February 21, 2005

The evolution of disornamentation

In response to my posts on The Elements of Style and the social stratification of menus, Roger Depledge wrote:

Isn't there an anti-bourgeois aesthetic at work here? To quote Adolf Loos (1908): "Evolution der kultur ist gleichbedeutend mit dem entfernen des ornamentes aus dem gebrauchsgegenstande" [his caps] [the evolution of culture is synonymous with the removal of ornamentation from objects of everyday use]. And we have seen what ghastly buildings the mindless application of that rule has produced.

I'm sure it's not an accident that Adolf Loos wrote Ornament and Crime a few years before William Strunk advised us to "omit needless words" in The Elements of Style (first published in 1918). Nor is it just a coincidence that E.B. White rewrote and republished Strunk's pamphlet in 1958, a few years after Rudolf Flesch's Why Johnny Can't Read (1955) and Mies van der Rohe's Seagram Building (1957). There's more on the relationships among Viennese intellectuals, progressive politics, plain buildings and plain writing in a blog entry by Francis Morrone entitled The Word (and World) Made Flesch.

Some of the facts don't fit this theory, however, and the Strunkish creed about however is a prime example. Says Strunk:

However. In the meaning nevertheless, not to come first in its sentence or clause.

The roads were almost impassable. However, we at last succeeded in reaching camp. The roads were almost impassable. At last, however, we succeeded in reaching camp.

When however comes first, it means in whatever way or to whatever extent.

However you advise him, he will probably do as he thinks best.
However discouraging the prospect, he never lost heart.

This rule allies Strunk with the most elaborated varieties of High Victorian style, exemplified in American writing by Henry James, and places him squarely in opposition to the plain style of Mark Twain.

Using the wonderful Henry James Concordance (established and maintained at Nagoya University by Mitsuharu Matsuoka), I checked the placement of various types of howevers in The Ambassadors, The Bostonians, Daisy Miller, The Europeans, and The Golden Bowl. In these works, there were a total of 521 instances of however as a connective adverb. Of these, 488 (93.7%) were placed as Strunk dictates, while 33 (6.3%) were clause-initial. This means that Henry James would get red-penciled by Strunk 6.3% of the time, however-wise -- but this is nothing compared to the floods of red ink that would deface the works of Mark Twain.

I checked some pieces of Twain's writing (Life on the Mississippi, Innocents Abroad, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Pudd'nhead Wilson, The Prince and the Pauper, and Tom Sawyer) at the Mark Twain Search site (kudos due to Stephen Railton and the Electonic Text Center at the University of Virginia). There were 161 instances of (the appropriate kind of) however. 52 (32%) of these were positioned according to Strunk's rule, while 109 (68%) were clause-initial. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, written in the voice of Hank Morgan, a plain-spoken Yankee factory superintendent, however occurs 35 times as a connective adverb, and every single one is clause-initial.

There's a lot more to be said about where however goes when it's not clause-initial. For those of you with a taste for eXtreme adverbing, here are a few choice Jamesian samples:

"No--it's exaltation, which is a very different thing. Courage," he, however, accommodatingly threw out, "is what YOU have."
Some of the real ones, however, precisely, were what she knew.
It only meant, however, doubtless, that she was gravely and reasonably thinking--as he exactly desired to make her.

Isn't that exhilarating? OK, hang on, here's some serious fun:

It was not, fortunately, however, at last, that by persisting in pursuit one didn't arrive at regions of admirable shade: this was presumably the asylum the poor wandering woman had had in view--several wide alleys in particular, of great length, densely overarched with the climbing rose and the honeysuckle and converging in separate green vistas at a sort of umbrageous temple, an ancient rotunda, pillared and statued, niched and roofed, yet with its uncorrected antiquity, like that of everything else at Fawns, conscious hitherto of no violence from the present and no menace from the future.

It puzzles me that Strunk in effect chose Henry James over Mark Twain. Compare the way that Twain deploys however, in a characteristic passage from chapter 9 of Innocents Abroad, about a visit to Tangier:

We visited the jail and found Moorish prisoners making mats and baskets. (This thing of utilizing crime savors of civilization.) Murder is punished with death. A short time ago three murderers were taken beyond the city walls and shot. Moorish guns are not good, and neither are Moorish marksmen. In this instance they set up the poor criminals at long range, like so many targets, and practiced on them -- kept them hopping about and dodging bullets for half an hour before they managed to drive the center.

When a man steals cattle, they cut off his right hand and left leg and nail them up in the marketplace as a warning to everybody. Their surgery is not artistic. They slice around the bone a little, then break off the limb. Sometimes the patient gets well; but, as a general thing, he don't. However, the Moorish heart is stout. The Moors were always brave. These criminals undergo the fearful operation without a wince, without a tremor of any kind, without a groan! No amount of suffering can bring down the pride of a Moor or make him shame his dignity with a cry.

Perhaps Strunk's modernism -- his "ornament is crime" credo -- covers a basically Victorian sensibility?

It's less puzzling that White followed Strunk on this point, since he believed that rules of usage are as arbitrary as the rules of a game or a religion, and that examining the writing of admired authors is despised "descriptivism" and should be allowed no role whatsoever in deciding what these rules should be.

Anyhow, in modern times, it turns out that Mark Twain has won -- except among the acolytes of the Strunkish religion.

To check bloggers, I searched technorati.com for "however" and looked at the first (most recent) 42 hits (of the 1,054,678 that technorati found). Of these, 26 (62%) were clause-initial and 16 (38%) non-initial, proportions close to Twain's.

A very different pattern can be found in some publications. On the New York Times site, limiting myself to stories that have been through the NYT editorial process (as opposed to newswire copy), I found 32 non-initial instances of however, and only one lonely clause-initial case:

[link] However, 53 percent of those surveyed oppose the new stadium, which would be on the West Side and would be used for both the Jets and the Olympics.

This singleton -- no doubt the copy editor was asleep at the switch -- amounts to a mere 3% of the cases, even less than James, and suggests that the house style mandates Strunk's dictum. Among Reuters and AP stories on the NYT web site at the time I checked, there were 11 clause-initial howevers and 12 non-initial ones, for a ratio similar to what I found in a search of major English-language newspapers found via Google News -- 16 of 35 initial howevers (46%) , 19 non-initial (54%).

I also checked a sample of recent MEDLINE abstracts, and found that 18 of 34 howevers (53%) were clause-initial, as opposed to 16 non-initial instances (47%).

My guess is that the natural rate for clause-initial however in English prose is in the 60-70% range displayed by Mark Twain and the bloggers. Certain publications prescribe Strunk's rule, while other formal prose, living in the penumbra of Strunkish dogma and subject to occasional pressure from fundie copy editors, shows somewhat lower rates.

[Note: I didn't count the placement of howevers in Huckleberry Finn, in case you're wondering, because the word does not occur at all in that work. Nor does nevertheless, for that matter. Huck just mostly uses but. ]

[In case it wasn't obvious, I should confess that I don't enjoy reading Henry James very much. I find him very hard going, and once I've puzzled out what he seems to mean, I'm rarely convinced that it was worth the effort. Mark Twain, in contrast, I read again and again for the fun of it.]


Posted by Mark Liberman at February 21, 2005 02:05 PM