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October 01, 2004

The Word (and World) Made Flesch

Francis Morrone writes

Dear Blowhards,

On my computer I have the word processing program WordPerfect 10. I don't use it. I think it came with the computer. (I don't often use Microsoft Word, either. For short documents, I use a text editor, NoteTab Pro, which I also use for HTML writing, such as this post. For long documents, I use Nota Bene.) Anyway, WordPerfect comes with a grammar-checking add-on called Grammatik. One of the things Grammatik does for you is analyze your style for "readability," based on something called the "Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level." (The makers of Nota Bene, bless their souls, presume you don't want or need your grammar analyzed.) Do you write at a second-grade level, or a fourteenth-grade level? Grammatik also compares your style with anything else you wish to load in the word processor. It comes pre-loaded with the scores for a "Hemingway short story" (though it does not say which one), the Gettysburg Address, and IRS Form 1040EZ (i.e., the "short form"). Of these, the Hemingway story scores at the fourth-grade level, the Gettysburg Address at the thirteenth-grade level, and Form 1040EZ at the tenth-grade level (10.5 to be exact).

Just for fun, I thought I'd run some Blowhards postings through the Flesch-Kincaid mill: Michael's recent posting "One-Click Addiction" comes in at 7.29 (without a single passive construction!). His "Morning Babble" post--don't know if you noticed this--is considerably more complex: 10.7. As for yours truly, my post on gentrification rated 11.2, but my post on Mark Helprin scored 9.2.

OK. This is a silly exercise. Yet, as Ben Yagoda reminds us in his new book, The Sound on the Page, Rudolf Franz Flesch (the "Flesch" half of "Flesch-Kincaid") had an enormous impact on how Americans have communicated over the last half century or so.

I had not thought of Flesch in years--in fact, had never really thought of him at all--when a Blowhards reader, the indispensable Dave Lull, sent me an essay by Ben Yagoda, from the Chronicle of Higher Education. I then learned that Yagoda had written a book from which that essay derives.

Oxford's American National Biography notes Flesch's profession as that of "readability researcher and educational critic." He was born in Vienna in 1911, and came to the U.S. in 1938, after earning a doctorate in law at the University of Vienna. Shortly after coming to the U.S., he earned a Ph.D. in library science from Columbia. He established a Readability Laboratory at Columbia's Teachers College. In 1943, he wrote a book called Marks of Readable Style: A Study in Adult Education, but he truly burst upon the scene three years later, with a bestseller called The Art of Plain Talk. In his ANB bio, we learn:

He advocated an unadorned style, with shorter paragraphs, shorter sentences, fewer prefixes and suffixes, and greater use of colloquial American English. He equated such plain talk with progressive politics, especially with the New Deal policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt....

Initially aimed at the teacher, librarian, or book publisher who was interested in making more materials available to an adult population perceived to have insufficient reading skills, this early work was most influential among journalists, advertising copywriters, and businesspeople interested in communicating with a mass audience.

Flesch had an enormous influence. In 1951, he produced the Associated Press Writing Manual, and AP style to this day closely follows Fleschian precepts. In 1955, Flesch wrote Why Johnny Can't Read, a mega-bestseller that had huge resonance in the Sputnik era. As ANB puts it:

He was a tireless advocate of a more efficient, more democratic prose style, and more efficient, more democratic reading instruction. As such, his work can be seen as part of an older "plain style" tradition dating back to early language and educational reform movements in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. Plain-style advocates often contended that plainer language made truth more visible and was therefore more appropriately the language of mass instruction. Critics have long argued that plain style might itself "obscure" because it might oversimplify. That criticism, in fact, has been leveled against Flesch's work. But part of Flesch's popular appeal seems to have been precisely his ability to simplify the complex and capture the public's attention with his own snappy, forceful style. As an educational Jeremiah, Flesch was a force to be reckoned with.

It is true that certain English writers--H.W. Fowler, Herbert Read, Robert Graves (who liked to rewrite classic poems in a plain idiom, unwittingly showing the limitations of his approach), and George Orwell--may have started the ball rolling on the move to the plain style. Orwell specifically equated plainness with a form of political correctness. But as Ben Yagoda says,

...the United States didn't truly warm to the theme until after World War II. The galvanizing agent seems to have been the arrival of Rudolf Flesch....Flesch and his progeny also expressed themselves with a Dale Carnegie, Kiwanis Club breeziness, full of italics and direct address, that made achieving a good style seem nothing fancy, just good business sense. It was so simple! One could analyze every piece of writing to find its "reading ease" score, and the easier the better.

Let's hear it for Ernest Hemingway! (It so happens that when I was in high school in Oak Park, Illinois, I wrote for the school newspaper, the Trapeze. I remember that the teacher-advisor for the paper once exasperatedly accused me of "purple prose"--the first time I ever heard that phrase, and the first and last time anyone accused me of perpetrating that grievous sin. This was the same high-school paper where Ernest Hemingway, an Oak Park lad like me, got his start as a writer.)

Flesch was one of the German-speaking émigré intellectuals that midcentury Americans just could not get enough of. America had long been shaped by its many German immigrants (nearly as numerous as the Irish in the mid-19th century). So much that is "all American"--kindergarten, picnics, apple pie, lager beer--is German. The Germans gave us the cult of the Ph.D. With the refugee intellectuals of the thirties and forties, German prestige went through the roof--overtaking, in America, the prestige of any other national group. From Hannah Arendt to Henry Kissinger, a German accent opened doors. And so it should be totally unsurprising that a German-speaking intellectual should be the one to tell Americans how to write and how to speak.

To the extent that a single man was responsible for the simplification of printed prose in the post-World War II period, it was Flesch. Yagoda says that the other leading figure in the changing American attitude toward prose--that it should be transparent, unembellished, a clear window onto the world, with the writer as invisible as possible--was E.B. White. White, of course, was one of the classic New Yorker writers. In the fifties, he took a style manual he had been given as an undergraduate, at Cornell, expanded it a bit, and published it as the perennial bestseller The Elements of Style. The original manual had been privately printed in 1918 by an English professor named William Strunk Jr. Strunk passed it along to White, and his revised version came out in 1959, 13 years after Strunk's death. As I write, The Elements of Style, 45 years after it came out, has an Amazon sales rank of 90. No, I didn't leave off a digit. It also ranked 21st on the Modern Library's list of the 100 best nonfiction books of the 20th century. It is truly one of the all-time phenomena in the history of publishing, right up there with the Bible.

Popularly known as "Strunk and White," the book indeed has a Biblical status. Every writer and every editor owns a copy, and many are those who live in mortal dread of violating any of the book's precepts. Copy editors take it--along with a handful of other, similar "style manuals"--as authoritative; no writer is allowed to violate the rules.

While I have always religiously referred to Strunk and White, I have also always regarded it as tyrannous, and as a source of the blandification of American prose. Not until I read Yagoda did I realize that my distemper was better reserved for Flesch.

Here is a chapter from Flesch's How to Write Plain English. (Just for the fun of it, I subjected it to the Flesch-Kincaid test. It gets a 7.56 grade level.)

When I wrote in this space about Mark Helprin, one reader commented on his "purple prose." I replied that the loss of ornament in prose struck me as analogous to the loss of ornament in architecture. I said that Helprin writes like the Paris Opera House; we are enjoined to write like the Seagram Building.

Well, it so happens that Flesch came to the U.S. in 1938. That same year, the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe also came to the U.S. Mies moved to Chicago, where he became the dean of architecture at a school called Armour Institute of Technology, founded with funds from the vast Armous meatpacking fortune. Later, the school was renamed Illinois Institute of Technology. Mies, who had been the director of the Bauhaus, the German design academy that had been one of the principal disseminators of the spare Modernist style of the interwar years, established the Institute of Design at Armour Institute, essentially attempting to transplant the Bauhaus to the South Side of Chicago. (It was practically across the street, by the way, from Comiskey Park, home of the White Sox.) The Institute of Design became home to Bauhaus luminaries such as László Moholy-Nagy, Herbert Bayer, and the city planner Ludwig Hilberseimer (who once called Indianapolis his ideal city).

Mies went on to design several influential buildings for the school's campus, and later served as nothing less than formgiver to the Chicago of Richard J. Daley, who presided over that city's large-scale reconstruction in the fifties and sixties, in which many parts of the city, not least its downtown core ("the Loop"), were remade in a Bauhaus image. Mies himself designed the Chicago Federal Center, the I.B.M. Building, and several others, while Mies acolytes like Jacques Brownson, of the firm of C.F. Murphy Associates, designed such works as the Richard J. Daley Civic Center, which Reyner Banham once called the most perfect Miesian building in the world. (It's the one with the plaza containing the Picasso sculpture that Chicago poet Paul Carroll called "the flat foot flying cow.") But perhaps Mies's most renowned American building is the Seagram Building, on Park Avenue in New York. For many years, the Seagram Building was New York's most admired postwar building. Herbert Muschamp, no less, labeled it the greatest building of the last millennium. (Really, he did. And it wasn't a throwaway. He was asked to write an essay for the Times Magazine's special "best of millennium" issue in 2000; his subject was "best building." He chose the Seagram.)

Richard A. Lanham, in his Style: An Anti-Textbook, an immensely thoughtful and learned 1974 critique of standard methods of teaching the writing of prose, may just as well have been writing of Modernist architecture when he wrote:

The dogma of clarity, as we shall see, is based on a false theory of knowledge; its scorn of ornament, on a misleading taxonomy of style; the frequent exhortations to sincerity, on a naïve theory of the self; and the unctuous moralizing, on a Boy Scout didacticism.

Someone else came from Vienna with Flesch in 1938: an architect named Victor Gruen. I was surprised at how little attention blogdom accorded Malcolm Gladwell's illuminating essay on Gruen that appeared a few months ago in the New Yorker. Entitled "The Terrazzo Jungle," Gladwell's piece profiled the émigré architect who designed some of the first suburban shopping malls in America. Gruen, born in 1903, attended the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, where his mentor was Peter Behrens, who also mentored Mies van der Rohe (and Le Corbusier and Walter Gropius). Gruen also hung with Adolf Loos, the man who said "ornament is crime." When he came to New York, Gruen worked on retail-store designs. After the war, the suburban boom led to commissions for malls. Gladwell says that Gruen was fired by visions of the great Ringstrasse in his native Vienna:

Postwar America was an intellectually insecure place, and there was something intoxicating about Gruen's sophistication and confidence. That was what took him, so dramatically, from standing at New York Harbor with eight dollars in his pocket to Broadway, to Fifth Avenue, and to the heights of Northland and Southdale. He was a European intellectual, an émigré, and, in the popular mind, the European émigré represented vision, the gift of seeing something grand in the banality of postwar American life. When the European visionary confronted a drab and congested urban landscape, he didn't tinker and equivocate; he levelled warehouses and buried roadways and came up with a thrilling plan for making things right. "The chief means of travel will be walking," Gruen said, of his reimagined metropolis. "Nothing like walking for peace of mind." At Northland, he said, thousands of people would show up, even when the stores were closed, just to walk around. It was exactly like Sunday on the Ringstrasse. With the building of the mall, Old World Europe had come to suburban Detroit.

(Northland, in Michigan, and Southdale, in Minnesota, were Gruen-designed malls.)

Gladwell writes of how Gruen had wished to translate the urbanistic lessons of the Ringstrasse to American suburbia, but came up against the economic realities, and never fulfilled his vision.

Hmmm. It seems to me that if Gruen had had complete carte blanche with no financial hindrances, his malls would somehow still not quite feel like the Ringstrasse. But that's how architects talked--as though there were some pure essence of urban form that could be read out of a successful work of urban design like the Ringstrasse, independent of what we may call "style." And that you could create something that had the "essence" of the Ringstrasse--but none of its "inessentials," like ornamentation.

Flesch and Strunk and White stripped inessential ornaments from prose as surely as Mies or Victor Gruen stripped them from buildings.

What's happened in both prose and architecture in recent years is another story. Prose both in business and in academia has become a glutinous, jargon-laden affair, very different from anything that Flesch or Strunk and White counseled. Our architecture, likewise, has veered from the putative transparency of Mies van der Rohe, into the obfuscations and contorted forms of Eisenman and Koolhaas and Libeskind and Gehry.

What's notable in both cases is that while opacity has replaced clarity, ornamentation has remained in exile. I wonder whether the academic prose and the starchitecture of today would have been possible without the intervening period of Flesch and Mies, in which the banishment of ornamentation created only a momentary fantasy of clarity, but in fact led to the loss of our most potent ordering mechanism--ornament--and led directly to the hell hole of something like this, from Judith Butler, one of the most famous professors of English in America:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

(That won Denis Dutton's Bad Writing Contest in 1998.)

But that's another post.

By the way, this post receives a whopping 11.1 on the Flesch-Kincaid grade scale.



posted by Francis at October 1, 2004


Could it be that there is something about the english language that impels leanness, anti-ornamentalism?

For example: in poetry in english, it seems to be almost a law that the fewer the adjectives, the stronger, the less affected the poem.

I stickup for The Seagrams Building. It's a classic.

Posted by: ricpic on October 2, 2004 10:03 AM

I'll have to see if I can drive my Flesch scores even lower! Or higher! Or something. Time to mess around with them a bit, in any case.

Fascinating, thanks. I knew nothing about Flesch. Zip, in fact. Good lord, how ignorant I can be. But like you I've always had my reservations about Strunk and White, and I enjoyed the Malcolm Gladwell piece about Victor Gruen.

A few questions for you?

* It does seem awfully hard to get Americans interested in the built environment. Any hunches about why? You'd think people would love opening their eyes to their surroundings, learning about 'em, and arguing over them. But many people would rather gab about a TV show or a painting instead. Which is great. But still. Any ideas about why this is the case? Is it maybe because of a sense of hopelessness? Ie., maybe they've written off the spaces in between work and home entirely -- what can be done about them? And so why worry? Best just to hold your breath as you pass through, and enjoy a DVD once you get home?

* There's a funny strand in the American character someone ought to do a book on. (Short and sweet, please.) Which is the way Americans are forever looking for guidance. We're proud of being frontier, self-created people, but we're touchy about how classless and clueless we can be. So we're double vulnerable in many ways -- proud, touchy and needy. Oops, that's triply. A consequence seems to be that we fall for shit, some of which is terrific (we're eager to learn, and occasionally we learn worthwhile things), but some of which we simply shouldn't fall for. I rant occasionally about the French -- lets learn from what they know about sex, art, food and style, while taking them very warily otherwise. Their "philosophy" is a joke, for example. We look to it for "truth," when it's really intended to be taken as a kind of chic s&m performance art. It seems, judging from your posting, like we make the same mistake where Germans are concerned. We take 'em too seriously, instead of cherry-picking what might better suit us. There's a temptation to say, the hell with all of them, this is the New World, let's forge our own thing. But we never seem to be able to do that -- the need for guidance seems to be a basic part of the our national character, along with much else. And maybe we do need guidance. We're so aggressively commercial that we're often left wondering what the point of life is, and other cultures do sometimes seem more onto that than we do. Hmm, I feel like I should formulate a question but can't. Still.

* The new architecture seems to strike me as it strikes you -- as modernism, only contorted, fractured, distorted. It seems to claim to lick the over-rigidity problems of "classic" modernism, yet it remains fundamentally modernist. Why not just abandon the modernist project entirely and return to something more humane?

* But to some extent, the campaign to turn architecture into entertainment seems to work for a lot of people. The jigginess and party colors and swoopiness seem to function well-enough as replacements for traditional ornament. There's some way in which academic avant-gardism and the new shopping malls don't really clash. It's all about consumerist delight, or something, but of a specific global-media sort. I wonder how people really feel about these new buildings and shopping experiences. Do they sense something lacking? Is the distractingness of it sufficient for them?

* As for writing ... Well, there's a lot of po-mo and deconstructed prose around that's a lot like the new buildings. Dave Eggers is an example. Apart from whether I like or don't like his writing (I don't, but who cares), although it doesn't supply traditional-type ornament, it is full of overlaps, swoops, reflections, disjunctions, etc -- it has a lot of media selfconsciousness and hip cartoon goofiness. And it certainly isn't plain and simple. So -- horrible thought -- is it possible that the new media-brat writing is the New Baroque that someone like Lanham seems to have wanted? I wonder how he feels about something like Eggers' books.

* And you've got me wondering about the place of real classicism in all this. Do you know the work of Mark Turner? I thought I'd blogged about him at length, but never did. He's got a site here, and his best-known book is here; here's a Denis Dutton essay about it. He makes the case for classicism is a kind of genetic algorithm for understanding -- that classic forms are Christopher Alexander-like "patterns." Follow 'em, work with 'em, and you'll wind up with "life" and comprehensibility. Avoid 'em, and most likely you'll wind up with shapeless not-quite-protoplasm. The diff for me in architecture between real Classicism and something modernist-classic like the Seagram is mainly the diff between using evolved forms, and using abstractions: columns and arches on the one hand, shapes and voids on the other. Nonetheless, classicism does often tend to the simple and straightforward. So, does it hold that the contrast is between the ornamented and the modernist-plain? Could the contrast also be conceived of as being between forms and approaches that are based in history and that have evolved (and whether highly-ornamented or not), vs. rationalized abstract forms that are being imposed by people with programs (whether or not they're plain or complex)? I'm not sure I've this straight in my own mind.. But I feel like your dichotomy (ornamented vs. modernist) may leave out a big slice of art and life, which is "the classic," and its tendency towards the plain. So: how do you see "the classic" fitting in with your picture?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 2, 2004 11:45 AM

Oops, forgot a few links.

Mark Turner.

An interview with Mark Turner.

Denis Dutton on Mark Turner.

Turner's book Clear and Simple as the Truth.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on October 2, 2004 11:57 AM

I personally use the 2nd grade, 3 finger rule. In second grade, you read the first page of a book and put up one finger each time you hit a word you dont understand. If you have 3 fingers on one page, it's too hard for you.

I've upgraded it a litte--I put up one finger everytime I have to go back and reread something because I dont know what the heck the author just said. If I hit three fingers in one paragraph, it's too obscure for me.

Much simpler and portable too. Don't do it on airlines, tho. You get strange looks.

Posted by: Deb on October 2, 2004 1:08 PM

Here's to purple prose, Francis. Plain language is for insurance contracts. Harold Bloom said Strunk & White took everything out of prose that he enjoyed. Faulkner said Hemingway was one writer who never sent anyone to a dictionary.

BTW I think the periodic sentences and poetic cadences make Helprin's breathless prose sound more difficult than it is.

Posted by: Mary Campbell Gallagher on October 2, 2004 4:32 PM


Your questions and comments deserve a post, not another comment. And I plan to get to that. But for now, let me say that I know and admire Mark Turner's work, including _Clear and Simple as the Truth_. I do also, believe it or not, endeavor to write as he prescribes.

Let me say that I'm not making an argument here. I am putting down for the first time some of my fugitive thoughts comparing the character of modern American prose and the character of modern architecture. And it may well prove to be a blind alley. But that's what blogs are for, no?

I don't agree with Richard Lanham's view that clarity is but one legitimate rhetorical strategy among others. I think ornament, properly used, _enhances_ clarity. Christopher Alexander and Ernst Gombrich make this point, in very different though mutually reinforcing contexts. I do not regard ornament as inessential, least of all to the classical tradition, and I part company with classicists who claim otherwise. As between a classical building bereft of ornament, and a building by Mies van der Rohe, I may see little difference. I hope to say more on this later. It's a heady subject.

I do _not_ believe that the classical tends toward the plain. The classical is, among other things, hierarchical: A terrace of simple (but look closely, for they are never quite all that simple!) houses in Chelsea may be Georgian classical, but so are Somerset House and St. Mary-le-Strand. The Greeks did not create "plain" buildings: They filled their pediments with figure sculpture. And so on. The classical, even and not least in its Baroque incarnation, is _ordered_. It can therefore tend towards extreme complexity as well as plainness, or grandiloquence as well as a lover's whisper. For me, the ordering devices of the classical are suited to complexity. That is, what I often most enjoy are large, complex productions--buildings, novels, symphonies--in which the classical devices maintain order. Order-within-complexity, that's what I like. It's hard to do, which is why the evolved forms are almost always necessary. Modernism often misses this, which is why for me the best Modernist buildings are usually country houses, not complex works with many interrelated and interlocking parts. Centuries and millennia of trial and error and muddling have left the artist or architect with a canon of forms, or patterns, that Modernism and its progeny reject.

As for the French v. the German influence: I think the influence in our universities of French poststructuralism and deconstructionism is a (pervasive) intellectual epiphenomenon of what is in fact the far more deep-seated and insidious influence of the great triumvirate of German masters: Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger.

Finally, I took a random Mark Turner essay and subjected it to the Flesch test: 14.87!


Posted by: Francis Morrone on October 2, 2004 9:29 PM

Don't be too quick to commit "invecticide" against Rudolf Flesch. His word was regarded as the Bible at the AP for good reason. On the broadcast desk, people were writing copy to be read on the air! That's why it had to be crystal-clear and ornament-free.
I agree with Deb that if what the writer has to say is not immediately apparent, his prose style, not the reader's comprehension, is at fault.
I love the Butler passage. Try reading some Susanne Langer sometime.
Here's the final word on purple prose from the man who gave us the word "euphuistical":

from Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit (1578)
[Euphues Introduced]
by John Lyly

There dwelt in Athens a young gentleman of great patrimony, and of so comely a personage, that it was doubted whether he were more bound to Nature for the lineaments of his person, or to Fortune for the increase of his possessions. But Nature impatient of comparisons, and as it were disdaining a companion or copartner in her working, added to this comeliness of his body such a sharp capacity of mind, that not only she proved Fortune counterfeit, but was half of that opinion that she herself was only current. This young gallant, of more with than wealth, and yet of more wealth than wisdom, seeing himself inferior to none in pleasant conceits, thought himself superior to all in honest conditions, insomuch that he deemed himself so apt to all things, that he gave himself almost to nothing, but practicing of those things commonly which are incident to these sharp wits, fine phrases, smooth quipping, merry taunting, using jesting without mean, and abusing mirth without measure. As therefore the sweetest rose hath his prickle, the finest velvet his brack, the fairest flower his bran, so the sharpest wit hath his wanton will, and the holiest head his wicked way. And true it is that some men write and most men believe, that in all perfect shapes, a blemish bringeth rather a liking every way to the eyes, than a loathing any way to the mind. Venus had her mole in her cheek which made her more amiable: Helen her scar on her chin which Paris called cos amoris, the whetstone of love. Aristippus his wart, Lycurgus his wen: So likewise in the disposition of the mind, either virtue is overshadowed with some vice, or vice overcast with some virtue. Alexander valiant in war, yet given to wine. Tully eloquent in his glozes, yet vainglorious: Solomon wise, yet too wanton: David holy but yet an homicide: none more witty than Euphues, yet at the first none more wicked. The freshest colors soonest fade, the teenest razor soonest turneth his edge, the finest cloth is soonest eaten with moths, and the cambric sooner stained than the coarse canvas: which appeared well in this Euphues, whose wit being like wax apt to receive any impression, and having the bridle in his own hands, either to use the rein or the spur, disdaining counsel, leaving his country, loathing his old acquaintance, thought either by wit to obtain some conquest, or by shame to abide some conflict, and leaving the rule of reason, rashly ran unto destruction. Who preferring fancy before friends, and his present humor, before honor to come, laid reason in water being too salt for his taste, and followed unbridled affection, most pleasant for his tooth. When parents have more care how to leave their children wealthy than wise, and are more desirous to have them maintain the name, than the nature of a gentleman: when they put gold into the hands of youth, where they should put a rod under their girdle, when instead of awe they make them past grace, and leave them rich executors of goods, and poor executors of godliness, then it is no marvel, that the son being left rich by his father's will, become retchless by his own will.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on October 2, 2004 9:41 PM


I'm disinclined to ascribe those sorts of qualities to languages. I can think of masterpieces in English and in French that are simple and plain-spoken, and others that are complex and "Baroque."

I like the Seagram Building, too--at least when I imagine it with Audrey Hepburn standing in its plaza.

Deb--That's a good method. The problem for me is that I have to read _everything_ twice before I feel I get it. So by your standard, I'd never read anything. I guess we all bring different endowments to our reading, and so are inclined to blame writers or ourselves for our incomprehension. Since I am basically stupid, I blame myself, but carry on anyway.


Do you remember where Harold Bloom said that? That's a marvelous quote. Thanks.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on October 3, 2004 12:42 AM

Mary Campbell Gallagher: "Harold Bloom said Strunk & White took everything out of prose that he enjoyed."

Francis Morrone: "Do you remember where Harold Bloom said that?"

He's quoted as saying something like that in The Sound on the Page: Style and Voice in Writing, by Ben Yagoda (HarperResource, 2004), page xxi:

"It outlaws everything that I care for in writing, in literature, in the act of writing. It tries to pretend it's against the overly baroque, but what it's against is what I would say is imagination itself."


Dave Lull

Posted by: Dave Lull on October 3, 2004 11:03 AM

Thanks Dave.

Bloom goes on to say that Strunk and White represent "the genteel tradition--or the Gentile tradition...." That sounds a lot like what Saul Bellow once said. Bellow's first two novels--_Dangling Man_ and _The Victim_--were written to an exacting standard of _New Yorker_-ese. Then Bellow burst out of that cocoon with _The Adventures of Augie March_, and we are all vastly the better for it.

Posted by: Francis Morrone on October 3, 2004 11:26 AM

There is a time and a place for plain writing. But not every time and place.

I like my doses of purple prose just as I like a sticky sweet to round off a meal. (I wonder if you could draw a correlation between people's sugar preferences and the fanciness of the writing they are attracted to?)

Nothing goes together quite like Nabokov and cheesecake, as far as I'm concerned.

Posted by: Michelle Murphy on October 3, 2004 1:54 PM

I read an essay by Lanham awhile back. While I can be in favor of florid prose, and poetry, saying it's another form of truth of itself is a stance I find totally unconvincing. Naturally, I own a copy of Strunk & White, but I've referred to it twice or less. Grammar is one thing. Elements of Style are just that, who better to judge whether my style is obscuring or helping my point than me, the only human being in the universe with direct access to the thoughts I am trying to convey? I'm not averse to ending a sentence with a preposition if it means my point is more clear, either.

Since Lanham himself seems to write in debased academic pseudocode, I am also very suspect that he's trying to promote deconstructionist/hypertextualist/relativist sort of ideas. I think the suspicion that he's really pushing new media brats, as you put it Michael, is probably right.

Posted by: . on October 3, 2004 3:17 PM

Daniel Green, in "Style--Part 1" posted today at his weblog The Reading Experience, comments on Strunk and White:

"With the exception of those specific rules of grammar and syntax that no writer would want to completely disregard, almost everything else in The Elements of Style ought to be ignored as the arbitrary and authoritarian dogma it is. It's most overarching precept can be summarized this way: Don't write too much."

"Style in writing is neither simply scrupulous transparency nor runaway expressivity. It is the use of language to produce a particular effect for a paricular purpose in a particular context. It is the willingness to so use language for what the language has to offer. And it is at least as respectful of the possibilities of language as the emphasis on correctness to be found in Strunk and White--although, again, one has to ask whether Strunk and White were ever really interested in these possibilties."


Dave Lull

Posted by: Dave Lull on October 4, 2004 10:38 AM

I once wrote something that I gave to a friend to read. She "corrected it" as she preferred a lean
stlye of writing. I did not recognize what I wrote after. It had a completely different meaning from my intent.

Language is used by an author to convey specific meaning in a particular context.

Rules of grammar and syntax are seldom ignored by
most authors but rather are considered guidelines only.

The author's perpetual self doubt: did I succeed in conveying what I wanted to convey??

Read literature from other cultures. It will open your eyes to "intent" with that culture's style of writing sometimes hindering immediate comprehension; but never, ever missing what was ultimately intended by the author.

English speaking writers have lately become very anal to say the least. Deconstructionistic? or simply super lean because there is not enough time to write all one needs to write in such a short span of a life time???

Conventionality for the sake of convention
be damned. It's the message that counts!

la vida loca,

Posted by: lynford on October 5, 2004 2:57 PM

My experience with the Flesch-Meter in Microsoft Word is that it's hard work to get my prose down below grade level 12.0, requring a few more editing passes, but it's usually worth the effort. It's easy to write difficult prose, hard to write easy prose. Kind of like when somebody asked Harry Truman to give a speech. He said he could give a 5 minute speech in two weeks, a 10 minute speech next week, or a two hour speech right now.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on October 5, 2004 3:20 PM

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