously fake rule is the one about not ending a sentence with a preposition.  Following the fake rule can often result in sentences that are stilted or awkward.  There is no rule which compels you to write: ‘She asked him from where he had come’, rather than the more natural ‘She asked him where he had come from’.  Feel free to end a sentence with a preposition; famous writers have been doing it for hundreds of years.”

This discussion reminds me of a joke I like.  A shabbily dressed red neck is visiting the Harvard University campus, and he stops a distinguished, well-dressed professor to ask. ‘Where is the library at?’  To this the professor responds, ‘Don’t you know, my good man, not to end a sentence with a preposition?”  And the red neck says, ‘Oh, sorry.  Where is the library at, idiot?’

Ms de Stefano continues: “While you’re at it, split an infinitive and start a sentence or two with a conjunction.  But don’t just do it to thumb your nose at the prescriptivists.  Do it thoughtfully and for a reason. (A split infinitive is the insertion of an adverb or an adverbial phrase between ‘to’ and the verb: for example ‘to quickly go’.  Wikipedia says: “The construction is to some extent still the subject of disagreement but modern English usage guides have dropped the objection to it.”

Ms de Stefano concludes: “Perhaps the desire to lean on the rules is an attempt to grasp into certainty within a process – writing – that is inherently uncertain.  But here’s what really matters: Great writing doesn’t happen just because what you’re doing what is ‘correct’.  Great writing happens because you’re being very conscious and deliberate about the choices you’re making as a writer and how those choices will affect your reader.  I think, perhaps, we talk too much about the rules, about correctness, and to little about style and artistic expression.  Learn the rules, yes.  But also think about how employing them or breaking them might affect the clarity, grace, pacing, tone, voice and meaning in your writing.”

 

Review: Fire and Fury

I have to admit that I bought a copy of Fire and Fury inside the Trump White House.  I’m not  a Trump fan and I wanted to see how bad it really is.  The book is written by Michael Wolff, based on over two hundred interviews and and two hundred days in the White House, ending with the appointment of General John Kelly as chief of staff and the departure of Steve Bannon..  Mr Wolff claims that he had the agreement of the President to be a sort of fly on the wall, beginning during the campaign, though the President has denied ever speaking to Wolff.

Michael Wolff does not have a gold-plated reputation as a journalist.  The Independent said : “He became well-known for writing that explored the lives of the rich and powerful, often written with colourful and bombastic language. His New York Magazine column, “This Media Life”, explored a world of which he was very much a part – he has surfaced periodically in the New York Post’s Page Six, a gossip hub for the city. . . While he achieved prominence and visibility with his work, Mr Wolff is not necessarily beloved by his compatriots in the media world. And he has embraced that, as shown by a past book featuring blurbs that excoriated him as toxic. “Far less circumspect – and sometimes more vicious – than the other journalists,” The New York Times is quoted as saying. “Possibly the bitchiest media bigfoot writing today,” suggested The New Republic.  “This Wolff excerpt (the book) has a 500-word-long chunk of recreated verbatim dialogue between Bannon and Ailes,” The New York Time’s Nick Confessore wrote. “Come on”.  But it turns out that Wolff hosted the dinner for six at this Manhattan town house.  “I was one of the 6 guests at the Bannon-Ailes dinner party in January 2017 and every word I’ve seen from the book about it is absolutely accurate. It was an astonishing night,” Janice Min said.”

Michael Wolff

The reader has to decide for herself whether every word in the book is the unvarnished truth.  There are relatively few direct quotations from named individuals.  Further, there are almost no kind words for anyone in the book: can everyone in the White House be that bad?  However, the preponderance of hear-say evidence in the book points overwhelmingly to the President’s short-comings in the vital learn-analyse-act-review cycle that leaders must master to be fully effective.  In particular, the Learn and Analyse stages are almost void.  He does not read memoranda longer than two pages (and those, reluctantly).  His preferred style of information gathering is watching television and speaking on the telephone with friends.  Reportedly, he has an aversion to ‘experts’, and tends to be swayed by the last person he spoke with on the subject.  Analysis is also a weakness (though to put it in context, perhaps Obama sometimes seemed to engage in analysis-paralysis), as numerous examples were cited of the President referring decisions to others.  Act, unlike Obama, is one of Trump’s strengths (though this is not mentioned in the book); one has to only count the record number of presidential orders that he has signed.  And, as to Review, no examples are given but, in fairness, it may be too early to review many of the actions taken.  Overall, one has the impression of a man with an enormous, but very fragile ego.

If one has been reading the daily newspapers and watching the evening news, there isn’t much in the way of surprises in this book.  However, until reading it, I did not appreciate the extent to which Trump did not expect to win (nor did he want to win) the 2016 election.   The win he wanted was all the publicity with no follow-on consequences.

Man Booker Protest

Today’s Daily Telegraph has an article captioned Man Booker rule change has lost us sales , say publishes, and the caption reads: US dominance has hit Commonwealth writers who are falling off shortlists.  

Not that my opinion had an iota of influence, I was opposed to the rule change in 2014, which opened the prize to writers from any nationality, who publish in English, on the basis that there are a large number of US literary prizes, so there was no need to open another prize to American writers.  I also felt that the Man Booker was a unique prize open to Commonwealth authors.  Finally, given the quirky judging standards of the Man Booker Prize Committer (see my most recent post), it seemed inappropriate to me that the Booker should be positioning itself as the top global prize in English literature.

Now the publishers have weighed in with their own arguments regarding the effect of the rule change on the volume of books sold, and, by extension, on their bottom lines.

“About 30 publishers are understood to have signed a letter urging the trustees to the Booker Prize Foundation to reverse the decision, saying the change risked creating ‘a homogenised literary future’ dominated by American culture.  ‘The rule change, which presumably had the intention of making the prize more global, has in fact made it less so by allowing the dominance of Anglo-American writers at the expense of others; it risks turning the prize, once a brilliant mechanism for bringing the world’s English-language writers to the attention of the world’s biggest English-language market, into one that is no longer serving the readers in that market’ it says.

“It claims that diversity of the prize has been ‘significantly reduced’, noting that this year’s shortlist consists of three Americans, two Britons, and one British-Pakistani as opposed to 2013’s shortlist which featured a New Zealander, a Zimbabwean, an Irishman, an American-Canadian and a British-American. ‘We already live in a world that is dominated by American culture’, the letter says. ‘The Man Booker Prize was one significant way to allow other voices to be heard.’

“Johnny Geller, of the Curtis Brown literary agency, said the letter was ‘a long time coming’ and that ‘widening the entry requirements to include US writers has resulted in weakened sales on both sides of the Atlantic’.

“Denying that diversity had been reduced, the Booker foundation said the rule change was not created specifically to included US writers but to allow entries from authors of any nationality, regardless of geography.”

Clearly, the rule change has reduced diversity, and one is prompted to ask why the rule change was felt to be necessary: was it to raise the profile of the foundation at the expense of sacrificing its unique position?

The point about the impact on sales is interesting, and the article does not mention whether it was addressed in the foundation’s response.  Presumably, the cause of this sales decline is that Man Booker prize recognition does little to increase the sales of winning American authors: they already have recognition through other awards and bestseller lists.  But, non-recognition of Commonwealth authors impacts their sales on both sides of the Atlantic.

It will be interesting to see how much power the publishers have in this situation!