06 July 2012

When Style Trumped Grammar

William Strunk, Jr.
“This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.”

Read ’em and weep. “The singer did not disappoint.” “The movie dazzles.” “The oratorio inspired.”

What’s wrong with these sentences? They lack!

Direct objects, that is.

Especially in arts criticism, which is to say among people who should know better, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the venerable transitive verb is not only under attack, it is sorely wounded and on the brink of death. The transitive verb requires a direct object, but you’d never know it these days. To those few of us who still care about grammar, this is cause for concern, perhaps even for alarm, because the principal culprit is merely style.

It is style, after all, that tells us to avoid the passive voice. Rather than write, “The sentence was dictated by the editor,” we should write, “The editor dictated the sentence.” The desire to be stylish has instilled in many writers today an absolute terror of the word “was,” to the point that many now find themselves incapable of writing correct sentences such as, “The singer was not disappointing.” “Disappointing” in this instance is an adjective, and technically there’s nothing passive about the sentence, any more than there is in the sentence, “The singer was pretty.” But try telling anyone that.

E.B. White: A monster was created?
The index to The Elements of Style contains no reference to the correct use of transitive verbs.

Old-fashioned critics made liberal use of the Editorial We (which in the hands of some more closely resembled the Royal We) when writing their reviews, so that transitive verbs found their objects easily: “The singer did not disappoint us.” Thus the critic spoke for the newspaper as a whole, much as the editorial writer did.

However, probably sometime during the 1970s, when contemporary cultural upheavals began to make themselves felt not only in readers but also in writers, the Editorial We fell out of fashion. Part of the trend toward inclusion of bylines in news reports reflected this shift: we wanted to know who told us something, and in many cases we came to know a great deal about the writer, her background, her biases and affiliations.

Some American editorial pages still cling to the Editorial We, but you won’t find it anywhere else in your daily life. Of course, for the critic to write, “The singer did not disappoint me,” would give the game away. No writer who seeks to assert her authority would ever say such a thing. Perish the thought.

I admit, there are practical advantages to dropping the object of a transitive verb: you’re saving space and reducing the word count, which are important considerations to editors even on the Internet. Some writers and editors will attempt to justify their grammatical lapses by insisting that the object is implied, as it may be in the oft-quoted reminder that “Jesus saves.” This is sophistry, and should be recognized as such.

At Opera News, for example, that peerless bastion of high culture, the house style eschews the use of the serial comma — on practical-journalistic grounds, because it takes up valuable space in the print edition. The editors continue to spell out numbers, however, perhaps because The New Yorker does so, even though as much as a full page per year could be saved by using numerals instead. Discussions of three-hundred-twenty-seven-year-old operas and thirty-six-year-old coloratura sopranos do take up room.

In short, these house rules are arbitrary, and that’s fine: style is always arbitrary. But grammar is not, and allowing style to overwhelm grammar is like wearing high heels in a snowstorm.

Grammar shouldn’t be immutable, and in truth it isn’t. The injunction against splitting infinitives, for example, is a fairly recent development, born of the belief that, since in other languages one can’t split an infinitive, a single, unbroken word, then English speakers ought not do so. But the demise of the transitive verb seems to stem entirely from thoughtless expediency. Transitive verbs require objects because they facilitate understanding — communication — of the writer’s meaning. A transitive verb without an object invites misunderstanding.

“The singer did not disappoint.” Herself? Her mother? Her manager? You? The audience? The critic? The Boston Celtics? Go figure.

One unexpected result of the Information Revolution is that all of us are now typists, writers, and publishers of one sort or another, although the majority of us have no training. Many of us have no grammatical training, either: I never had a substantial grammar lesson until I took first-year French, in ninth grade.

We do have devices — with tiny keyboards. We broadcast our text messages in haste. Spellcheck makes it’s decisions without you’re approval. We make typos and grammatical errors, and we suffer the consequences — which is to say, no consequences at all. We do not lose our jobs. We do not lose our spouses. If we lose respect, it is only in the eyes of those who are too polite to call us out on our errors. Somehow, people figure out what we meant to say.

And so we as a society become more and more lax. Worse yet, we mock as elitists those who speak and write correctly. Educated people, editors, and snobs fulminate regularly about “Between you and I” and the collapse of correct usage of “your/you’re,” “their/they’re/there,” and “its/it’s.” I feel their pain. But in the meantime, the demise of the transitive verb goes almost unremarked, and whether you mourn it or not, you ought to realize it.


Michael Leddy said...

It's interesting to compare dictionaries: Merriam-Webster has dazzle and disappoint as both transitive and intransitive. The New Oxford American (the Mac dictionary) has them as transitive only. American Heritage has them (and inspire) as both transitive and intransitive. But I agree that making a habit of the kind of sentence you cite (“The oratorio inspired”) is a poor choice.

In “The singer was not disappointing,” disappointing is a participial adjective. A gerund is the -ing form functioning as a noun. (“Blogging is fun.”)

I like the photograph of Strunk, who seems to me to have been a more genial person than some of his critics.

Anonymous said...

We applaud you for telling it like it is.

Amy B said...

Hear hear! And here and here... I would love to quote all the best bits. Suffice it to say, this is some really lovely writing about grammar.

allowing style to overwhelm grammar is like wearing high heels in a snowstorm.

That may be my favorite.

William V. Madison said...

Michael Leddy, the "gerund" correction is made -- thank you. (What was I thinking?)