From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Styling Culture (16)—So and Such (Write Complete Sentences)

Click here to read the introduction to the Round and Square series "Styling Culture." 
[a] So(w) and Such RF
In the next few weeks I will be posting the text for a "volume" that I have been distributing for the last fifteen years. Back in 1997, I handed out a two-page set of instructions that I called "Rob's Style Sheet." I quickly learned that it could be a useful teaching tool, allowing me to describe the practicalities and esoterica surrounding grammar and style in the higher education classroom (and beyond). It also became apparent that it could be a useful tool for writing comments on student papers. Instead of trying to explain in the margins of a paper that s/he was using "number" in problematic ways (we'll get to that), I could write "#19," and have her know exactly what I mean. The most impressive students learned the material very well, and some of them have already gone on to be successful writers—in and beyond academia and the corporate world.

I will be posting the manuscript that I have provisionally entitled Styling Culture on Round and Square during the autumn and into the winter. As you will quickly see, it is meant to be a grammar book for the anthropologist of American English. It has its prescriptive elements, to be sure (this is all explained in the introduction to the series), but it is meant far more powerfully to be a genuinely useful guide to the culture wars surrounding grammar and usage. In particular, I have great venom for both the annoying critics who always seem to be correcting people and (this is important) for the "good guys" who tell you that it doesn't matter.

They're both wrong, and they will hurt you if you listen to them. I'm here to help you, so read on.

16. So and Such (I Would Prefer Complete Sentences)

“So” and “such” are, when left alone, not adequate intensifiers. They require “that” to complete the sentence. You don’t like country music “so much.”  That is an incomplete sentence, and it is (see #34—Incomplete Sentences) a serious problem. You like country music so much that you own every Merle Haggard CD, and that you feel that tonight the bottle let you down. You are such a country music lover that you have begun to respect the college dean, and to see that football’s the roughest thing on campus (not to mention that beads and Roman sandals won’t be seen (see #21—Passive Voice). Start to notice this mistake. Go ahead and use it in speech, if you must, but strive to erase it from your academic prose. That would make me so happy and be such an improvement. By the way, if you have "gotten" every musical reference above, you deserve a trip to Nashville.

Flawed                                                             Better
He liked to go to football games so much.       He liked to go to football games.
She was such a good performer.                     She was a good performer (superb, excellent, unsurpassed).
He liked NASCAR so much.                            He liked NASCAR so much that he watched every race.
Julie has such promise.                                   Julie has such promise that she is likely to go far.
Fido was such a cute puppy.                           Fido was a cute puppy (or "an adorable puppy").

***  ***
[b] Such a sow RF
Chalk up another one for the power of speech. You will recognize almost all of the items above in ordinary conversation, and there is nothing particularly wrong with conversation. Even there, you will encounter an occasional quibbler (undercover grammar police), but it is speech, after all, and I think we need to recognize that there are so many reasons to, may I say, extend the life of a phrase in conversation. It is such fun.

It won't cut it in writing. You need to write complete sentences...most of the time. There are always rhetorical reasons to alter the game a little and shake things up with an odd phrasing or incomplete sentence now and then. Even (occasionally) in academic writing. See? There is no excuse for cluelessness, though, and I suspect that lack of clues lies behind almost every misuse of so and such in prose composition. Maybe you are quoting your great aunt who loves to speak with gushing strings filled with such-and-so ("He was such a good little boy, and so smart!"). Go right ahead—you are quoting speech and honoring Aunt Hilda.

When writing a paper for your history class, however, you are probably not quoting your great aunt, or even Queen Victoria (who wouldn't have been found speaking (such) a shoddy incomplete sentence, in any case). Let's face it, you are usually writing incomplete sentences without any idea why you are doing so...or even that you are doing so.

"But it just sounds right."

[c] Sow/reap such a lot RF

I hear that one a lot. Well, many things that don't work in precise writing "sound right." Incomplete sentences often sound pretty darned good, too. That doesn't mean that they should form the foundation of your prose style.

I must admit that this is one of my grammatical hobby-horses, so please bear with me for a paragraph while we examine it. What do you mean when, especially regarding writing, you say "it sounds right?" What does that mean?

This is one of those places in which the crisis of reading and writing—which I mentioned the other day—comes to the fore. Most people don't read enough, or enough diverse material written in all sorts of genres, to have any idea at all about what "sounds right" in prose discourse. I often hear people praise a certain kind of writing with these lines: "It reads just like s/he talks." Now, don't get me wrong. Developing an ability to replicate speech on the page is a significant skill, and I am all for it. It is one sharpened arrow to have in your literary quiver, but just one. We should aspire, perhaps, to a little bit more diversity with our writing. If you are only able to write "like you talk," you are going to have problems.

So, "it just sounds right" won't cut it unless you have been reading Orwell and Atwood (and Spenser and Geertz), and those would just be yesterday's reading. Today you would spend a few hours with Liebling and Carlyle (and Shakespeare and Sahlins). You get the idea. "It just sounds right" needs to be reconsidered in light of your experience. If you just read the Twilight series, The Onion, and the instruction guide for Madden NFL12, you might want to dip your compositional toes a little deeper in the literary pond before you say "it just sounds right."

If you read and write and write and read, you might well get to the point where you say the same thing, but with a profoundly different meaning:

It just sounds write.

[d] Suchosaurus RF
On that note, we'll conclude this little introduction to incomplete sentences (we'll return to the topic in earnest many sections from now). In closing, I will note again that, although there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the words "so" and "such," the best reason to eliminate them (or at least severely curtail their use) is that they often are "lazy." This is a theme that winds all of the way through this guide, and almost always trumps any "rule" that you might hear ("don't use such"). No, don't use lazy language. Have a little more self-respect. What you want to say is important, and your word choice is equally so. Eschew on that, and learn to enjoy the English language and its possibilities. And be wary of "rules." They are almost always flawed. Always work for active, lively, and engaged language. The rest, such as it is, will take care of itself.

Yes, I am playing with the coined word. We will take a week or so off from our Styling Culture posts. When we return, though, we will examine some Important Stuff. Some people like to Capitalize many Words. This is Problematic, as we'll Discuss. 

No comments:

Post a Comment