Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

One way to achieve gender neutrality

October 31, 2011

From Beats Now and Then:

“The detective’s moment of stillness before he slowly reaches for the matchbox tells us that she’s realized something important”

Namely, that he’s a woman.

Grammar School Grammar

March 7, 2008

Once again following around after Language Log’s Geoffrey Pullum yields food for thought. Long ago Pullum wrote a blog entry entitled “More timewasting garbage, another copy-editing moron” in which he heaped scorn on the copy editors who edited Mark Pilgrim’s Dive into Python for their many grammatical incorrections. That post was the one that made me a Language Log fan since I had written a book for the same publisher and had been made batty by all the same incorrections.

John McIntyre, the assistant managing editor for the copy desk at the Baltimore Sun must have seen that post because when he recently wrote a piece for his blog about the old that vs. which usage bugaboo, after defending Fowler’s made-up rule, he tried some preemptive self-defense saying, “That will probably bring down on my head the wrath of the linguists at Language Log …, who appear to hate copy editors’ guts.” He then went on to say:

But I’m just a simple country boy from Kentucky who learned English grammar in Mrs. Jessie Perkins’ fifth- and sixth-grade classes at Elizaville Elementary School and who just tries to get by on what is reasonable and useful.

Why is it that English grammar is one of the few fields where what we learned in fifth and sixth grade is considered state of the art? I doubt the Sun’s assistant managing editor in charge of political reporting would explain the paper’s approach to election coverage by saying: “I’m just a simple country boy from Kentucky who learned about U.S. politics in Mr. Bobbie Smith’s fifth- and sixth-grade Social Studies classes at Elizaville Elementary School.”

We all understand that the way we teach politics, and just about everything else, to ten- and eleven-year-olds is simplified, if not over-simplified. But that’s usually okay since most folks who grow up to be newspaper editors or, for that matter, newspaper readers, probably go on to high-school, college, and maybe even graduate school where they are exposed to less and less simplified versions of our collective understanding of things.

Yet when it comes to grammar and the use of the English language, most folks, including professionals, seem happy to work with the version they learned when they still thought members of the opposite sex had cooties.

Singular they

March 5, 2008

I see via a Geoffrey Pullum Language Log post that yet another otherwise intelligent person—this time David Gelernter, a Yale computer science professor—has been found ranting in public about the imminent destruction of the English language due to folks using they as a singular pronoun.

Pullum does his usual fine job highlighting the absurdities of this kind of rant: in this case the wild disparity between the magnitude of the social devastation allegedly being wrought and the venality of the linguistic sins, if any, being committed. Pullum—co-author of the massive and comprehensive Cambridge Grammar of the English Language—also points out that Gelernter is simply wrong about many points of grammar and historical linguistics. Pullum, however, doesn’t really take Gelernter’s argument seriously, presumably because it’s absurd and ignorant and doesn’t deserve to be. On the other hand, Gelernter’s rant is such a fine example of an anti-singular they diatribe, that it merits a closer analysis.

Gelernter’s thesis is that “the English language has become a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Academic-Industrial Complex”. In particular he claims “feminist authorities” effected a significant change to the rules of grammar such that “agreement between subject and pronoun was declared to be optional” allowing they to be used as a singular pronoun. As Pullum and regular Language Log readers of course know, this claim is deliciously ironic. The last time the Academic-Industrial Complex unilaterally changed the rules of grammar was in the 18th century, when grammarians, taking a bit too much of a cue from Latin, made up a rule that pronouns had to agree in number with their antecedents, a “rule” which, in fact, had been regularly violated by such writers as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen to say nothing of thousands of less notable authors and, no doubt, hundreds of thousands of plain old native English speakers.

Having made up their rule, these grammarians were then forced to choose a singular pronoun to use with indefinite antecedents (e.g. everyone, nobody) and singular nouns that could refer to a person of either gender (e.g. a person). Given the times and the fact that the grammarians were mostly men, the “natural” solution was to use he, his, and him. But one must wonder whether sentences like, “A grammarian should always keep his inkwell full”, sounded natural to an 18th-century grammarian because he really felt his was gender neutral or because he was envisioning a grammarian much like himself and all the other grammarians he knew who was, of course, also a “him”. Hard to say. I don’t have any 18th-century grammarians’ writings at hand but Gelernter gives up the game a bit with this sentence: “Who can afford to allow a virtual feminist to elbow her way like a noisy drunk into that inner mental circle where all your faculties (such as they are) are laboring to produce decent prose?” Surely that should be “elbow his way”.

Of course we’ve come a long way since the 18th century. Now that grammarians really are as likely to be women as men, maybe it’s silly to get hung up on gender-neutral he. On the other hand it’s also worth considering how recently we’ve really made progress on that front. Gelernter is full of praise for Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style (excepting editions published since E.B. White’s death, which have softened the guide’s position on the absolute correctness of the gender-neutral he and are thus “a disgrace to his memory”.) But, as Pullum pointed out in a 2004 Language Log posting, when Strunk was passing along the rule that singular they should be changed to he, women in the United States still didn’t have the vote. And when E.B. White wrote about Strunk’s “little book” in his “Letter from the East” for the July 27, 1957 New Yorker that essay—which later became the introduction to White’s revision of the guide—appeared next to an advertisement with this text: “Traveling men get juicy steaks on ‘The Executives’—United’s for-men-only nonstops to Chicago.”

Gelernter does, however, inadvertently if somewhat belligerently, get to the real point of the singular-they debate when he asks: “Why should I worry about feminist ideology while I write? Why should I worry about anyone’s ideology? Writing is a tricky business that requires one’s whole concentration, as any professional will tell you; as no doubt you know anyway.” Yes, writing is a tricky business. Largely because it’s about communicating with other human beings. Unlike computer programming, where a deterministic and strictly logical computer is the ultimate arbiter of the meaning of your creation, writing is about conveying thoughts from your mind to that of your reader, a process that is neither deterministic nor entirely logical. For better or worse, readers can be thrown for a loop by clumsy diction, abstruse vocabulary, or violation of what they consider norms, whether grammatical or social. The harsh reality of a writer’s life is that some readers will be jolted out of their concentration by a singular they while others, who would have glided right past it, will trip over a gender-neutral he.1 There’s no good way out of this mess, at least in the short term. I do believe that for Gelernter, and for many others, sentences using a singular they really do “skreak like fingernails on a blackboard.” That they do so for silly, historical reasons is no consolation. (That Gelernter considers them evidince that feminism is destroying the possibility of rational thought is, however, just stupid.) On the other hand, I’m quite certain that singular they will prevail in the long run. It was standard usage long before the 18th-century grammarians put their oar in and it is even more attractive now for people who wish to avoid implying that executives and grammarians are always men. It also follows the pattern set when the plural pronoun you drove out the singular thou.

So I do my part by using singular they in my own writing. And any writer who wants to reclaim the English language from the dead hand of the 18th-century Academic-Industrial Complex, well, they should do likewise.


1. And some of us will be distracted by both, noting both singular theys and gender-neutral hes as instances of a writerly choice.

Uh oh!

September 25, 2007

Today I interviewed Donald Knuth for my book Coders at Work. The contents of the interview will, of course, be published in the book itself, but before the interview proper started he told me something that’s a bit worrisome. According to Knuth (who may have been relating something someone told him) there are three kinds of people: people who have written no books, people who have written one book, and people who have written many books. I guess unless I stop now my fate is sealed.

How to write a book

April 10, 2007

In my first entry on this blog I mentioned the Gigamonkey Four-Step Algorithm for Writing a Book. In the past week, I’ve twice had occasion to explain this algorithm to someone. Rather than wait for a third occasion, I figured I’d write it down. Here it is.

Step 1 Write the index. Write down, in no particular order, every word, phrase, name, and concept that you would expect to appear in a well-prepared index of your book, assuming the darn thing was already written.

Step 2 Write a hierarchical outline. This outline should contain, somewhere, all the items from your index. Follow the rule from junior-high essay writing that you can only create a sub-topic under a topic if it will have at least one sibling. But don’t worry if your outline gets ridiculously deeply nested. If you’re a forest-then-trees kind of person you can build your outline top down — define the top-level topics you want to talk about, then split those topics into sub-topics and those sub-topics into sub-sub-topics, and so on until you get down to a granularity where you can start inserting items from the index. Or you can work bottom-up — start directly from your index, lumping related items together, then lumping the lumps into bigger lumps. I found that alternating between top-down and bottom-up worked best for me.

Step 3 Write a a flattened outline. Books are a linear medium. While it can be immensely useful to organize your thoughts hierarchically, you are ultimately going to have to guide your reader from A to Z along some linear path. In his essay The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint Edward Tufte observes:

People have communicated about complex matters for centuries without hierarchical bullet lists. Richard Feynman wrote about much of physics — mechanics, optics, thermodynamics, quantum behavior — in a 600-page book with only 2 levels: chapters and headings within chapters. (Emphasis in original.)

Following Feynman’s lead, in this step you should produce on outline with no more than three-levels: chapters, sections, and paragraphs. Each paragraph-level outline item should be — again shades of junior high — a topic sentence for that paragraph. This will let you judge whether it’s actually going to be possible to move from paragraph to paragraph in a reasonable way — can you imagine a transition that’s going to get you from the topic of one paragraph to the topic of the next?

Note that there’s more to this step than simply flattening the outline from step two. The step two outline is a taxonomy of all the things you want to talk about, but it’s unlikely your readers are ready to digest a whole taxonomy in one go. You’ll likely find that in order to provide a comprehensible linear order for your reader, you’ll need to split certain taxonomic topics across different chapters or sections. For example, when writing Practical Common Lisp, my hierarchical outline contained top-level sections on functions, variables, and macros, three of the main elements of Common Lisp. Initially I thought each of these top-level categories would map to a chapter. However, it turned out it was impossible to write about all aspects of functions without at least some discussion of variables. Yet, there were also aspects of variables that could only be meaningfully discussed after discussing functions. And macros were similarly intertwined with the other two topics. Eventually I figured out that what I needed to do was to write a chapter in which I would discuss the basics — but just the basics — of functions, variables, and macros before moving onto dedicated chapters for each topic. It also turned out that it was useful to split my discussion of macros into two chapters. Thus the three top-level topics from my hierarchical outline had to be split: part of each became a section of chapter four and the remainder became the root of their own chapters except for the macros section which was split into two chapters. In other words, this is the step where you think about the structure of your book, whether you can march straight from A to Z or whether you need to occasionally circle back to clarify things that you couldn’t give full justice to the first time you mentioned them.

Step 4 Write the book. In theory, all that remains is to work through your step three outline, fleshing out each paragraph-level topic sentence with the full paragraph and providing a transition to the next paragraph. In practice, you’ll probably have to frequently pop back to step three if not all the way back to steps one and two. During the actual writing of Practical Common Lisp, I was constantly discovering things that, had I explained them already, would make whatever paragraph, section, or chapter I was currently working on completely straight-forward to write. But then I’d have to figure out how to work those things in somewhere earlier. And often when I actually tried to write those earlier sections, I’d discover some other concepts that I’d really need to introduce before I could write them. I’d know I was having a particularly bad day when I’d discover that I’d looped — that the thing I needed to discuss first, in order to be able to explain everything else I had pushed on the stack, was the very thing I had started with before pushing all these other things on the stack. At that point I’d have to go back to step three and re-outline the relevant sections in light of my new understanding of how things actually fit together. Maybe I could have avoided some of those bad days by better up-front outlining but I suspect not; it was only by actually getting down to the nitty gritty of writing paragraphs and wrestling with how to explain each thing that I could discover the flaws in my more general plan of attack. It was painful at times but I don’t think there was any way to avoid it.

Step four is also obviously the step when you deal with crafting your deathless prose. I don’t have a lot to say about that as good prose style seems more a matter for heuristics than algorithms. That said, if you’ve actually organized your material into some rational, linear order, and you can manage to say what you mean at the sentence and paragraph level, you’ll be doing a lot better than a lot of authors. I did find it useful to print my chapters on actual paper in a reasonable-size font with nice wide margins and double spacing between the lines and to sit down to edit them, away from the computer, with a red pen in hand.

But what do I know? I’ve only written one book. Check back in a few years when I’ve finished my next book and I’ll probably have a whole new algorithm. But for now, as far as I know, that’s how to write a book.


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