Grammar makes me cranky

I know I’m not the only writer who lets loose an instant mental groan at the mere sight of grammatical phrases such as “nonrestrictive relative clause,” “pronomial possessive,” and “modal auxiliary.” Grammatical phrases and terms seem to be almost completely rejected by my brain. At their best they convey some convention or concept of usage that is pretty common sense and can therefore be easily grasped in spite of the blurring caused by the rather alien, mind-numbing terminology. At their worst they elicit internal eye rolls at humanity’s uncanny ability to embed so many layers of esotericism in our attempts to communicate with one another. Although my brain prefers practical examples of proper grammar over the rote memorization of grammatical terms and structures, a vocabulary of grammar is, to some extent, necessary for any good writer. This thought, along with some strategic skimming, helped me wade through William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White’s The Elements of Style.

In the foreword to the fiftieth anniversary edition of The Elements of Style Roger Angell wrote, “we are all writers and readers as well as communicators, with the need at times to please and satisfy ourselves…with the clear and almost perfect thought” (Strunk and White, The Elements of Style, xi). Strunk and White offer a good bit to help writers of many sorts enhance the clarity of their writing, yet much of what they offer must be taken with a grain of salt. The line between individual preference and concrete rules is finer than many grammar-lovers are willing to admit. For example, getting professors to agree about the proper use a semicolon is about as easy as getting Republicans and Democrats to agree about healthcare. Some professors will tell you never to use a semicolon. Some have chided me for not using a semicolon instead of an em dash or separating two sentences. Kurt Vonnegut declared: “Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college” (Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country, 23). Strunk and White, on the other hand, encourage the use of semicolons in certain situations (Strunk and White, 6-8). They admit, “the shape of our language is not rigid; in questions of usage we have no lawgiver whose word is final” (Strunk and White, 39). (Note the use of the semicolon.) The larger point I take away from all of this is that writers must learn to distinguish for themselves between rules and conventions and, perhaps most importantly, endeavor to be consistent.

The most useful sections of The Elements of Style are those that contain direct and clear advice for writers. Below are some of my favorite excerpts from Chapter II’s “Elementary Principles of Composition” and Chapter V’s “An Approach to Style.”

  • “Writing, to be effective, must follow closely the thoughts of the writer, but not necessarily in the order in which those thoughts occur…in most cases, planning must be a deliberate prelude to writing.” (15)
  • “[W]hen a sentence is made stronger, it usually becomes shorter. Thus, brevity is a by-product of vigor.” (19)
  • “As the active voice is more concise than the passive, and a positive statement more concise than a negative one.” (24)
  • “Express coordinate ideas in similar form…The likeness of form enables the reader to recognize more readily the likeness of content and function.” (26)
  • “Confusion and ambiguity result when words are badly placed.” (28)
  • “All writers, by the way they use the language, reveal something of their spirits, their habits, their capacities, and their biases.” (67)
  • “The approach to style is by way of plainness, simplicity, orderliness, sincerity.” (69)
  • “Write with nouns and verbs, not with adjectives and adverbs.” (71)
  • “Revising is part of writing.” (72)
  • “Do not overwrite. Rich, ornate prose is hard to digest, generally unwholesome, and sometimes nauseating.” (72)
  • “[S]ince writing is communication, clarity can only be a virtue.” (79)
  • “[T]he one truly reliable shortcut in writing is to choose words that are strong and surefooted to carry readers on their way.” (81)
  • “Style takes it final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of grammar.” (84)

And for that reason, I’ll try to be a bit less cranky about grammar.

A historian’s experiment in creative fiction

For an interdisciplinary seminar I’m taking this semester on the bourgeoisie and the city in the nineteenth century I decided to compose a work of creative fiction as my first paper rather than a traditional research essay. It was probably the first time I’ve written fiction since elementary school. Somehow I thought it would not only be more fun than writing a research essay, but faster as well. I was wrong on the latter point and not entirely right on the former. It took much longer than I expected and actually required a good bit of research beyond the course materials and theoretical approaches we were required to utilize and engage with. For a research essay or book review, I generally write at a rate of about an hour per page. (That is after I’ve completed all of my reading and outlining.) For this work of fiction I’d say I more than doubled the amount of time spent on each page.

Some of this was due to the additional research I conducted in an effort to make the fiction more immersive and hence more believable, but I also wasted a lot of time worrying about whether or not what I was writing was any good. This happens, to a degree, with anything I write. My professors, critics, and colleagues are often in my head as I outline and while I consider how to phrase a particular idea or argument. Eventually, of course, I have to kick them out and follow my instincts. Plus some are just too darn chatty to allow me to get anything done. But I found this process a bit more difficult when writing fictional narrative. As a student of history, I was quite self-conscious about writing fiction. Was I doing it right? Was I committing all kinds of literary sins, the very names of which I would be incapable of comprehending? What, I wondered, would the english-lit folks in class think if they ever read it?

Concerns aside, I was rather surprised to experience that old familiar feeling of satisfaction at having written something that effectively communicated my thoughts–while writing fiction! Who knew? Enter the fun aspect. I remain convinced that what I’ve produced is useful to my goal of understanding the lived experience of a person in a particular historical setting. I’ll leave it up to others to determine whether or not it contains any actual literary value. Posted below for your reading pleasure (or displeasure) is what I concocted.

The Legacy of Maxwell Montclaire

Maxwell Montclaire dressed himself swiftly and quietly. He preferred not to wake the young woman sleeping amid the tangle of sheets in the bed behind him. She breathed steadily and heavily in the dim, humid air, seeming completely at peace in her slumber. Maxwell wondered for a moment at her ability to achieve a deep sleep even in the presence of a virtual stranger. He supposed that somehow, from one night to the next, this woman had accustomed herself to her situation and that it must be her ability to accept whatever circumstances she found herself in at the end of her day that enabled her to enter the tranquil state in which she now rested. He regarded it as a remarkable achievement, but not one that he fully comprehended. Maxwell was a man of little means but much ambition, and he intended to rise in the world. To him, circumstances were a reality to rise above rather than accept and make peace with.

He returned his attention to his dress. As his long, slender fingers worked the buttons of his fine white linen shirt, Maxwell considered the reflection in the mirror before him. In his thick black hair, dark eyes, and aqualine nose Maxwell saw the traces of what the Montclaires had once been and the promise of what he could make them again. His features greatly resembled those of his grandfather, Gerard Montclaire, once a savvy merchant and the proud patriarch of a great family. As he righted his collar and made minute adjustments to his French blue-grey silken cravat, Maxwell called to mind the few clear memories of his grandfather he possessed. They were all quite similar.

In his mind’s eye he saw his grandfather, seated upon a sturdy parlor chair composed of rich, dark mahogany. The chair’s seat and backing were covered in a blood-red brushed velvet. His grandfather leaned intently over a letter desk carved of the same fine mahogany and made entries in an oversized book with a worn leather binding. Now and then he paused, lips moving silently, and dipped his silver-tipped pen into an ornate inkwell wrought in the form of a lion. The carpet at his feet bore ornate Turkish patterns at its borders and seemed as thick and full as moss on a deep forest floor. The heavy smell of cigar smoke, cognac, and furniture polish hung in the air. Nearly all of Maxwell’s memories of his grandfather were set in the old family parlor, yet he could not recall a single instance of his grandfather truly at leisure in the domestic space. There were, to be true, a few sparse memories of his grandfather reading a heavy book in the parlor, his pale white hands gently fingering the luminously gilded edge of a page as he contemplated the text. Maxwell could even recall his grandfather savoring a luxuriant evening meal in the elegant dining room, glass of fragrant dark wine sparkling in his hand under the delicate glow of the crystal chandelier. But it seemed that Gerard Montclaire had always moved with the family firm somewhere in his mind. And although he was only a boy of eight at the time of his grandfather’s death, Maxwell’s memories of the man left him with the strong impression that his grandfather had been a man of the utmost seriousness, dignity, and dedication. Of course, in those days things had been quite different for the Montclaires.

The family had once been held in high regard in their native country. The Montclaires may not have been noblesse ancienne, but they were widely respected throughout France’s tightly-woven circles of commerce and exchange. The exploitation of military conflict was their specialty, and Gerard Montclaire in particular was known for his uncanny ability to predict the route the Montclaire wares would need to take in the event that hostilities erupted. He always seemed to know not only exactly what needed to be ready to move but also when the best time to move it was. He had been just a child during the Napoleonic Wars, but it was said that he cut his teeth in the arms business by selling to the révoltés in the weeks leading up to the Trois Glorieuses. In fact, this was Gerard Montclaire’s first great victory for the family and was celebrated as an assurance that his generation would not merely contribute to the family legacy but build upon it. By the time of the conquest of the Algerian territories, Gerard had ascended to brokering a large share of the nation’s weapons and matériel purchases. His dealings in the Revolutions of 1848 solidified his reputation as a man highly adept at foreign commerce and reliable as a source of essential goods in times of widespread chaos. But it was his timely shipment of guns and ammunition to the Allies on Brassey and Peto’s Grand Crimean Central Railway during the Siege of Sevastopol”s late November starving time that earned him the most fame—as well as record returns.

By then the situation of the family seemed so secure that none of them could imagine a future in which the Montclaires did not continue to rise. Their grand stone estate on the western edge of Le Marais, near Paris’ business district in the deuxième arrondissemont, regularly hosted esteemed guests from every corner of the nation. The family enjoyed sumptuous surroundings, the finest food, the latest fashions, and one of the best wine collections north of Burgundy. Although Maxwell’s father, Bernhard Montclaire, seemed to possess none of Gerard’s commercial savvy or instinctual attunement to the ebb and flow of nationalistic passions, it was assumed Bernhard would eventually find some niche of his own that would enable him to contribute to the Montclaire fortune. Yet, in spite of the many opportunities Gerard found for his son, Bernhard floundered.

Donning his doe brown tweed knee-length frock coat, Maxwell again regarded his visage. His heart quickened and he felt a flash of heat at the recognition of the dissonance between his features and those of his father. Bernhard Montclaire, genealogical aberration, omen of familial misfortune and ruin, had possessed a physicality entirely inconsistent with the Montclaire tradition. He had been a lean, almost gaunt man with thin, featherweight pale brown hair, a nervous temperament, and a delicate stomach. Maxwell’s mind conjured up the image of his father’s small, bluish hands being wrung. Those effete, overrefined hands contorting in discomfort and anxiety symbolized to Maxwell all his father had lacked. Bernhard had inherited none of the great patriarch’s élan vital; he was a disappointment in both appearance and intellect. And when, little more than three years after the triumph of Sevastopol Gerard Montclaire died in a fit of convulsions, young Maxwell beheld in his grandfather’s horrified expression what he now interpreted as the ghastly specter of the family’s future. The loss of grandfather Gerard heralded the ruin of the Montclaires; Bernhard’s desperate efforts to assume his father’s place resulted in the fast and steep decline of the family’s economic and social stock. Maxwell set out on his own as soon as he was able, though the incongruous circumstances of the intervening years significantly affected his psyche.

Maxwell turned back once more to ensure that the young woman slept on and, positioning his felt derby hat in place, moved carefully for the door. It eased open without a sound, leading him to wonder if its hinges were kept well-oiled for the express purpose of enabling silent departures such as his. He pulled his hat down lower on his forehead and made his way down the darkened hall. He averted the eyes of the few women he passed and offered only the briefest of glances to the men. Stepping out onto the street he confronted a host of odors that had yet to reach their peak in the morning air—the sticky ash of burned coal, vegetables rotting in the gutter, dried horse urine mixed with the cypress planks that lined the road, and the fried, salted catfish that constituted the breakfast of so many of the Acadians of the district. The glare of the rising sun struck his eyes sharply as looked up at the skyline of the city of Lafayette. Although it was late June the early hour and a cool breeze moving west off the Vermilion River meant that Maxwell would arrive at his destination without becoming too damp and disheveled. This was good, as appearances mattered a great deal where he was going.

He moved at a leisurely pace, allowing his hands to slip around the front of his coat and into the pockets of his green twill trousers. With slackened arms and relaxed shoulders, Maxwell studied the world around him as he made his way through it. The buildings that lined Pinhook Road consisted primarily of drab single or double-story tenement houses constructed of a combination of cypress, ash, and dogwood. There was little oak to be found in this part of the city. Flapping lines of laundry hung in patches from most of the porches, the dull color of the garments suggesting a grime that belied washing. What few windows there were appeared smoky with dirt. Most of the district’s inhabitants had either already set out for the morning to fish or were just beginning to stir; Maxwell only had to endure one or two harsh stares for his meticulous dress before he turned toward Johnston Street and left the Acadian district behind.

He knew it was perhaps unwise to move through the Cajun French areas of the city adorned as he was in the style of a gentleman, but the recreation was a release from the strictures his ambition imposed upon him. The clothing had taken much time and effort to acquire, but the sort of business he needed to conduct to rise in the world and create a legacy for himself demanded a wardrobe that was every bit as serious as he was. As Maxwell drew nearer to Johnston Street the scenery and atmosphere of the city began to shift. The air grew clearer and fresher. The ground was less marshy, the road tidier. The buildings became larger and taller and although cypress remained the dominant wood, splashes of oak and maple could be seen here and there. The homes were constructed in a consistent manner; many were lacquered with bright white paint. True architecture began to emerge in the form of ordered, decorative facades, rounded porches supported by thick columns, and rounded windows with shining panes of clear glass. Turning onto Johnston Street, even more impressive buildings of brick and stone began to appear. Maxwell’s destination could be seen just two blocks away: a stout rectangular hotel in the colonial style, rising up several stories from the ground. The sight elicited a feeling of relief in Maxwell that swelled the nearer he drew, but it was not until he entered the lobby that his relief gave way to an ease he had only known in childhood.

As he drew the smell of leather, cigar smoke, fresh-cut flowers, and perfume deep into his lungs, Maxwell’s past came up to meet him. In the midst of the hotel’s polished floors, stone columns, bright lights, elegant guests, and luxurious furnishings, he was again a Montclaire. Like his grandfather he was serious, dignified, and dedicated, his mind completely focused on achieving the task at hand. He experienced no anxiety as he glided across the marbled floor of the lobby’s standing area and onto the plush carpet that led to an arrangement of well-upholstered sofas and chairs. He opened his frock coat and seated himself in a rosewood armchair with lightly striped silk padding. Next to him was a lustrous pecan side table with scrolled edges and clawed feet. It was here that he would meet his client and complete the next link in a chain of transactions that would lead him toward redemption. Maxwell possessed the unadulterated commercial and instinctual faculties of his grandfather, and he meant to use them to restore the Montclaires to greatness.

Reflections on the challenges and opportunities of the digital medium

The digital medium presents unique opportunities and challenges for humanists. It offers new methods for research, analysis, and the communication of knowledge and scholarly argument. At the same time, interaction with and utilization of the digital medium and emergent digital technologies compels humanists to reflect critically upon the ways these new methodologies alter, contribute to, or challenge humanist efforts to study and understand the human experience. Hypertextuality calls linear narrative into question while simultaneously proffering literary forms that are more interactive, immersive, and complex. Computing technologies enable the collection of immense data sets, yet require acceptance of and commitment to experimentation and collaboration in order for patterns to be represented in manners both meaningful and accurate. Digital visualizations open new avenues for examining information, structure, and theory but can pose serious problems when equated with interpretation and analysis. The challenges presented by the digital medium should not discourage humanists from actively engaging with the processes of creating and refining new forms of scholarly discovery and expression. A new medium requires the use of new methods and the adaptation of old ones. While the core goals of the humanities are unlikely to change as a result of interaction with the digital environment, methods of research, analysis, and communication should change if humanists are to take full advantage of the opportunities the digital medium offers.

Franco Moretti’s insight into the ways literary historians can utilize visual versions of theoretical structures to expand their focus beyond the interpretation of individual texts has many applications to the digital humanities more broadly. In Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History Moretti does not specifically address the use of visualizations in the digital medium, but the ideas he sets forth are useful to any effort to examine a problem or question in a different light. In fact, most of his ideas are centered upon methodologies that produce new questions. He advocates “distant reading,” a manner of reading that encourages scholars to step back and take a broader view of their subject. Distant reading, Moretti argues, is deliberately reductive and abstract. It represents a “specific form of knowledge” that moves away from individual objects to reveal larger connections among collections of objects (Moretti, 1). Moretti advocates distant reading not as a replacement for the traditional, close reading of texts but rather as a supplement to literary historians’ current methodologies—one that can expand and enrich the discipline by shifting focus away from individual, extraordinary works of literature to “everyday,” ordinary works of literature and large masses of facts (Moretti, 3). He insists that although individual texts are the “real objects of literature…they are not the right objects of knowledge for literary history” because the close reading of individual texts tends to blind scholars to the historical processes and devices that shape literary form over time. Distant reading is therefore a useful way to move beyond the interpretation of individual texts and into analysis of the patterns and general structures that influence the evolution of literary form.

Moretti concentrates on graphs, maps, and trees as examples of visualizations that literary historians can use to examine theoretical structures. But he is careful to note that such visualizations are not models: they display data and can elicit new questions and problems but they are not interpretations of data. Interpretation and analysis must come from the scholar. This point should not be lost on digital humanists attempting to utilize visualizations in their work. The digital medium and digital technologies offer many unique opportunities to represent large amounts of information and examine patterns, and although visualizations can lead to insight they do not constitute insight in and of themselves. In Graphs, Maps, Trees Moretti consistently pairs the visualizations he uses with a written analysis explaining what the visualizations reveal and suggest. The use of visualizations in the digital medium ought to follow a similar pattern, particularly if digital scholarship is to gain recognition and validation. Whether print or digital, the use of visualizations is only justified when it adds something of value that cannot be expressed or represented with the written word. And in the digital medium, visualizations have great potential for offfering meaningful ways to engage reader-users in narrative and in the process of learning.

Moretti refers to graphs, maps, and trees as ways to “prepare a text for analysis,”(Moretti, 53) but visualizations can also open new pathways for individual reader-users to explore ideas, patterns, and arguments. This is particularly true in the digital medium, where visualizations can be made interactive and immersive. The futures of narrative and authorship in the digital are examined by Mereille Rosello in “The Screener’s Maps: Michel de Certeau’s ‘Wandersmänner’ and Paul Auster’s Hypertextual Detective,” Espen Aarseth in Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, and Janet Murray in Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Each author discusses the opportunities they see and the changes they believe will take place as scholars and other authors create and communicate in the digital environment. Visualizations are just one of many tools they mention that can aid narrative and the exposition of argument. Like Moretti, Rosello, Aarseth, and Murray deal primarily with literary theory, but their perspectives are useful for all humanists interested in working in the digital medium. They assert that a willingness to experiment with digital technologies and embrace changes to the form narrative takes is central to the future of the humanities.

Rosello and Murray are particularly insistent upon the need for greater academic willingness to consider the value of narrative in the digital. They dismiss the notion that e-narrative is somehow intrinsically inferior to print narrative, and argue that the form of narrative ought to change if the best possible use is to be made of the digital medium. Different mediums offer different ways of communicating, representing, and interacting with information. If narrative and argument are simply transplanted into the digital medium, with no critical thought given to the impact and potential of the medium for both the creator and the reader-user, no real engagement with the medium has taken place. And if this is the case, why utilize the medium at all? Rosello, Murray, and Aarseth each point to hypertextuality as one of the primary aspects of the Web that offers new opportunities for creativity and experimentation with narrative.

Hypertextuality, also called nonlinearity, enables a different type of interaction with narrative. Contrary to popular assumptions, nonlinearity is nothing new. One can already read a printed book nonlinearly by simply flipping through the pages or skimming through the text. And most books are actually designed to encourage nonlinear reading. They contain tables of contents, chapters, subsections, and indexes—all aimed at helping the reader more easily locate the information they are most interested in. Nonlinearity via hypertext streamlines this process. Digital narrative and argument can be engineered in such a way as to allow individual reader-users to follow aspects of ideas, themes, and evidence that are of particular interest to them. It can also call upon reader-users to be actively involved in the process of reading and learning. In the digital medium visualizations represent just one tool authors can utilize to make narrative and argument more interactive and immersive.

Rosello, Aarseth, and Murray each discuss the potential simulations, games, and multi-user domains (MUDs) hold for drawing reader-users into a story or a set of arguments in ways not possible with the written word alone. Aarseth’s definition of nonlinear literature expresses quite well the primary point behind using different forms of media—and the digital medium in particular—to convey ideas. He writes, “A nonlinear text is an object of verbal communication that is not simply one fixed sequence of letters, words, and sentences but one in which the words or sequence of words may differ from reading to reading because of the shape, conventions, or mechanisms of the text” (Aarseth, 41). In this sense, the digital medium is just one of many different mediums available to authors for the communication of knowledge and scholarly argument. And, as Moretti makes clear, visualizations in the digital present further opportunities for authors and scholars to examine, recognize, and represent patterns—both for their own research and for the interests and engagement of reader-users. The process of creating narrative and argument in the digital environment may be unfamiliar, but the lack of strictures, established conventions, and the freedom to experiment with form and medium has the potential to lead to a great deal of creativity, discovery, and innovation.

The digital medium is quickly changing the scholarly landscape. Humanists need to participate in the process of change and assume an active role in the digital space if they are to influence the outcome of the transformations taking place in the digital age. Interaction with the digital environment for the purposes of scholarship should be undertaken with a willingness to collaborate, experiment, and fail. Change can be jarring, but it need not be disruptive. The goals of the humanities disciplines will undoubtedly remain the same over time, although methods of research, analysis, and communication should change in order for authors and scholars to be able to fully engage with and take advantage of the digital medium. As new forms of narrative are created and new ways of examining information and visualizing patterns emerge, humanists must reflect upon the implications of these developments for the humanist endeavor. Narrative and argument in the digital should be subject to the same level of critical inquiry and academic rigor as all scholarship and scholarly methods, but it is unacceptable to reject new methods and forms simply on the basis of their newness. The challenges posed and opportunities offered by the digital medium must be confronted.

*This essay was written as a reading reflection for a seminar with Professor Will Thomas, HIST 946: Interdisciplinary Readings in the Digital Humanities. The syllabus for this course can be found here.