Posted in Academic writing, Uncategorized

Academic Writing Issues #6 — Mangling Metaphors

Metaphor is an indispensable tool for the writer.  It carries out an essential function by connecting what you’re talking about with other related issues that the reader already recognizes.  This provides a comparative perspective, which gives a richer context for the issue at hand.  Metaphor also introduces a playful characterization of the issue by making figurative comparisons that are counter-intuitive, finding similarities in things that are apparently opposite.  The result is to provoke the reader’s thinking in ways that straightforward exposition cannot.

Metaphors can — and often do — go disastrously wrong.  Here’s Bryan Garner on the subject:  “Skillful use of metaphor is one of the highest attainments of writing; graceless and even aesthetically offensive use of metaphors is one of the commonest scourges of writing.”  A particular problem, especially for academics, is using a shopworn metaphor that has become a cliché, which has lost all value through overuse.  Cases in point: lens; interrogate; path; bottom line; no stone unturned; weighing the evidence.

In this post, I provide two pieces that speak to the issue of metaphors.  One is a section on the subject from Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage, which provides some great examples of metaphor gone bad.  A second is an extended excerpt from Matt Taibbi’s delightfully vicious takedown of Thomas Friedman’s best-seller, The World Is Flat.

 

Bryan Garner on Metaphor

METAPHORS. A. Generally. A metaphor is a figure of speech in which one thing is called by the name of something else, or is said to be that other thing. Unlike similes, which use like or as, metaphorical comparisons are implicit—not explicit. Skillful use of metaphor is one of the highest attainments of writing; graceless and even aesthetically offensive use of metaphors is one of the commonest scourges of writing.

Although a graphic phrase often lends both force and compactness to writing, it must seem contextually agreeable. That is, speaking technically, the vehicle of the metaphor (i.e., the literal sense of the metaphorical language) must accord with the tenor of the metaphor (i.e., the ultimate, metaphorical sense), which is to say that the means must fit the end. To illustrate the distinction between the vehicle and the tenor of a metaphor, in the statement that essay is a patchwork quilt without discernible design, the makeup of the essay is the tenor, and the quilt is the vehicle. It is the comparison of the tenor with the vehicle that makes or breaks a metaphor.

A writer would be ill advised, for example, to use rustic metaphors in a discussion of the problems of air pollution, which is essentially a problem of the bigger cities and outlying areas. Doing that mismatches the vehicle with the tenor.

  1. Mixed Metaphors. The most embarrassing problem with metaphors occurs when one metaphor crowds another. It can happen with CLICHÉS—e.g.:
  • “It’s on a day like this that the cream really rises to the crop.” (This mingles the cream rises to the top with the cream of the crop.)
  • “He’s really got his hands cut out for him.” (This mingles he’s got his hands full with he’s got his work cut out for him.)
  • “This will separate the men from the chaff.” (This mingles separate the men from the boys with separate the wheat from the chaff.)
  • “It will take someone willing to pick up the gauntlet and run with it.” (This mingles pick up the gauntlet with pick up the ball and run with it.)
  • “From now on, I am watching everything you do with a fine-toothed comb.” (Watching everything you do isn’t something that can occur with a fine-toothed comb.)

The purpose of an image is to fix the idea in the reader’s or hearer’s mind. If jarringly disparate images appear together, the audience is left confused or sometimes laughing, at the writer’s expense.

The following classic example comes from a speech by Boyle Roche in the Irish Parliament, delivered in about 1790: “Mr. Speaker, I smell a rat. I see him floating in the air. But mark me, sir, I will nip him in the bud.” Perhaps the supreme example of the comic misuse of metaphor occurred in the speech of a scientist who referred to “a virgin field pregnant with possibilities.”

  1. Dormant Metaphors. Dormant metaphors sometimes come alive in contexts in which the user had no intention of reviving them. In the following examples, progeny, outpouring, and behind their backs are dormant metaphors that, in most contexts, don’t suggest their literal meanings. But when they’re used with certain concrete terms, the results can be jarring—e.g.:
  • “This Note examines the doctrine set forth in Roe v. Wade and its progeny.” “Potential Fathers and Abortion,” 55 Brooklyn L. Rev. 1359, 1363 (1990). (Roe v. Wade, of course, legalized abortion.)
  • “The slayings also have generated an outpouring of hand wringing from Canada’s commentators.” Anne Swardson, “In Canada, It Takes Only Two Deaths,” Wash. Post (Nat’l Weekly ed.), 18–24 Apr. 1994, at 17. (Hand-wringing can’t be poured.)
  • “But managers at Hyland Hills have found that, for whatever reasons, more and more young skiers are smoking behind their backs. And they are worried that others are setting a bad example.” Barbara Lloyd, “Ski Area Cracks Down on Smoking,” N.Y. Times, 25 Jan. 1996, at B13. (It’s a fire hazard to smoke behind your back.)

Yet another pitfall for the unwary is the CLICHÉ-metaphor that the writer renders incorrectly, as by writing taxed to the breaking point instead of stretched to the breaking point.

Garner, Bryan. Garner’s Modern American Usage (pp. 534-535). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

 

Matt Taibbi on The World Is Flat

Start with the title.

The book’s genesis is a conversation Friedman has with Nandan Nilekani, the CEO of Infosys. Nilekani caually mutters to Friedman: “Tom, the playing field is being leveled.” To you and me, an innocent throwaway phrase–the level playing field being, after all, one of the most oft-repeated stock ideas in the history of human interaction. Not to Friedman. Ten minutes after his talk with Nilekani, he is pitching a tent in his company van on the road back from the Infosys campus in Bangalore:

As I left the Infosys campus that evening along the road back to Bangalore, I kept chewing on that phrase: “The playing field is being leveled.”  What Nandan is saying, I thought, is that the playing field is being flattened… Flattened? Flattened? My God, he’s telling me the world is flat!

This is like three pages into the book, and already the premise is totally fucked. Nilekani said level, not flat. The two concepts are completely different. Level is a qualitative idea that implies equality and competitive balance; flat is a physical, geographic concept that Friedman, remember, is openly contrasting–ironically, as it were–with Columbus’s discovery that the world is round.

Except for one thing. The significance of Columbus’s discovery was that on a round earth, humanity is more interconnected than on a flat one. On a round earth, the two most distant points are closer together than they are on a flat earth. But Friedman is going to spend the next 470 pages turning the “flat world” into a metaphor for global interconnectedness. Furthermore, he is specifically going to use the word round to describe the old, geographically isolated, unconnected world.

“Let me… share with you some of the encounters that led me to conclude that the world is no longer round,” he says. He will literally travel backward in time, against the current of human knowledge.

To recap: Friedman, imagining himself Columbus, journeys toward India. Columbus, he notes, traveled in three ships; Friedman “had Lufthansa business class.” When he reaches India–Bangalore to be specific–he immediately plays golf. His caddy, he notes with interest, wears a cap with the 3M logo. Surrounding the golf course are billboards for Texas Instruments and Pizza Hut. The Pizza Hut billboard reads: “Gigabites of Taste.” Because he sees a Pizza Hut ad on the way to a golf course, something that could never happen in America, Friedman concludes: “No, this definitely wasn’t Kansas.”
Report Advertisement

After golf, he meets Nilekani, who casually mentions that the playing field is level. A nothing phrase, but Friedman has traveled all the way around the world to hear it. Man travels to India, plays golf, sees Pizza Hut billboard, listens to Indian CEO mutter small talk, writes 470-page book reversing the course of 2000 years of human thought. That he misattributes his thesis to Nilekani is perfect: Friedman is a person who not only speaks in malapropisms, he also hears malapropisms. Told level; heard flat. This is the intellectual version of Far Out Space Nuts, when NASA repairman Bob Denver sets a whole sitcom in motion by pressing “launch” instead of “lunch” in a space capsule. And once he hits that button, the rocket takes off.

And boy, does it take off. Predictably, Friedman spends the rest of his huge book piling one insane image on top of the other, so that by the end–and I’m not joking here–we are meant to understand that the flat world is a giant ice-cream sundae that is more beef than sizzle, in which everyone can fit his hose into his fire hydrant, and in which most but not all of us are covered with a mostly good special sauce. Moreover, Friedman’s book is the first I have encountered, anywhere, in which the reader needs a calculator to figure the value of the author’s metaphors.

God strike me dead if I’m joking about this. Judge for yourself. After the initial passages of the book, after Nilekani has forgotten Friedman and gone back to interacting with the sane, Friedman begins constructing a monstrous mathematical model of flatness. The baseline argument begins with a lengthy description of the “ten great flatteners,” which is basically a highlight reel of globalization tomahawk dunks from the past two decades: the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the Netscape IPO, the pre-Y2K outsourcing craze, and so on. Everything that would give an IBM human resources director a boner, that’s a flattener. The catch here is that Flattener #10 is new communications technology: “Digital, Mobile, Personal, and Virtual.” These technologies Friedman calls “steroids,” because they are “amplifying and turbocharging all the other flatteners.”

According to the mathematics of the book, if you add an IPac to your offshoring, you go from running to sprinting with gazelles and from eating with lions to devouring with them. Although these 10 flatteners existed already by the time Friedman wrote “The Lexus and the Olive Tree”–a period of time referred to in the book as Globalization 2.0, with Globalization 1.0 beginning with Columbus–they did not come together to bring about Globalization 3.0, the flat world, until the 10 flatteners had, with the help of the steroids, gone through their “Triple Convergence.” The first convergence is the merging of software and hardware to the degree that makes, say, the Konica Minolta Bizhub (the product featured in Friedman’s favorite television commercial) possible. The second convergence came when new technologies combined with new ways of doing business. The third convergence came when the people of certain low-wage industrial countries–India, Russia, China, among others–walked onto the playing field. Thanks to steroids, incidentally, they occasionally are “not just walking” but “jogging and even sprinting” onto the playing field.
Now let’s say that the steroids speed things up by a factor of two. It could be any number, but let’s be conservative and say two. The whole point of the book is to describe the journey from Globalization 2.0 (Friedman’s first bestselling book) to Globalization 3.0 (his current bestselling book). To get from 2.0 to 3.0, you take 10 flatteners, and you have them converge–let’s say this means squaring them, because that seems to be the idea–three times. By now, the flattening factor is about a thousand. Add a few steroids in there, and we’re dealing with a flattening factor somewhere in the several thousands at any given page of the book. We’re talking about a metaphor that mathematically adds up to a four-digit number. If you’re like me, you’re already lost by the time Friedman starts adding to this numerical jumble his very special qualitative descriptive imagery. For instance:

And now the icing on the cake, the ubersteroid that makes it all mobile: wireless. Wireless is what allows you to take everything that has been digitized, made virtual and personal, and do it from anywhere.  Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you a Thomas Friedman metaphor, a set of upside-down antlers with four thousand points: the icing on your uber-steroid-flattener-cake!

Let’s speak Friedmanese for a moment and examine just a few of the notches on these antlers (Friedman, incidentally, measures the flattening of the world in notches, i.e. “The flattening process had to go another notch”; I’m not sure where the notches go in the flat plane, but there they are.) Flattener #1 is actually two flatteners, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the spread of the Windows operating system. In a Friedman book, the reader naturally seizes up in dread the instant a suggestive word like “Windows” is introduced; you wince, knowing what’s coming, the same way you do when Leslie Nielsen orders a Black Russian. And Friedman doesn’t disappoint. His description of the early 90s:

The walls had fallen down and the Windows had opened, making the world much flatter than it had ever been–but the age of seamless global communication had not yet dawned.
How the fuck do you open a window in a fallen wall? More to the point, why would you open a window in a fallen wall? Or did the walls somehow fall in such a way that they left the windows floating in place to be opened?

Four hundred and 73 pages of this, folks. Is there no God?

© 2012 New York Press All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/21856/

Posted in Academic writing, Writing

Academic Writing Issues #5 — Failing to Use Dynamic Verbs

Many people have complained that academic writers are addicted to the passive voice, doing anything to avoid using the first person:  “Data were gathered.”  I wonder who did that?  But in some ways a bigger problem is that we refuse to use the kind of dynamic verbs that can energize our stories and drive the argument forward.  Below is a lovely piece by Constance Hale, originally published as part of the New York Times series in 2012 on writing called Draft.  In it she explains the difference between static verbs and power verbs.  Yes, she says, static verbs have their uses; but when we rely too heavily on them, we drain all energy, urgency, and personality from our authorial voices.  We can also end up lulling our readers to sleep.

She gives us some excellent examples about how we can use the full array of verbs at our disposal to tell compelling, nuanced, and engaging stories.  Enjoy.

Here’s a link to the original version.

 

New York Times

APRIL 16, 2012, 9:00 PM

Make-or-Break Verbs

By CONSTANCE HALE

Draft is a series about the art and craft of writing.

This is the third in a series of writing lessons by the author.

A sentence can offer a moment of quiet, it can crackle with energy or it can just lie there, listless and uninteresting.

What makes the difference? The verb.

Verbs kick-start sentences: Without them, words would simply cluster together in suspended animation. We often call them action words, but verbs also can carry sentiments (love, fear, lust, disgust), hint at cognition (realize, know, recognize), bend ideas together (falsify, prove, hypothesize), assert possession (own, have) and conjure existence itself (is, are).

Fundamentally, verbs fall into two classes: static (to be, to seem, to become) and dynamic (to whistle, to waffle, to wonder). (These two classes are sometimes called “passive” and “active,” and the former are also known as “linking” or “copulative” verbs.) Static verbs stand back, politely allowing nouns and adjectives to take center stage. Dynamic verbs thunder in from the wings, announcing an event, producing a spark, adding drama to an assembled group.

Static Verbs
Static verbs themselves fall into several subgroups, starting with what I call existential verbs: all the forms of to be, whether the present (am, are, is), the past (was, were) or the other more vexing tenses (is being, had been, might have been). In Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the Prince of Denmark asks, “To be, or not to be?” when pondering life-and-death questions. An aging King Lear uses both is and am when he wonders about his very identity:

“Who is it that can tell me who I am?”

Jumping ahead a few hundred years, Henry Miller echoes Lear when, in his autobiographical novel “Tropic of Cancer,” he wanders in Dijon, France, reflecting upon his fate:

“Yet I am up and about, a walking ghost, a white man terrorized by the cold sanity of this slaughter-house geometry. Who am I? What am I doing here?”

Drawing inspiration from Miller, we might think of these verbs as ghostly verbs, almost invisible. They exist to call attention not to themselves, but to other words in the sentence.

Another subgroup is what I call wimp verbs (appear, seem, become). Most often, they allow a writer to hedge (on an observation, description or opinion) rather than commit to an idea: Lear appears confused. Miller seems lost.

Finally, there are the sensing verbs (feel, look, taste, smell and sound), which have dual identities: They are dynamic in some sentences and static in others. If Miller said I feel the wind through my coat, that’s dynamic. But if he said I feel blue, that’s static.

Static verbs establish a relationship of equals between the subject of a sentence and its complement. Think of those verbs as quiet equals signs, holding the subject and the predicate in delicate equilibrium. For example, I, in the subject, equals feel blue in the predicate.

Power Verbs
Dynamic verbs are the classic action words. They turn the subject of a sentence into a doer in some sort of drama. But there are dynamic verbs — and then there are dynamos. Verbs like has, does, goes, gets and puts are all dynamic, but they don’t let us envision the action. The dynamos, by contrast, give us an instant picture of a specific movement. Why have a character go when he could gambol, shamble, lumber, lurch, sway, swagger or sashay?

Picking pointed verbs also allows us to forgo adverbs. Many of these modifiers merely prop up a limp verb anyway. Strike speaks softly and insert whispers. Erase eats hungrily in favor of devours. And whatever you do, avoid adverbs that mindlessly repeat the sense of the verb, as in circle around, merge together or mentally recall.

This sentence from “Tinkers,” by Paul Harding, shows how taking time to find the right verb pays off:

“The forest had nearly wicked from me that tiny germ of heat allotted to each person….”

Wick is an evocative word that nicely gets across the essence of a more commonplace verb like sucked or drained.

Sportswriters and announcers must be masters of dynamic verbs, because they endlessly describe the same thing while trying to keep their readers and listeners riveted. We’re not just talking about a player who singles, doubles or homers. We’re talking about, as announcers described during the 2010 World Series, a batter who “spoils the pitch” (hits a foul ball), a first baseman who “digs it out of the dirt” (catches a bad throw) and a pitcher who “scatters three singles through six innings” (keeps the hits to a minimum).

Imagine the challenge of writers who cover races. How can you write about, say, all those horses hustling around a track in a way that makes a single one of them come alive? Here’s how Laura Hillenbrand, in “Seabiscuit,” described that horse’s winning sprint:

“Carrying 130 pounds, 22 more than Wedding Call and 16 more than Whichcee, Seabiscuit delivered a tremendous surge. He slashed into the hole, disappeared between his two larger opponents, then burst into the lead… Seabiscuit shook free and hurtled into the homestretch alone as the field fell away behind him.”

Even scenes that at first blush seem quiet can bristle with life. The best descriptive writers find a way to balance nouns and verbs, inertia and action, tranquillity and turbulence. Take Jo Ann Beard, who opens the short story “Cousins” with static verbs as quiet as a lake at dawn:

“Here is a scene. Two sisters are fishing together in a flat-bottomed boat on an olive green lake….”

When the world of the lake starts to awaken, the verbs signal not just the stirring of life but crisp tension:

“A duck stands up, shakes out its feathers and peers above the still grass at the edge of the water. The skin of the lake twitches suddenly and a fish springs loose into the air, drops back down with a flat splash. Ripples move across the surface like radio waves. The sun hoists itself up and gets busy, laying a sparkling rug across the water, burning the beads of dew off the reeds, baking the tops of our mothers’ heads.”

Want to practice finding dynamic verbs? Go to a horse race, a baseball game or even walk-a-thon. Find someone to watch intently. Describe what you see. Or, if you’re in a quiet mood, sit on a park bench, in a pew or in a boat on a lake, and then open your senses. Write what you see, hear and feel. Consider whether to let your verbs jump into the scene or stand by patiently.

Verbs can make or break your writing, so consider them carefully in every sentence you write. Do you want to sit your subject down and hold a mirror to it? Go ahead, use is. Do you want to plunge your subject into a little drama? Go dynamic. Whichever you select, give your readers language that makes them eager for the next sentence.

Constance Hale, a journalist based in San Francisco, is the author of “Sin and Syntax” and the forthcoming “Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch.” She covers writing and the writing life at sinandsyntax.com.

Posted in Academic writing, Writing

Academic Writing Issues #4 — Failing to Listen for the Music

All too often, academic writing is tone deaf to the music of language.  Just as we tend to consider unprofessional any writing that is playful, engaging, funny, or moving, so too with writing that is musical.  A professional monotone is the scholar’s voice of choice.  This stance leads to two big problems.  One is that it puts off the reader, exactly the person we should be trying to draw into our story.  Why so easily abandon one of the great tools of effective rhetoric?  Another is that it alienates academic writers from their own words, forcing them to adopt the generic voice of the pedant rather than the particular voice the person who is the author.

For better or for worse — usually for worse — we as scholars are contributing to the literary legacy of our culture, so why not do so in a way that sometimes sings or at least doesn’t end on a false note.  Speaking of which, consider a quote from one of the masters of English prose, Abraham Lincoln, from the last paragraph of his first inaugural address.  Picture him talking at the brink of the nation’s most terrible war, and then listen to his melodic phrasing:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

In the English language, there are two rhetorical storehouses that for centuries have grounded writers like Lincoln — Shakespeare and the King James Bible.  Both are compulsively quotable, and both provide models for how to combine meaning and music in the way we write.

Take a look at this lovely piece by Ann Wroe, an appreciation of the music of the King James Bible, which makes all the the other translations sound tone deaf.

Published in the Economist

March 30, 2011

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE SOUND

By Ann Wroe

Bible

The King James Bible is 400 years old this year, and the music of its sentences is still ringing out. But what exactly made it so good? Ann Wroe gives chapter and verse…

Like many Catholics, I came late to the King James Bible. I was schooled in the flat Knox version, and knew the beautiful, musical Latin Vulgate well before I was introduced to biblical beauty in my own tongue. I was around 20, sitting in St John’s College Chapel in Oxford in the glow of late winter candlelight, though that fond memory may be embellished a little. A reading from the King James was given at Evensong. The effect was extraordinary: as if I had suddenly found, in the house of language I had loved and explored all my life, a hidden central chamber whose pillars and vaulting, rhythm and strength had given shape to everything around them.

The King James now breathes venerability. Even online it calls up crammed, black, indented fonts, thick rag paper and rubbed leather bindings—with, inside the heavy cover, spidery lists of family ancestors begotten long ago. To read it is to enter a sort of communion with everyone who has read or listened to it before, a crowd of ghosts: Puritan women in wide white collars, stern Victorian fathers clasping their canes, soldiers muddy from killing fields, serving girls in Sunday best, and every schoolboy whose inky fingers have burrowed to 2 Kings 27, where Rabshakeh says, “Hath my master not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you?”

When it appeared, moreover, it was already familiar, in the sense that it borrowed freely from William Tyndale’s great translation of a century before. Deliberately, and with commendable modesty, the members of King James’s translation committees said they did not seek “to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, but to make a good one better”. What exactly they borrowed and where they improved is a detective job for scholars, not for this piece. So where it mentions “translators” Tyndale is included among them, the original and probably the best; for this book still breathes him, as much as them.

In both his time and theirs this was a modern translation, the living language of streets, docks, workshops, fields. Ancient Israel and Jacobean England went easily together. The original writers of the books of the Old Testament knew about pruning trees, putting on armour, drawing water, the readying of horses for battle and the laying of stones for a wall; and in the King James all these activities are still evidently familiar, the jargon easy, and the language light. “Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward”, runs the wonderful phrase in Job 5: 7, and we are at a blacksmith’s door in an English village, watching hammer strike anvil, or kicking a rolling log on our own cottage hearth. “Hard as a piece of the nether millstone” brings the creak of a 17th-century mill, as well as the sweat of more ancient hands. In both worlds, “seedtime and harvest” are real seasons. This age-old continuity comforts us, even though we no longer know or share it.

By the same token, the reader of the King James lives vicariously in a world of solid certainties. There is nothing quaint here about a candle or a flagon, or money in a tied leather purse; nothing arcane about threads woven on a handloom, mire in the streets or the snuffle of swine outside the town gates. This is life. Everything is closely observed, tactile, and has weight. When Adam and Eve sew fig-leaves together to cover their shame they make “aprons” (Genesis 3: 7), leather-thick and workmanlike, the sort a cobbler might wear. Even the colours invoked in the King James—crimson, scarlet, purple—are nouns rather than adjectives (“though your sins be as scarlet”, Isaiah 1: 18), sold by the block as solid powder or heaped glossy on a brush. And God’s intervention in this world, whether as artist, builder, woodsman or demolition man, is as physical and real as the materials he works with.

English, of course, was richer in those days, full of neesings and axletrees, habergeons and gazingstocks, if indeed a gazingstock has a plural. Modern skin has spots: the King James gives us botches, collops and blains, horridly and lumpily different. It gives us curious clutter, too, a whole storehouse of tools and knick-knacks whose use is now half-forgotten—nuff-dishes, besoms, latchets and gins, and fashions seemingly more suited to a souped-up motor than to the daughters of Jerusalem:

The chains, and the bracelets, and the mufflers,
The bonnets, and the ornaments of the legs, and the
headbands, and the tablets, and the earrings,
The rings, and nose jewels,
The changeable suits of apparel, and the mantles, and the
wimples, and the crisping pins…  (Isaiah 3: 19-22)

“Crisping pins” have now been swallowed up (in the Good News version) in “fine robes, gowns, cloaks and purses”. And so we have lost that sharp, momentary image of varnished nails pushing pins into unruly frizzes of hair, and lipsticked mouths pursed in concentration, as the daughters of Zion prepare to take on the town. These women are “froward”, a word that has been lost now, but which haunts the King James like a strutting shadow with a shrill, hectoring voice. Few lines are longer-drawn out, freighted with sighs, than these from Proverbs 27:15: “A continual dropping in a very rainy day and a contentious woman are alike.”
Other characters cause trouble, too. In the King James, people are aggressively physical. They shoot out their lips, stretch forth their necks and wink with their eyes; they open their mouths wide and say “Aha, aha”, wagging their heads, in ways that would get them arrested in Wal-Mart. They do not simply refuse to listen, but pull away their shoulders and stop their ears; they do not merely trip, but dash their feet against stones. Sex is peremptory: men “know” women, lie with them, “go in unto” them, as brisk as the women are available. “Begat” is perhaps the word the King James is best known for, list after list of begetting. The curt efficiency of the word (did no one suggest “fathered”?) makes the erotic languor of the Song of Solomon, with its lilies and heaps of wheat, shine out like a jewel.

The world in which these things happen has a particular look and feel that comes not just from the original authors, but often from the translators and the words they favoured. Mystery colours much of it. They like “lurking places of the villages” (Psalms 10: 8), “secret places of the stairs” (Song of Solomon 2:14), and things done “privily”, or “close”. God hides in “pavilions” that seem as mysterious as the shifting dunes of the desert, or the white flapping tents of the clouds. The word “creeping” is used everywhere to suggest that something lives; very little moves fast here, and heads and bellies are bent close to the earth. Even flying is slow, through the thick darkness. People go forth abroad, and waters come down from above, with considerable effort, as though through slowly opening layers. Elements are divided into their constituent parts: the waters of the sea, a flame of fire. A rainbow curves brightly away from the astonished, struggling observer, “in sight like unto an emerald” (Revelation 4: 3). But the grandeur of the language gives momentousness even to the corner of a room, a drain running beside a field, a patch of abandoned ground:

I went by the field of the slothful, and by the vineyard of the
man void of understanding;
And lo, it was all grown over with thorns, and nettles had
covered the face thereof, and the stone wall thereof was
broken down.
Then I saw, and considered it well; I looked upon it, and
received instruction.
Yet a little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands
to sleep…  (Proverbs 24: 30-33)

In such places shepherds “abide” with their sheep, motionless as figures made of stone. This landscape is carved broad and deep, like a woodcut, with sharply folded mountains, thick woven water, stylised trees and cities piled and blocked as with children’s bricks (all the better to be scattered by God later, no stone upon another). A sense of desolation haunts these streets and gates, echoing and shelterless places in which even Wisdom runs wild and cries. Yet within them sometimes we find a scene paced as tensely as in any modern novel, as when a young man in Proverbs steps out,

Passing through the street near her corner; and he went the
way to her house,
In the twilight, in the evening, in the black and dark night:
And, behold, there met him a woman with the attire of an
harlot, and subtil of heart.  (Proverbs 7: 8-10)

Just as stained glass shines more brightly for being set in stone, so the King James gains in splendour by comparison with the Revised Standard, Good News, New International and Heaven-knows-what versions that have come later. Thus John’s magnificent “The Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1: 1), has become “The Word was already existing”, scholarship usurping splendour. That lilting line in Genesis (1: 8), “And the evening and the morning were the second day” (note that second “the”, so apparently expendable, yet so necessary to the music) becomes “There was morning, and there was evening”, a broken-backed crawl. The fig-leaf aprons are now reduced to “coverings for themselves”. And the garden planted “eastward in Eden” (Genesis 2: 8), another of the King James’s myriad and scarcely conscious touches of grace, has become “to the east, in Eden” a place from which the magic has drained away.

Everywhere modern translations are more specific, doubtless more accurate, but always less melodious. The King James, deeply scholarly as it is, displaying the best learning of the day, never forgets that the word of God must be heard, understood and retained by the simple. For them—children repeating after the teacher, workers fidgeting in their best clothes, Tyndale’s own whistling ploughboy—rhythm and music are the best aids to remembering. This is language not for silent study but for reading and declaiming aloud. It needs to work like poetry, and poetry it is.

The King James is famous for its monosyllables, great drumbeats of description or admonition: “And God said, Let there be light: and there was light” (Genesis 1: 3); “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” (Psalms 14: 1); “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” (Genesis 3: 19). These are fundaments, bases, bricks to build with. Yet its rhythms are also far cleverer than that, endlessly and subtly adjusted. Typically, a King James sentence has two parts broken by a pause around the mid-point, with the first part slightly more declaratory and the second slightly more explanatory: the stronger syllables massed towards the beginning, the weaker crowding softly towards their end. “Surely there is a vein for the silver, and a place for gold where they fine it” (Job 28: 1); “He buildeth his house as a moth, and as a booth that the keeper maketh” (Job 27: 18). But sometimes the order is inverted, and the words too: “As the bird by wandering, as the swallow by flying, so the curse causeless shall not come” (Proverbs 26: 2); “Out of the south cometh the whirlwind: and cold out of the north” (Job 37: 9). Perhaps the whirlwind itself has disordered things. This contrapuntal system even allows for a bit of bathos and fun: “Divers weights are an abomination unto the lord; and a false balance is not good” (Proverbs 20: 23).

Certain devices were available then which modern writers may well envy. The old English language allowed rhythms and syncopations that cannot be employed any more. Consider the use of “even”, dropped in with an almost casual flourish: “And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind” (Revelations 6: 13). Or “neither”, used in the same way: “Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it” (Song of Solomon 8: 7). Modern translations separate those two thoughts, but the beauty lies in their conjunction with a word as light as air.
Undoubtedly the King James has been enhanced for us by the music that now curls round it. “For unto us a child is born” (Isaiah 9: 6) can’t now be read without Handel’s tripping chorus, or “Man that is born of a woman” without Purcell’s yearning melancholy (“He cometh forth like a flower, and is cut down” Job 14: 2). Even “To every thing there is a season”, from Ecclesiastes (3: 1), is now overlaid with the nasal, gently stoned tones of Simon & Garfunkel. Yet the King James also lured these musicians in the beginning, snaring them with stray lines that were already singing. “Stay me with flagons, comfort me with apples, for I am sick of love” (Song of Solomon 2: 5). “Thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns” (Psalms 22: 21). “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Psalms 19: 1). “I am a brother to dragons, and a companion to owls” (Job 30: 29). Or this, also from the Book of Job, possibly the most beautiful of all the Bible’s books—a passage that flows from one astonishingly random and sudden question, “Hast thou entered into the treasures of the snow?” (Job 38:22):

Hath the rain a father? Or who hath begotten the drops of
dew?
Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of
heaven, who hath gendered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone, and the face of the deep
is frozen.
Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Plaeiades, or loose
the bands of Orion?  (Job 38:28-31)

The beauty of this is inherent, deep in the original mind and eye that formed it. But again, the translators have made choices here: “hid” rather than “hidden”, “gendered” rather than “engendered”, all for the very best rhythmic reasons.  We can trust them; we know that they would certainly have employed “hidden” and “engendered” if the music called for it. Unfailingly, their ear is sure. And if we suspect that rhythm sometimes matters more than meaning, that is fine too: it leaves space for the sacred and numinous, that which cannot be grasped, that which lies beyond all words, to move within the lines.

That subtle notion of divinity, however, is seldom uppermost in the Old Testament. This God smites a lot. Three close-printed columns of Young’s Concordance are filled with his smiting, lightly interspersed with other people’s. Mere men use hand weapons, bows and arrows, or, with Jacobean niftiness, “the edge of the sword”; but the God of the King James simply smites, whether Moabites or Jebusites, vines or rocks or first-born, like a broad, bright thunderbolt. No other word could be so satisfactory, the opening consonants clenched like a fist that propels God’s anger down, and in, and on. We know that these are tough workman’s hands: this is the God who “stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing” (Job 26: 7). Smiting must have survived after the King James; but perhaps it was now so soft with over-use, so bruised, that it faded out of the language.

This God surprises, too. He “hisses unto” people, perhaps a cross between a whistle and a whoop, as if marshalling a yard of hens. God goes before, “preventing” us; he whips off our disguises, our clothes or our leaves, “discovering” us, and the shock of the original meanings of those words alerts us to the origins of power itself. “Who can stay the bottles of heaven?” cries a voice in Job 38: 37; and we suspect God again, like a teenage yob this time, lurking in his pavilion of cloud.

At moments like this it also seems that the translators themselves might be mystified, fingers scratching neat beards while they survey the incomprehensible words. Did they really understand, for example, that odd medical diagnosis in Proverbs: “The blueness of a wound cleanseth away evil; so do stripes the inward parts of the belly” (20: 30)? Or these lines from the last chapter of Ecclesiastes, the mystifying staple of so many funerals?

…they shall be afraid of that which is high, and fears shall
be in the way, and the almond tree shall flourish, and
the grasshopper shall be a burden, and desire shall fail;
because man goeth to his long home, and the mourners
go about the streets:
Or ever the silver cord be loosed, or the golden bowl be
broken, or the pitcher be broken at the fountain, or the
wheel broken at the cistern.
Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was… (Ecclesiastes 12: 5-7)

These are surreal images, unlikely litter in the fields and streets; but they are made all the more potent by the heavy phrasing, the inevitability of the building lines, and the conscious repetition, broken, broken, broken. We know our translators have plenty of synonyms up their sleeves. They choose not to use them. When these lines are read, though we barely know what they mean, they spell despair. And they are meant to, as the man in the pulpit in a moment reminds us:

Vanity of vanities, saith the preacher; all is vanity (Ecclesiastes 12: 8)

Yet often, too, a spirit of playfulness seems to be at work. Consider, lastly, the rain. This is ordinary rain most of the time, malqosh in the Hebrew, and all modern translations make it so. But in the King James we also have “the latter rain”, and “small rain”, and we are alerted to their delicacy and difference. Small rain (“as the small rain upon the tender herb” Deuteronomy 32: 2) is presumably the sort that blows in the air, that makes no imprint on a puddle; the Irish would call it a soft day. And latter rain, perhaps, is the sort that skulks at the end of an afternoon, or suddenly cascades down in an autumn gust, or patters for a desultory few minutes after a day of approaching thunder—and then we open our mouths wide to it, laughing, grateful, as for the word of God.
Ann Wroe [3] is obituaries and briefings editor of The Economist and author of “Being Shelley”

 

Posted in Academic writing, Writing

Academic Writing Issues #3 — Failing to Tell a Story

Good writers tell stories.  This is just as true for academic writers as for novelists and journalists.  The story needs actors and actions, and it needs to flow.  A sentence is a mini-story.  Each sentence needs to flow into the next and so does each paragraph.  When readers finish your paper, the need to be able to tell themselves and other what your story is.  If they can’t, you haven’t succeeded in drawing them into that story.

Watch how Constance Hale explains how to tell a story in every sentence you write.  It’s a piece from Draft the New York Times series on writing from 2012.

New York Times

MARCH 19, 2012, 9:30 PM

The Sentence as a Miniature Narrative

By Constance Hale

I like to imagine a sentence as a boat. Each sentence, after all, has a distinct shape, and it comes with something that makes it move forward or stay still — whether a sail, a motor or a pair of oars. There are as many kinds of sentences as there are seaworthy vessels: canoes and sloops, barges and battleships, Mississippi riverboats and dinghies all-too-prone to leaks. And then there are the impostors, flotsam and jetsam — a log heading downstream, say, or a coconut bobbing in the waves without a particular destination.

My analogy seems simple, but it’s not always easy to craft a sentence that makes heads turn with its sleekness and grace. And yet the art of sentences is not really a mystery.

Over the course of several articles, I will give you the tools to become a sentence connoisseur as well as a sentence artisan. Each of my lessons will give you the insight to appreciate fine sentences and the vocabulary to talk about them.

*

At some point in our lives, early on, maybe in grade school, teachers give us a pat definition for a sentence — “It begins with a capital letter, ends with a period and expresses a complete thought.” We eventually learn that that period might be replaced by another strong stop, like a question mark or an exclamation point.

But that definition misses the essence of sentencehood. We are taught about the sentence from the outside in, about the punctuation first, rather than the essential components. The outline of our boat, the meaning of our every utterance, is given form by nouns and verbs. Nouns give us sentence subjects — our boat hulls. Verbs give us predicates — the forward momentum, the twists and turns, the abrupt stops.

For a sentence to be a sentence we need a What (the subject) and a So What (the predicate). The subject is the person, place, thing or idea we want to express something about; the predicate expresses the action, condition or effect of that subject. Think of the predicate as a predicament — the situation the subject is in.

I like to think of the whole sentence as a mini-narrative. It features a protagonist (the subject) and some sort of drama (the predicate): The searchlight sweeps. Harvey keeps on keeping on. The drama makes us pay attention.

Let’s look at some opening lines of great novels to see how the sentence drama plays out. Notice the subject, in bold, in each of the following sentences. It might be a simple noun or pronoun, a noun modified by an adjective or two or something even more complicated:

They shoot the white girl first.” — Toni Morrison, “Paradise”

Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.” — James Joyce, “Ulysses”

The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are-you-in-trouble? — Do-you-need-advice? — Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard.” — Nathanael West, “Miss Lonelyhearts”

Switching to the predicate, remember that it is everything that is not the subject. In addition to the verb, it can contain direct objects, indirect objects, adverbs and various kinds of phrases. More important, the predicate names the predicament of the subject.

“Elmer Gantry was drunk.” — Sinclair Lewis, “Elmer Gantry”

“Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.” — Ha Jin, “Waiting”

There are variations, of course. Sometimes the subject is implied rather than stated, especially when the writer uses the imperative mood:

Call me Ishmael.” — Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”

And sometimes there is more than one subject-predicate pairing within a sentence:

“We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.” — Louise Erdrich, “Tracks”

One way to get the hang of such mini-narratives is to gently imitate great one-liners. Try taking each one of the sentences above and plugging in your own subjects and predicates, just to sense the way that nouns and verbs form little stories.

Another way to experiment with subjects and predicates is to write your epitaph — either seriously or in jest. The editors of SmithMagazine challenged their readers to put their lives into six words and have published the best results. Here are some examples of Six-Word Memoirs that do the subject-predicate tango:

“Told to Marry Rich, married Richard.” (JMorris)

“My parents should’ve kept their receipt.” (SarahBeth)

When a sentence lacks one of its two essential parts, it is called a sentence fragment. Like the flotsam I mentioned earlier, fragments are adrift, without clear direction or purpose.

Playing with sentence fragments can be fun — the best copywriters use them for memorable advertising slogans (Alka-Seltzer’s “Plop plop, fizz fizz”). But there are plenty of competing Madison Avenue slogans to convince you that a full sentence registers equally well — from Esso’s “Put a tiger in your tank” to The Heublein Company’s “Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?” While sentence fragments can be witty, they are still shards of thoughts, better suited to hawking antacids than to penning the Great American Novel or earnestly attempting to put inchoate thoughts into indelible words.

If sentence fragments are like flotsam, a profusion of subjects is like jetsam. Too many subjects thrown in can cause a passage to become muddy. We are especially prone to losing control of our subjects when we speak. Take these off-the-cuff remarks by President George Bush at a 1988 Milwaukee campaign stop around Halloween:

“We had last night, last night we had a couple of our grandchildren with us in Kansas City — 6-year-old twins, one of them went as a package of Juicy Fruit, arms sticking out of the pack, the other was Dracula. A big rally there. And Dracula’s wig fell off in the middle of my speech and I got to thinking, watching those kids, and I said if I could look back and I had been president for four years: What would you like to do? Those young kids here. And I’d love to be able to say that working with our allies, working with the Soviets, I’d found a way to ban chemical and biological weapons from the face of the earth.”

As the subjects in those sentences keep shifting — from we to twinsone of themthe otherwe(implied), wigIIIyoukids, I, and I — his message keeps shifting, too. Mr. Bush’s speechwriter,Peggy Noonan, has written that the president was “allergic to I.” He seemed to feel uncomfortable calling attention to himself, so he performed what Noonan called “I-ectomies” in his speeches.

Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. may not share Mr. Bush’s aversion to I, but a sentence from his2008 vice-presidential debate shows how he, too, could lose track of his subjects:

“If you need any more proof positive of how bad the economic theories have been, this excessive deregulation, the failure to oversee what was going on, letting Wall Street run wild, I don’t think you needed any more evidence than what you see now.”

Biden not only shifts from you to I and back to you again, he throws three sentence fragments into the middle of his sentence, each featuring a different subject.

Syntax gets a lot more complicated than subjects and predicates, but understanding the relationship between the hull and the sail, the What and the So What, is the first step in mastering the dynamics of a sentence. In future weeks we’ll delve into more ways you can play with subjects and predicates, but first, in the next few lessons I will write, we’ll explore the raw materials of sentence-building: nouns, adjectives and verbs.

*

Just as there is no one perfect boat, there is no one perfect sentence structure. Mark Twain wrote sentences that were as humble, sturdy and American as a canoe; William Faulkner wrote sentences as gaudy as a Mississippi riverboat. But no matter the atmospherics, the best sentences bolt a clear subject to a dramatic predicate, making a mini-narrative. Tell us your favorite sentences from literature in the comments section below, and identify the subject and the predicate. We’ll publish some of the best ones in Draft later this week.

Constance Hale, a journalist based in San Francisco, is the author of “Sin and Syntax” and the forthcoming “Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch.” She covers writing and the writing life atsinandsyntax.com.

 

Posted in Academic writing, Educational Research, Writing

Academic Writing Issues #2: Zombie Nouns

One of the most prominent and dysfunctional traits of academic writing is its heavy reliance on what Helen Sword, in the piece below, calls “zombie nouns.”  These are cases when the writer takes an agile verb or adjective or noun and transforms it into a more imposing noun with lead feet.  Just add the proper suffix to a simple word and you too can produce a term that looks thoroughly academic.  Visualize becomes visualization; collective becomes collectivity; institution becomes institutionalization.  The technical term for this, which is itself a case in point, is nominalization.  In limited numbers, these words can be useful in capturing an idea, but when they proliferate they can suck the life out of a text and drive the reader to, well, distraction.

For academic writers, the lure of these terms is that they allow you to display your mastery of professional jargon.  But the cost — in loss of verve, clarity, and grace — is very high.

Watch how he makes her case in this piece from Draft, the New York Times series on writing from a few years back.

After you’ve read it, try analyzing one of your own texts (or a random journal article) using her Writer’s Diet test. It will tell you how flabby or fit the writing is.  This is a bit humbling.  But you’ll have the pleasure of seeing how your badly the work of your esteemed senior colleagues fares in the same analysis.

 

Zombie Nouns

By Helen Sword

July 23, 2012

Take an adjective (implacable) or a verb (calibrate) or even another noun (crony) and add a suffix like ity, tion or ism. You’ve created a new noun: implacability, calibration, cronyism. Sounds impressive, right?

Nouns formed from other parts of speech are called nominalizations. Academics love them; so do lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers. I call them “zombie nouns” because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings:

The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursive formation may be an indication of a tendency toward pomposity and abstraction.

The sentence above contains no fewer than seven nominalizations, each formed from a verb or an adjective. Yet it fails to tell us who is doing what. When we eliminate or reanimate most of the zombie nouns (tendency becomes tend, abstraction becomes abstract) and add a human subject and some active verbs, the sentence springs back to life:

Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract.

Only one zombie noun – the key word nominalizations – has been allowed to remain standing.

At their best, nominalizations help us express complex ideas: perception, intelligence, epistemology. At their worst, they impede clear communication. I have seen academic colleagues become so enchanted by zombie nouns like heteronormativity and interpellation that they forget how ordinary people speak. Their students, in turn, absorb the dangerous message that people who use big words are smarter – or at least appear to be – than those who don’t.

In fact, the more abstract your subject matter, the more your readers will appreciate stories, anecdotes, examples and other handholds to help them stay on track. In her book “Darwin’s Plots,” the literary historian Gillian Beer supplements abstract nouns like evidence, relationships and beliefs with vivid verbs (rebuff, overturn, exhilarate) and concrete nouns that appeal to sensory experience (earth, sun, eyes):

Most major scientific theories rebuff common sense. They call on evidence beyond the reach of our senses and overturn the observable world. They disturb assumed relationships and shift what has been substantial into metaphor. The earth now only seems immovable. Such major theories tax, affront, and exhilarate those who first encounter them, although in fifty years or so they will be taken for granted, part of the apparently common-sense set of beliefs which instructs us that the earth revolves around the sun whatever our eyes may suggest.

Her subject matter – scientific theories – could hardly be more cerebral, yet her language remains firmly anchored in the physical world.

Contrast Beer’s vigorous prose with the following passage from a social sciences book:

The partial participation of newcomers is by no means “disconnected” from the practice of interest. Furthermore, it is also a dynamic concept. In this sense, peripherality, when it is enabled, suggests an opening, a way of gaining access to sources for understanding through growing involvement. The ambiguity inherent in peripheral participation must then be connected to issues of legitimacy, of the social organization of and control over resources, if it is to gain its full analytical potential.

Why does reading this paragraph feel like trudging through deep mud? The secret lies at its grammatical core: Participation is. . . . It is. . . . Peripherality suggests. . . . Ambiguity must be connected. Every single sentence has a zombie noun or a pronoun as its subject, coupled with an uninspiring verb. Who are the people? Where is the action? What story is being told?

To get a feeling for how zombie nouns work, release a few of them into a sentence and watch them sap all of its life. George Orwell played this game in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” contrasting a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes with his own satirical translation:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

The Bible passage speaks to our senses and emotions with concrete nouns (sun, bread), descriptions of people (the swift, the wise, men of understanding, men of skill) and punchy abstract nouns (race, battle, riches, time, chance). Orwell’s “modern English” version, by contrast, is teeming with nominalizations (considerations, conclusion, activities, tendency, capacity, unpredictable) and other vague abstractions (phenomena, success, failure, element). The zombies have taken over, and the humans have fled the village.

Zombie nouns do their worst damage when they gather in jargon-generating packs and infect every noun, verb and adjective in sight: globe becomes global becomes globalize becomes globalization. The grandfather of all nominalizations, antidisestablishmentarianism, potentially contains at least two verbs, three adjectives and six other nouns.

A paragraph heavily populated by nominalizations will send your readers straight to sleep. Wake them up with vigorous, verb-driven sentences that are concrete, clearly structured and blissfully zombie-free.

*****

For an operationalized assessment of your own propensity for nominalization dependence (translation: to diagnose your own zombie habits), try pasting a few samples of your prose into the Writer’s Diet test. A score of “flabby” or “heart attack” in the noun category indicates that 5 percent or more of your words are nominalizations.

Helen Sword teaches at the University of Auckland and has published widely on academic writing, higher education pedagogy, modernist literature and digital poetics. Her latest book is “Stylish Academic Writing” (Harvard University Press 2012).

 

Posted in Academic writing, Scholarship, Writing

Academic Writing Issues #1: Excessive Signposting

One of the most characteristic and annoying tendencies in academic writing is the excessive use of signposting: here’s what I’m going to do, here I am doing it, and here’s what I just did.  You can trim a lot of text from your next paper (and earn the gratitude of your readers) by just telling your story instead of continually anticipating this story.

Here is a lovely take-down of an academic author who made the mistake of getting on Geoff Dyer’s nerves.  Enjoy.  The original from the New York Times.

New York Times

July 22, 2011

An Academic Author’s Unintentional Masterpiece

By GEOFF DYER

In this column I want to look at a not uncommon way of writing and structuring books. This approach, I will argue, involves the writer announcing at the outset what he or she will be doing in the pages that follow. The default format of academic research papers and textbooks, it serves the dual purpose of enabling the reader to skip to the bits that are of particular interest and — in keeping with the prerogatives of scholarship — preventing an authorial personality from intruding on the material being presented. But what happens when this basically plodding method seeps so deeply into a writer’s makeup as to constitute a stylistic signature, even a kind of ongoing flourish or extravagance?

Before continuing I will say something here about how I was drawn to this area of research. In the course of writing an article about the photographer Thomas Struth, I remembered that the highly regarded art historian Michael Fried had a chapter on Struth in his book “Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before” (2008), henceforth WP. I’d read only a little of Fried before, but I knew that his earlier “Absorption and Theatricality: Painting and Beholder in the Age of Diderot” (1980) was regularly referred to and quoted by art historians. I will show later that one of those art historians is Fried himself, but as soon as I started to consult WP I realized I was reading something quite extraordinary: a masterpiece of its kind in that it takes the style of perpetual announcement of what is about to happen to extremes of deferment that have never been seen before. Imminence here becomes immanent.

I’ll come to the rest of the book later. Here I will simply remark that the first page of Fried’s introduction summarizes what he intends to do and ends with a summary of this summary: “This is what I have tried to do in ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before.’ ” The second page begins with another look ahead: “The basic idea behind what follows. . . . ” Fair enough, that’s what introductions are for, and it’s no bad thing to be reassured that the way in which the overall argument will manifest itself “in individual cases will become clear in the course of this book.” Page 3 begins: “The organization of ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before’ is as follows. . . . ” Well, O.K. again, even if it is a bit like watching a rolling news program: Coming up on CNN . . . A look ahead to what’s coming up on CNN. . . . More striking is the way that even though we have only just got going — even though, strictly speaking, we have not got going — Fried is already looking back (Previously on “NYPD Blue” . . . ) on what he did in such earlier books as “Art and Objecthood” and “Absorption and Theatricality.” The present book will not be like those earlier ones, however, “as the reader of ‘Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before’ is about to discover.”

What the reader discovers, however, is that Fried will continue to announce what he’s about to do right to the end: “Later on in this book I shall examine . . . ”; “I shall discuss both of these after considering . . . ”; “I shall also be relating. . . . ” Fried’s brilliance, however, is that in spite of all the time spent looking ahead and harking back he also — and it’s this that I want to emphasize here — finds the time to tell you what he’s doing now, as he’s doing it: “But again I ask . . . ” ; “Let me try to clarify matters by noting . . . ”; “What I want to call attention to. . . . ” But that’s not all: the touch of genius is that on top of everything else he somehow manages to tell you what he is not doing (“I am not claiming that . . . ”), what he has not done (“What I have not said . . . ”) and what he is not going to do (“This is not the place for . . . ”). On occasions he combines several of these tropes in dazzling permutations like the negative-­implied-­forward and the double-­backward — “So far I have said nothing in this conclusion about Barthes’s ‘Camera Lucida,’ which in Chapter 4 I interpreted as a consistently antitheatrical text even as I also suggested . . . ” — before reverting, a paragraph later, to the tense endeavor of the present (i.e., telling us what he’s still got to do): “One further aspect of Barthes’s text remains to be dealt with.” There is, I would observe here, a kind of zero-sum perfection about the way the theatricality of the flamboyant, future-­oriented sign-­posting is matched by all the retrospection. The depths of self-­absorption that makes this possible are hard to fathom.

It could be argued that this is essentially an academic habit, and that Fried is faithfully observing the expected conventions — so faithfully that he has become an unconscious apostate. If academia elevates scholarly and impersonal inquiry above the kind of nutty, fictional, navel-gazing monologues of Nicholson Baker, then Fried is at once its high camp apotheosis and its disintegration into mere manner.

Lest you think I have been quoting unfairly, take a break here and run your eyes over a couple of pages of WP in a library or bookstore. You’ll be amazed. You’ll see that this is some of the most self-­worshiping — or, more accurately, self-­serving — prose ever written. I kept wondering why an editor had not scribbled “get on with it!” in huge red letters on every page of the manuscript — and then I realized that the cumulative flimflam was the it! And at that moment, as I hope to show, everything changed.

Suppose that you meet someone who is a compulsive name-­dropper. At first it’s irritating, then it’s boring. Once you have identified it as a defining characteristic, however, you long for the individual concerned to manifest this trait at every opportunity — whereupon it becomes a source of hilarity and delight. And so, having experienced a crescendo of frustration, I now look forward to a new book in which Fried advances his habit of recessive deferral to the extent that he doesn’t get round to what he wants to say until after the book is finished, until it’s time to start the next one (which will be spent entirely on looking back on what was said in the previous volume). At that point he will cross the border from criticism to the creation of a real work of art (fiction if you will) called “Kiss Marks on the Mirror: Why Michael Fried Matters as a Writer Even More Than He Did Before.”

Geoff Dyer is the author, most recently, of “Otherwise Known as the Human Condition: Selected Essays and Reviews, 1989-2010.” His “Reading Life” column will appear regularly in the Book Review.