Good language isn't simply about picking words that work, it's about picking the right words and understanding why they work. Our language, thanks to finance, business, and government jargon, has diluted into a muddle of close-enoughs, complex words of meaningless dribble, bad synonyms, and a general laziness when it comes to the particulars of words. If you're working with math, you simplify—you won't write an integral function where a simpler equation suits better; language is no different.
I can't nitpick every word and mistake and misspelling here—if you want a reference book for most uncertainties, get Garner's Modern English Usage (highly recommended). Let's begin with something basic: The government utilizes taxes to support itself and its people. At this current moment in time I am hungry, but the unfavorable weather that has set in keeps me from running to the deli. Grammatically, those sentences are fine, but stylistically they are agonizing. Utilize is a bad word that we use because use doesn't sound smart enough. At this current moment in time or any of its variants are wordy and weak synonyms for now (most of the time it can be cut out altogether). Unfavorable weather sounds like a student attempting intelligence by dodging the simpler alternative: rain. Here are the revisions: The government uses taxes to support itself and its people. I am hungry, but the rain keeps me from running to the deli.
It is no fault of our progressive society that, despite trying for political correctness and proper treatment of all humans, we still fall to the deeply objective treatment of any man or woman who does something—anything!—whatsoever. Is it because, deep down, we all harbor unsettling misanthropy? Or are we just lazy? Whether referring to ol' Brenda down the street, Uncle Charles, or even Steve, they are all human, and all deserve to be treated as such.
What am I getting at: equality, progressive ideals, liberalism, some form of humanism? Hell no. I'm getting at this: when referring to a person (no matter the stature), use who and whom, not that or which. Don't say The man that shot the rooster is bad, but The man who shot the rooster is bad. Same goes for women, kids, grandparents, and whoever identifies as human. And for anything else, use that. The fine lady, who was dressed in all black, wrote with a pen that stuck painfully to her fist.
In college I studied mathematics and music. Outside of college, if I mentioned both my studies, I often heard this: "Oh, they go hand in hand." I usually smiled and said "yeah" and let it pass. Sometimes, though, I am in the mood for further discourse and explain how, beyond elementary counting, math and music have little in common. Of these few times I bothered, the other folks corrected me and explained how music has structure and structure, of course, is math. I smile and yes, musical phrases often come in similar-length groups, but that does not correlate to collegiate math, and did they really just lecture me on two fields they are not disciplined in?
They are wrong. No matter the pride or alcohol consumption or weird mental alpha-beast desire, they were and still are are wrong. Yes, there are numbers in music, and yes I do, on occasion, count a rhythm, but that is not math, and last time I checked, to play my senior Liszt repertoire, I did not have to prove Cauchy's Group Theorem, which states that, if I have a group, G, of finite order with identity e, and prime p divides the order of G, then G has an element of order p. (I apparently learned this once, then forgot it.
July 1, 2016, marks the end of forty-two years of a radio show unlike any other still running. Forewarning: I can't avoid sentimentality, having just watched the bittersweet encore to A Prairie Home Companion's penultimate show.
For those who don't know, A Prairie Home Companion is one of those old-school style radio shows with live stories, sound effects, witty humor, improvisation, and, of course, music once a week for two hours. And all that on public radio without advertising, unless you count The Catchup Advisory Board and Bebop-a-Reebop Rhubard Pie. Now I wasn't drawn to this show by myself; I'm twenty-two (sometimes forgetting that and telling people twenty-one, because, really, nobody cares after that), technology-minded, and as detached from the dying radio as most my generation seems to be. I suppose I can thank a self-proclaimed luddite, facebook-hater, and old-timer—apparently also my dad—for introducing this show to our home. And it was as if romantic Americana streamed through the radio out of Grapes of Wrath with all the heart of It's a Wonderful Life. Old-timey folk and blues, the same stuff from O Brother Where Art Thou (I can't promise this is the last movie reference), peppered with comedic half-improvised stories of a private eye and cowboys and Lake Wobegon and, fittingly, a failed writer.
The art of criticism, true and honest feedback, is dead. Nowadays we cannot criticize; we must give constructive comments. If we dare breach the walls of true criticism, we risk being the asshole who missed the memo about being polite to everyone because everyone is a winner. Before you say amen and move on, though, take a look at these two definitions of the same word:
1. criticize: discuss critically (work, or abs.).
2. criticize: express disapproval of.
Both definitions stem from Oxford dictionaries, the major difference being that the first was published in 1977, the second in 2010. In those years, readers, writers, listeners, and the general public have learned the word to mean something negative, something innately bad. So we invented constructive criticism. According to my dictionary, constructive can also mean inferred, not directly expressed—we are now stuck giving helpful feedback while inferring what we really mean; we cloak the truth because the proud presenter is too soft-skinned to face some honest commentary. Quoting David Foster Wallace, if you're worried that criticize will seem too deprecatory, you can say evaluate, explicate, analyze, judge . . . (taken from the Oxford English Dictionary).
Silence is a beautiful thing, and it works well in film and in music. Silence in music forces suspense upon the listener even for the slightest second. A dissonant chord followed by nothing makes us ache to hear the resolution. But if it's held for that tiniest moment longer the performer has won our attention and interest, resolving finally into the relief of a child holding his breath two seconds beyond his previous record.
The problem with writing is that we can't use silence to convey silence. We can press return a few times, make the eye notice empty space, and hope the reader pauses good and long. But what about the conversation between characters, portrayed so easily in movies, in which silence enhances their discomfort through only visual emotions? Remember Raging Bull, where Jake, ready to take a beating, stares down his opponent? All the sound and music—crowd cheering, jeering; chairs scraping; announcer talking; coach yelling commands, swearing; sweat dripping—cuts out for one cruel moment of anticipation between us and the two fighters. We know what will happen, but for those couple seconds. . . .
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta. -Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
Those who know me know that the above passage is my favorite to read and recite and imitate. The opening three paragraphs of Lolita often appear on any list of beautiful prose excerpts. But what makes those contenders so beautiful? What makes the above quote better than others? Begin by reading it aloud. Good passages should never go unspoken.
Beautiful passages are not profound—they don't reveal an inner truth about humans or open our eyes; they simply are beautiful to read. "Yes," I said. "Isn't it nice to think so?" is one of those lines, the last of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. Within context, it's powerful, but without context, it's beautiful. The beauty which I refer to is the sound of words when placed together, like a musical phrase that begins, grows, and descends to a final cadence. Great writers—not good ones—are those whose writing speaks lyrically. Not every sentence must sound perfect, but a touch of poetry within prose cannot hurt. Writing isn't only slapping words into a story with interesting characters; it's an art and should be treated as such.
Writing a long sentence is easy; doing it well is hard. Amateur writers think falsely of what a long sentence is, how it works, and when to use it. Short sentences are good, and you should use them often. An idea portrayed quickly carries more force than the same idea winded into a long, gasping journey. But prose composed of four- to ten-letter sentences is dull. You fall asleep. That's where the long sentence enters.
I cannot define a length that qualifies a long sentence. Twenty words may seem a lot to you, or forty, or a hundred. You know that this is a short sentence. But you also understand, assuming you have enough experience with the English language, that this sentence, grammatically correct, is a long sentence (and it has twenty-seven words). The danger with long sentences is that they can conquer the writer—the amateur loses control of structure, grammar, voice, or the central idea. Some fiction writers think stream of consciousness implies long sentences. Bad writers have heard that Jame Joyce wrote a twenty-something page sentence (not grammatically correct), and therefore all they have to do is to write their thoughts without any period. That's not how it works. Joyce perfectly understood the language he used and was an accomplished author before he attempted the windingly long sentence. Bad attempts at long sentences sound like James Joyce without his beauty or control. Here is a bad long sentence:
For the few who write fiction, allow me some tips that will improve your prose. If people have told you that your fiction stinks, follow these rules and write with good grammar. Even if your story is shit, your prose will be clean.
Vague words: Very, actually, just, really, quite, all speak loud but say little. I have written about these words before, but I'll repeat it again: use concrete descriptions. If I say The hall was very long, how is that different from saying The hall was long? Vague qualifiers attempt detail, but fail to add anything other than pulp, fattening fiction as greasy food fattens the body.
Proper quotations: "Hey, babe." The man said. If you append dialogue with he said, she said, or any variant thereof, it must be part of the same sentence; the dialogue must end with a comma, exclamation point, or question mark. In proper form: "Hey, babe," the man said or "What's up?" she said. Do not use a comma if you do not follow with a speaker attribution: "Hey, babe," the man drove alongside the girl.
Immediate dialogue: Keep dialogue real, curt, and honest. Avoid words such as so and now because they, like vague words, only fatten the useless meat of conversation. "So how are you?" becomes "How are you?" in cleaner writing.
I have a few brief thoughts on punctuation.
The Period. As William Zinsser said, most people don't reach the period soon enough. Don't think of the period as something to tack on at the end of a thought, but rather a tool to kill a winding sentence. There's no rule that dictates the length of a sentence, and while you should strive for variety, shorter is usually better. A long sentence allows for loss of focus, punctuation, and control. Short sentences are good.
The Question Mark. This mark causes few problems. If dialogue ends with a question mark, and the sentence continues, the sentence should follow in lower case: "How are you?" she said. This also holds true for exclamation points.
The Exclamation Point. Writers overuse it. Just look at any advertisement in a magazine, newspaper, or billboard. The exclamation point reveals a gushy author, too excited by his own writing. Instead of forcing excitement at the end of a sentence, rephrase the sentence to emphasize what you want (not the punctuation mark), and let the readers understand the excitement themselves. The same applies to humor—an exclamation point kills the joke, ruins the surprise, and forces itself onto the reader. If the sentence ain't funny, I ain't laughing, no matter how many exclamation points you tack on. Use this mark in these two situations: dialogue that reflects shouting, and exclamations. Alas! That is it.