Joseph M Williams Style: Towards Clarity and Grace (U Chicago 1990)

14 Apr


An oldie now, as you may see, and not all readers like it as the Amazon reader reviews under the pic above indicate. I have grown to like it a lot. For a start, it is very sensible on a topic that gets many a pair of knickers in a knot:

Now there is a lively debate about whether action and understanding have anything to do with each other, whether those who want to write clearly ought to study the principles of language at all. You may write well, yet you can’t distinguish a subject from a verb, or you may understand everything from retained subjects to the subjunctive pluperfect progressive, and still write badly. From this apparent contradiction many have concluded that we don’t have to understand principles of grammar to write well. Writing well, they believe, has to do with being sincere, or writing how they speak, or finding authentic voices, or just being born with the knack. Others devoutly believe that they learned to write well only because they studied Latin and diagrammed sentences beyond number.

The truth will disconcert both persuasions. Nostalgic anecdotes aside, the best evidence suggests that students who spend a lot of time studying grammar improve their writing not one bit. In fact, they seem to get worse. On the other hand, there is good evidence that mature writers can change the way they write once they grasp a principled way of thinking about language, but one that is rather different from the kind of grammar some of us may dimly remember mastering — or being mastered by…

Williams does not have ESL students in mind of course; there the question of grammar has a different position, but even so the grammar usually involved is “rather different”. ESL/bilingual students are also, I have found, very able to take advantage of the linguistic sophistication they bring with them, as they tend to be more conscious, being able to make cross-references and comparisons, of just how languages work.

Another thing I like about Style: Towards Clarity and Grace is that it questions the heavily nominalised style so characteristic of much academic writing. I think this should be questioned. The Hallidayans (excellent as that school of linguistics may be) tend not to question it but rather to teach it, perhaps because this particular type of bad writing is so well rewarded in disciplines like sociology.

Now a few reviews. Denis Dutton (1995) finds this to be “a useful and likable book.”

It was originally a Scott Foresman text, but the University of Chicago Press asked Williams to turn it into a trade title for their “Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing.” There are chapters on clarity, cohesion, emphasis, two on coherence (written with Gregory C. Colomb), concision, length, elegance, and usage.

Williams’s examples are cleverly chosen, and he seems fond of finding out critics of language, including “Pop Grammarians,” making the very “mistakes” they excoriate in the writing of others. James Fenimore Cooper complained in 1838 that “the common faults of American language are ambition of effect, a want of simplicity, and a turgid abuse of terms.” The good writer, according to Cooper, does not say of a dance that “the attire of the ladies was exceedingly elegant and peculiarly becoming at the late assembly,” but simply “the women were well dressed at the last ball.” The trouble is that, as Williams shows, Cooper succumbs to the same fascination for Latinate abstraction and passive construction he faults in others. Williams seems most annoyed by school-masterish rules about split infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions, and so forth. He quotes Jacques Barzun recommending that we should use that (not which) for restrictive clauses, and which for nonrestrictive clauses in a style guide where Barzun says on the following page, “Next is a typical situation which a practiced writer corrects ‘for style’ virtually by reflex action.” Williams observes, “When someone who offers up a rule immediately violates it, we know the rule has no force.”

Williams gives us a list of usage rules which it would be precious, pedantic, inelegant, or plain silly always to follow — or make that…to always follow. He calls these “linguistic folklore, enforced by many editors and schoolteachers, but largely ignored by educated and careful writers.” Some of his opinions on these rules I can accept; others strike me as daft. “Never begin a sentence with because”; rubbish, to be sure. “Never begin a sentence with and or but”; silly. But what about, “Use fewer with nouns you can count, less with quantities you cannot? Not actually a bad idea, I’d have thought, but Williams rejects it with a quotation from Noel Annan (“I can remember no less than five occasions when correspondence columns of the Times rocked with volleys of letters . . .”) and the remark that “educated writers do use less before countable plural nouns: less problems.” …

On the other hand, Williams’s refusal to resort to histrionics is part of the appeal of Style. His comments on political correctness will displease both the ideologues who call for person-in-the-moon and the conservatives who insist that he is an innocent generic pronoun. (He champions the welcome strategy of consistent plurals in place of tedious he-or-she’s.) The sections on coherence are elegantly developed, and I can imagine they would profit anyone who worked through them. There are plenty of up-to-date examples of writing, good and bad, with analysis of paragraphs from such as Clifford Geertz, Daniel Dennett, Joan Didion, and Norman Mailer. Even Derrida shows up at one point, with a paragraph to illustrate “artful interruption.” Williams will take a piece of effective writing, the Gettysburg Address, and rewrite it, demonstrating the gains and losses from following or flouting rules. He shows how Jefferson topicalized abstractions in the Declaration of Independence, making the revolution a passive expression of the forces of history (“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary . . .”), rather than the action of the colonists. The action verbs are left for George III (“He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”), who is cast as a malign will set against the forces of Natural Law. Williams’s rewrite of the Jefferson makes this all very clear, and his whole stylistic outline demonstrates the lucid intelligence of the Declaration. Williams won’t make a Jefferson out of anybody, but he may help a few aspiring writers avoid becoming pale imitations of Jefferson’s contemporary, G.W.F. Hegel.

I baulk myself at the “fewer”/”less” issue, always making that distinction and teaching it. The chapters on emphasis and cohesion, cowritten with Gregory C. Colomb, may be downloaded in summary form as PDF files from UN Jobs. (No, I don’t know why either!) I do recommend downloading them. I especially recommend the top download on that page: Joseph M. Williams and Lawrence McEnerney, “Some crucial differences between high school and college writing”. See also an online version: Writing in College, Part I.

J. Bradford DeLong reviewed the book in 1999: Review of Joseph Williams, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace. DeLong is a professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley.

It is the only truly useful book on English prose style that I have ever found. Even Strunk and White cannot compete with the quality of the advice that Williams gives. Perhaps more important, the advice that Williams gives can be used. As Williams puts it, his aim is to go “beyond platitudes.” Advice like “‘Be clear’ is like telling me to ‘Hit the ball squarely.’ I know that. What I don’t know is how to do it.” Williams tells us how to do it.

Yes, some might be saying, but isn’t all this talk of “clarity” reactionary? Shouldn’t the most progressive theory so struggle to remould language, indeed to escape from its discursive entrapments, that “clarity” as an aesthetic becomes untenable? At times this may be true, but in too many cases it simply is a case of bad writing. An epigraph to the book quotes Wittgenstein: Everything that can be thought at all can be thought clearly. Everything that can be said can be said clearly.

A Sampling of Williams’s Principles:

— Readers are likely to feel that they are reading prose that is clear and direct when the subjects of the sentences name the cast of characters.

— Readers are likely to feel that they are reading prose that is clear and direct when the verbs that go with those subjects name the crucial actions those characters are part of.

— Put at the beginning of a sentence those ideas that you have already mentioned, referred to, or implied, or concepts that you can reasonably assume your reader is already familiar with, and will readily recognize.

— Put at the end of your sentence the newest, the most surprising, the most significant information: information that you want to stress–perhaps the information that you will expand on in your next sentence.

— When you introduce a technical term, design the sentence it appears in so that you can locate that term at the end, in its stress, never at the beginning, in its topic.

— The topic of a sentence is its psychological subject–the idea we announce in the first frew words. A cohesive paragraph has consistent topic strings.

— A cohesive paragraph has consistent thematic strings.

— A cohesive paragraph introduces new topic and thematic strings in a predictable position: at the end of the sentence or sentences that introduce the paragraph.

— A coherent paragraph will usually have a single sentence that clearly articulates its point.

— A coherent paragraph will typically locate that point sentence in one of two places: as the last of the sentences that introduce the paragraph, or at the end of the paragraph.

Many cover similar ground. This book covers it very well indeed.

Needless to say, this is not an ESL text, but it will be useful to teachers and advanced writing students, in combination with the many excellent publications on academic writing that appear in print or on the net.

The Dartmouth Writing Program is just one good example of a resource that acknowledges a debt to Williams. You may read the man himself on the University of Chicago’s Writing in College: A Short Guide to College Writing.

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Posted by on April 14, 2007 in English grammar, esl for teachers, for teachers, writing



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