August 05, 2005

Tossing technical terms around

If you're going to wield technical terminology in a critical way, you really should know how to use it correctly.  Case in point: William Howarth's critique of Rachel Carson's writing in Under the Sea Wind, in his article "Turning the Tide: How Rachel Carson became a woman of letters" (The American Scholar, Summer 2005, p. 46).  But first, take a look at the passage from Carson, below, decide what a copy editor might challenge in it, and describe these problematic stylistic choices using appropriate technical vocabulary.  Then you can compare your account with Howarth's.

As long as the tide ebbed, eels were leaving the marshes and running out to sea.  Thousands passed the lighthouse that night, on the first lap of a far sea journey--all the silver eels, in fact, that the marsh contained.  And as they passed through the surf and out to sea, so also they passed from human sight and almost from human knowledge.

Now here's Howarth's critique:

The flaws that a copy editor might challenge here--passive gerund ("were leaving ... and running"), pointless aside ("in fact"), and closing fragment ("And ...")--are less glaring than the dark tone, as embarkation becomes not hopeful but an emptying of the marsh womb, with the sea viewed as an alien future.

There are three technical terms (of grammar and usage) here: "passive", "gerund", and "fragment".  The first two are flat wrong.  Expressions like "were leaving" are progressive, not passive, and the -ing-form verbs like "leaving" in them are labeled participles in many manuals on English grammar and usage, but never, so far as I know, are they labeled gerunds, a term usually reserved for Poss-ing ("I'm tired of their complaining") and Acc-ing ("I'm tired of them complaining") constructions, and possibly action nominals ("The dissolving of parliament was a surprise") as well.  Howarth was no doubt misled by the fact that the English passive ("They were left by their partners") and progressive ("They were leaving their partners") constructions share the auxiliary be, and by the fact that the things commonly labeled gerunds and participles are both uses (among a great many) of the -ing-forms of verbs.  These are confusions of the sort that students stumble into when they try to memorize grammatical terminology without understanding what it's for.  But they're inexcusable in a periodical published by Phi Beta Kappa.

On the stylistic issue -- whether Carson's past progressive ("were leaving ... and running") should have been edited to a simple past ("left ... and ran") -- I think there's plenty of room for argument.  Carson's choice views the leaving and running out as extending continuously throughout the ebbing of the tide, and that seems to me to be a defensible way of framing the description.

Similarly, it's not obvious to me that the aside, "in fact", is pointless.  Carson is telling us that all the eels from the marsh passed the lighthouse, and that there were a great many of them.  She chose to package these items separately, with the observation about size leading and the observation about totality in a parenthetical.  (She could have packaged them together -- "All the thousands of the silver eels that the marsh contained passed the lighthouse that night..." -- but that would have made for a pretty topheavy sentence.)  What the "in fact" does is indicate a logical relationship between the two observations: not just a lot of eels, but the whole crop.  Without the "in fact", the sentence is a mere inventory of observations, only implicitly related, and this is so whether the parenthetical comes late ("Thousands passed the lighthouse that night, on the first lap of a far sea journey--all the silver eels that the marsh contained") or early ("Thousands--all the silver eels that the marsh contained--passed the lighthouse that night, on the first lap of a far sea journey").  Somewhat better is: "Thousands of silver eels--all that the marsh contained--passed the lighthouse that night, on the first lap of a far sea journey."   Even better would have been leading with totality rather than size: "All the silver eels that the marsh contained--thousands of them--passed the lighthouse that night, on the first lap of a far sea journey."  Simply deleting the "in fact", however, doesn't improve Carson's sentence.

But maybe what Howarth is thinking of as the aside is not just the "in fact", but the whole parenthetical.  I hope not, because the information that every single damn eel in the marsh set off on the journey has a lot of surprise value.

Now, to the presumed fragment.  What we're dealing with here is the presumed proscription against beginning sentences with conjunctions that Mark Liberman has discussed here, as an instance of a zombie rule, with no basis in the practice of competent writers. That is not, however, the way  Howarth frames things; he says we're talking about fragments.  Two questions then:  (1) are fragments bad?  and (2) is Carson's last sentence a fragment?

On question (1): a lot depends on who you read.  If you look at advice meant for novice writers, or advice in test prep books, you'll probably find sentence fragments unconditionally deplored, but if you look at manuals for college students, you'll probably find a more nuanced warning: sentence fragments are used by good writers, but you should be aware that you're choosing them and be sure that you're getting the effect you want with them.

On question (2): again, opinions differ, but, so far as I can tell, hardly any college manuals treat sentences beginning with and, but, or so as sentence fragments; a fair number don't even mention sentence-initial and, but, and so.  I hope to take up sentence-initial conjunctions in a future Language Log posting, but for the moment it's enough to point out that many authorities wouldn't treat these as starting sentence fragments, and that in any case there's no reason to edit out sentence-initial conjunctions in the work of a writer like Carson, even in her early work for publication.  I don't object at all to the "And" in her last sentence above. It provides a connection to what went before, without laying too much emphasis on this connection.  It marks the end of a sequence of (three) events.  And it initiates a parallel "and as... so also..."

Howarth seems to have wanted to find Carson's early writing inept -- he describes it as "semi-autistic prose" and speculates that this sort of writing might have resulted from a process of heavy revision, involving both Carson and her mother -- but in his zeal to fault the early Carson he runs off the rails himself.

By the way, a fair number of advice givers -- the famous Strunk & White among them -- would deprecate Howarth's conjoining of an AdjP with a NP in "becomes not hopeful but an emptying of the marsh womb".  Some might find expressions like "marsh womb" and "alien future" to be too ostentatiously poetic for comfort.  And what the hell is "semi-autistic prose", anyway?

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at August 5, 2005 08:31 PM