Writing and Inversion

Executive summary: The “voice” of a transitive verb may be active or passive. A piece of writing may be vigorous or torpid. There is not an exact correspondence between passive verbs and torpid writing. However, a passive verb is used to effect inversion of subject and object. One may also invert subject and auxiliary verb, subject and predicate, or two clauses, always adding new words. Each inversion may lead to torpid writing. This is what Strunk warned about in The Elements of Style, by issuing the command, “Use the active voice.” The command must be followed with discretion. Williams makes the same case, more elaborately, in Style: Towards Clarity and Grace. There is no foolproof executive summary of how to write well.


When E. B. White revised William Strunk’s original Elements of Style, he did not retain Strunk’s “Introductory,” whose first paragraph said of the book,

The experience of its writer has been that once past the essentials, students profit most by individual instruction based on the problems of their own work, and that each instructor has his own body of theory, which he may prefer to that offered by any textbook.

Perhaps many students today cannot receive individual instruction. They are just given textbooks that try to spell out everything. I have sensed this in mathematics, where new calculus books seem a lot bigger than those of 1950 and earlier. The trend may not be for the good. Just possibly, the students who need to see all details will also be the ones most daunted by large books.

On the subject of English style, William Strunk’s “little book” of 1920 was 53 pages; E. B. White’s 1959 revision and expansion was 71 pages. The 1990 book Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph R. Williams (University of Chicago Press), weighs in at 208 pages, including a six-page index. Geoffrey Pullum recommended this book somewhere, since he didn’t like Strunk and White.

Strunk’s Elements of Style was written for students at Cornell University, a hundred years ago. Perhaps those students constituted a self-confident elite, while Joseph William’s book is more democratic. On the other hand, Cornell admitted its first women in 1870, having opened in 1868; at the inauguration, Ezra Cornell said,

I believe we have made the beginning of an institution which will prove highly beneficial to the poor young men and the poor young women of our country.

In any case, for Chapters 5 and 6 (out of ten) of Style, Williams has coauthor Gregory G. Colomb, and the two of them write in the Preface of the whole book,

We have seen hundreds of students experience relief from doubts about their own competence when they realize that if they are unable to understand an article or monograph, it is not necessarily because they are incompetent, but because its author couldn’t write clearly. That liberation is a valuable experience.

Indeed, what one reads is not the Word of God; at least, a priori, it has no more reason than anything else to be the Word of God. This is one reason why the freshwomen and -men in my mathematics department read at least the first book of Euclid’s Elements. We may think today that we can improve on Euclid; our students then have the chance to decide for themselves whether this is true. Perhaps every mathematician whose work we teach today read Euclid.

Before reading Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, I might have agreed with the “Many teachers and editors,” who, according to Williams and Colomb,

are certain that to write well, we must first read and absorb the style of the best prose writers. Then when writing, we first think through the problem at hand to understand our point clearly, then write sincerely, as if we were talking to a good friend about a serious subject.

As Williams and Colomb allow, “No doubt, many good writers have learned to write that way”; nonetheless,

we have worked with legions of writers who were thoughtful, sincere, well-intentioned, and very well-read, yet could not write a clear, much less graceful, paragraph. We have also worked with legions of editors, teachers, and supervisors who have endlessly urged writers to be sincere, thoughtful, committed, etc., and have found that it did little good.

One might argue that being properly well-read includes absorbing so well what one reads that one can also write as well as the authors one reads. Maybe this is like saying that being “well-listened” includes being able to play for oneself the music that one has listened to. Somebody like Mozart could meet this standard.

Maugham says somewhere (it is near the end of the 1935 Preface to The Gentleman in the Parlour, which I have in a 2001 Vintage edition),

there is no language more difficult to write than English.

In his first chapter, Williams gives an historical basis for such an assertion. First, owing to the Norman Conquest of 1066,

the foundations were laid for a two-tiered vocabulary: one consisting of words common to daily life, the other of words having more special application.

Sadly, Williams gives no examples. I supply one myself: instead of the English “calf” for the young animal, the French “veal” came to be used for the meat of this animal. Then came the Renaissance:

In the sixteenth century, as England was increasingly influenced by classical writers, scholars began translating into English large numbers of Greek and Latin texts. But as one early writer put it “there ys many wordes in Latyn that we have no propre Englysh accordynge thereto,” and so translators simply “Englished” foreign words…

One might think, from Williams’s manner, that “translate” itself was one of the “Englished” foreign words; but according to the Oxford English Dictionary, its earliest use in English dates to the year 1300. The 1388 General Prologue of the Wycliffe Bible used “English” as a verb; but only in the nineteenth century was the verb was used to mean giving an English form to a foreign word like “liqueur.” This must be the sense in which Williams uses “English”; however, he suggests no actual example of a word Englished in the Renaissance. He does rewrite one of his own paragraphs as it would have been without both Norman and Renaissance influence. He observes generally,

As societies become intellectually mature, it has been claimed, their writers seem increasingly to replace specific verbs with abstract nouns.

If there is such a tendency, we should try to counteract it; but this is hard, “when we are writing about matters that we do not entirely understand, for readers who do.”

Evidently this is the situation of students; they are supposed to write like the technical experts whose works they study. Williams describes somebody with a doctorate in anthropology and several publications:

[S]he became bored with anthropology and went to law school, where during the first few months she thought she was developing a degenerative brain disorder: she could no longer write clear, concise English prose.

Being in a new field, she was only suffering “cognitive overload.” Good to know.

Writing in 1990 or earlier, without giving a source, Williams quotes Mencken from “about fifty years ago”:

With precious few exceptions, all the books on style in English are by writers quite unable to write.

I say that E. B. White’s revision of Strunk’s work is an exception to Mencken’s rule; but Strunk-and-White was not out till 1959. Williams agrees with Mencken, to the extent that

no one can teach clear writing by rule or principle, simple or not, to those who have nothing to say… But…I also know that learning to write clearly can help us think and feel and see, and that in fact there are a few straightforward principles—not rules—that help.

Here they are.

That’s the end of Chapter 1. After several pages of introduction, the first two principles of Chapter 2 are to write so that

(1) the subjects of the sentences name the cast of characters, and

(2) the verbs that go with the subjects name the crucial actions those characters are part of.

Two pages later:

Some readers may think that I am simply giving the standard advice about avoiding passive verbs.

In his diatribe against Strunk and White called “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice,” Geoffrey Pullum seems to think both that what Williams calls “standard advice” is Strunk and White’s advice, and that Strunk and White do not understand what a passive verb actually is. In this case, Pullum is mistaken. As White says at the head of The Elements of Style, in “A Note on This Book,”

Professor Strunk was a positive man. His book contained rules of grammar phrased as direct orders.

The relevant order now is Rule 10: “Use the active voice.” The passive voice is not strictly forbidden; according to Strunk, it “is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”

After mentioning “the standard advice about avoiding passive verbs,” Williams says,

not one of the “bad” examples in this chapter so far has in it a single passive verb. The bad examples “feel” passive…

This is what Strunk warns about: the passive feeling. Let us call it torpor or torpidity. Pullum is too keen on the technical logic of linguistics to notice what is going on. He does notice that, of Strunk’s last four “bad” examples for Rule 10, only one features a passive verb. The examples are,

  1. There were a great number of dead leaves lying on the ground.

  2. The sound of a guitar somewhere in the house could be heard.

  3. The reason that he left college was that his health became impaired.

  4. It was not long before he was very sorry that he had said what he had.

White changes the second one to, “At dawn the crowing of a rooster could be heard”; it remains the only example of the four with a passive verb in the technical sense. Therefore Williams condemns Strunk for “mistaken diagnoses”; but what Strunk has actually said is,

Many a tame sentence of description or exposition can be made lively and emphatic by substituting a verb in the active voice for some such perfunctory expression as there is, or could be heard.

In other words, eliminating grammatically passive verbs is not enough. Sentences should feel active. This would seem to be Williams’s advice too. Strunk’s bad examples are the formulaic revisions on the left of the simple forms on the right below:

There were A B’ing.

A were B’ing / A B’d.

C could be D’d.

One could D C.

The reason that E was that F.  

F, so E.

It was G before H.

Before H was G.

The form on the last line could use “that” instead of “before.” Each of the bad examples is obtained by some kind of inversion. Even in the first case, “A were” becomes “were A.” Instead of complaining that only the second example shows the inversion of subject and object that the passive voice accompanies, the linguist might pause to consider that the passive voice of a verb is only one kind of stylistic passivity or torpor that is brought about by an inversion.

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  1. By Writing Rules « Polytropy on July 15, 2018 at 7:35 pm

    […] « Writing and Inversion […]

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