A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Pen & Prose

Putting a good pen to responsive paper makes ideas come. The pleasure of the nib dragging; the sight of regular black marks appearing out of nowhere, row upon row; and the magic thing that happens in the head when 4 or 5 or 6 of those black marks make a mental picture of things or relations--all of these support a visceral craving for the process to continue and they bestir the brain to make this happen.

The magic gets even more incredible as you age because whole letters in words can (and unfortunately do) disappear into hyperspace as you write. But, despite this, the pictures in the mind generally remain the same. Real ink, smoothly flowing and richly sustaining in its satisfying blackness of thin stroke next to thick, has what they call in wine-tasting mouth-feel, only a better term would be mind-feel.

So let's see what comes out of my calligraphy nib today.

I think the difference between being a writer and merely being someone who writes is an emotional relation to prose periods. Does anyone even use that word anymore to describe the components of a sentence rather than merely for the little dot at the end? A writer strives not only to make the words mean what he wants to say, but also to make the sentences fit the shape and speed of his mind like a well made suit of clothes fits the body. We call this prose style.

My mind, I think, is slower than some, shrewder than many, and chronically self-reflective. It needs space and a stately pace. Which is why any who read this blog regularly should expect a style with long running sentences, of many phrases and clauses, and constant parenthetical remarks to develop the premises of my thought. These are then contrasted with short, simple, and biting declarative sentences to hammer home the conclusions.

I know this makes for a prose not to everyone's taste, since it requires to be read with concentration to be understood. But, then, my premises and conclusions are not to everyone's taste, either.

In my random junk drawer of more than 45 years of extensive reading, I once came across the remark that English doesn't have grammar, it has manners. That may be slightly exaggerated, but, in some sense, it is profoundly true. English is more than the sum of its grammatical parts. Conventions of grammar and usage in English are a particularly arbitrary imposition on a language which is not only living, but rather prone to wild living, fast living, and high living.

Sometimes, to make the sense you need to make in the way you need to make it, you have to return grammar and usage conventions suddenly and without notice. The sentence fragment, the comma splice, the split infinitive, the starting of a sentence with a conjunction, the (very occasional) rude, salty, and vulgar word, and the extension of the meaning of a word beyond its dictionary definition or its derivation, are all resources to be used, with discretion, as long as you preserve good English manners. Of course, we can't tell the schoolchildren this, but when they are out of earshot, we can admit it to ourselves.

The longer sentences necessary for the fit to the peculiar shape of my mind require a more antique punctuation than contemporary style manuals encourage--far more commas to differentiate distinct segments of thought, as well as more liberal use of parenthesis and em-dash.

Finding effective punctuation is one of my greatest writing challenges, which I sometimes do not wholly meet. The difference, for example, in choosing to use the semi-colon in the first paragraph above, and to avoid it for commas two paragraphs back, is superficially inconsistent, but expresses a need to keep the two different lists of things stylistically distinct, with the first list requiring more definite separation of the members than the second.

Also, for the sake of blogging, which is a pioneering virtual prose form where on-screen reading is distinctly more difficult than in the hard copy forms of book or magazine, a different approach to paragraph breaks, closer to newspaper style than book style, is required for maximum clarity. This is particularly true for a style like mine.

Conventionally, paragraphs are supposed to delineate complete thoughts, no matter how long a block of text this requires or how many different aspects of the same thought are being explored.

But, onscreen, such a long and heavy basket weave of text makes very difficult reading, which, as a reader, I find destructive to comprehension; and the scrolling function is no substitute for the ease of re-reading in books or periodicals where the pages move but the paragraphs don't.

Consequently, I insert paragraph breaks liberally almost anywhere that significant variation in the focus of the thought can excuse them.

In a like manner, I find one of the most useful functions in my blog engine is the electronic fold for most posts further down the blogroll. It saves the reader's time in scrolling and presents the very worthy writing challenge of making enough sense on the front end of an essay so the reader can discern, without having to be told, that it continues below the fold, as well as provide enough information to make an intelligent decision whether or not to continue reading. Of course, I don't always meet these challenges either.

But challenges you are not sure of being up to are one of the things that make writing fun. And if it's not fun, why do it?

Finally, there is the matter of gender and number of indefinite personal pronouns. This is, of course, a political correctness minefield. When I write a sentence such as the one above:

...not only to make the words mean what he wants to say, but also to make the sentences fit the shape of his mind...

I am taking a calculated risk that my reader will know, in context, that I am largely, though not exclusively, talking about me, and I use the masculine gender because it is my gender. Thus he or she will not be offended.

The entire issue is one of the most delicate and difficult in the prose graces of contemporary English. Giving offense when you don't intend to is a major breach of manners, thus political correctness, whatever its abstract merits, has a reasonable claim here.

But most of the alternatives are equally suspect as breaches of mannerly prose. Use of the pronoun "one" more than once in a sentence has a pedantic, snobbish, pseudo-British sound. "He/she", or sometimes "he/she/it" is a barbaric American violation of the relations of spoken English to written English. For the only sensible pronunciations of he/she/it, given English vowel length and vowel color, would be "heesheet" in America, "hishit" in Britain, and "heeSHEit" in pretentious American academese, the pronunciation generally favored by the most extreme partisans of political correctness.

"He or she" is also not a politically correct alternative which wears well over the long haul. With the ghost of spoken language always in the ear when the pictures of written language are in the mind, overusing "he or she" makes the writer sound like a braying donkey: heORshe, heORshe, heORshe...

Thus the only sensible and mannerly alternative to meet the problem that I can see is to sacrifice number to gender, substituting the vagueness of number of "you" (since we no longer use "thou" and, if we had it available, we would use the "familiar" form of "thou" in most such contexts) or the inconsistency of number agreement created using "they". Thus:

...not only to make the words mean what you want to say, but also to make the sentences fit the shape of your mind...


...not only to make the words mean what they want to say, but also to make the sentences fit the shape of their mind...

Not the best of choices, but the ones, I think, which are the best mannered.

One thing is certain. I feel very lucky to read and write English, for all its challenges and difficulties, and to see English prose emerge so flowingly for me from my fountain pen.

I hope that he, she, it, one, you, and they do too.


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