Statement of Philosophy

A site for exploration and discussion about verse, poetics, the aesthetic, and creative writing in general.

Because there is a profound difference between writing something to be read and writing something worth reading; and in that difference might beauty be found.

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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Stephen Fry on Grammar


grammar snobbery again (and the weirdest pocoyo ever)

This is worth sharing, with comment:


Two comments, actually.

First: do not take this as promoting a get-out-of-jail-free card as regards literature. Inherent to what is being said is the difference between being sloppy and being creative, between thinking "it's not so important" and thinking "what can I do with this?" The formers are inattentiveness to language: which is the exact opposite of aesthetic literature (especially poetic literature, which is supposed to all about attentiveness to language).

What you have to realize is that writing that is inattentive and writing that is created -- even if the both are equally full of idiom -- does not sound the same to a sophisticated reader. And a text that sounds unattended is not exactly putting up a strong argument to continue reading. A sophsiticated reader of poetry is not looking for words to read; they are looking for things made out of words. And there is a difference. An important one. The latter is a wholly different project.

Of course, everyone who has any care for language has their pecadillos. I myself go through stages where I can't watch ESPN or the news because I've had my full with the word impacted appearing in every third sentence. ("'Had an impact on!,' you tone-deaf idjits!" I scream at the television, throwing my coffee cake at the screen.) But such is the nature of language -- especially English -- that it is constantly in flux. Lovers of creativity give attention, and enjoy watching the change. (Wouldn't it have been interesting to actually see the Great Vowel shift happening? Ok, maybe not for all of you.)

Did you know that there is right now burgeoning in English a trend to leave the -ly off adverbs?[FN] How about that there's a new sound establishing itself in U.S. English: the glottal stop in words such as "kitten"?

[FN] For a while I was paying close attention to this happening, and I came to the hypothesis that it is not a clean dropping off of the -ly, but that it is situational when it appears and doesn't appear, depending on the nature of the adverb. Not sure if others have noticed the same, though.

There is a great degree that such things become personal idiom, both in writing and not. But idiom cannot ever be permitted to dominate the creating of a work -- and here we get to the Second point. That is, if I write a 12-syllable line that is aurally clumsy because of the presence of a personal idiom in the midst of it, the line has failed. You cannot justify the line by saying "well, that's my style in those middle words, there." Every word feeds and operates within the whole, and vice versa. The more sophisticated the writing, the more fluid and unified the system of the text. The poem (or whatever) governs its own writing: the more sophisticated the writer, the more they are capable of attending to the system of the poem they are creating. You can't let idiom get in the way of that.

For example, you might have noticed in my writing on these blogs, even in the most casual moments, I tend to tuck my prepositions firmly within the sentence, and wince a little when I read it elsewise. However, my concern with it does not derive from some notion of correct grammar: rather, I far prefer the sound of it.[See note below.] Ending a sentence on an unaccented, schwa-esque syllable seems to me a clarion of inattentiveness to sound. Which doesn't mean I haven't seen such used brilliantly. And never do I care what is said in speech. But in writing, in writing that is claiming to be attentive to the words on the page, ending a phrase in a preposition rarely works to the benefit of the text. The argument might be better made in saying, rarely does ending a phrase in a preposition sound better than other constructions (those either tucking them within the phrase, or those that eliminate the preposition altogether).

And that act of comparison is part of writing sophistication: to shift from the question of "does that work?" to "does that work as well as might other things?" . . . . because, in the end, the point is to make as successful a poem as can be had, no?

If may dare a summation meant to re-emphasize a distinction I do occasionally make:

It is, after all, called Creative Writing.

You should not be merely writing. You're creating something. So make it as beautiful as it can be.


There is a deeper idea at play in that latter point. That is, the difference between the convenionality of the nomic, and the organicism of the aesthetic. A nomic writer tucks their prepositions in because that is the rule. And they wince at the sound because it is a breaking of the social law -- just as a Victorian matriarch would wince were her nephew to blatantly pass gas at the dinner table. It is the violation of the socially established "correctness" that is at work. However, on the aesthetic side, the issue of of the experience of the text: the trailing preposition irks them because the resulting phrase sounds terrible. It is the individual's experience of language that has been disrupted, not its world-ordering conventions.

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