Wednesday, October 21, 2009

a steady diet of syllables

Curators: If you're writing an essay, and you need to explain something involving phenomenology, or epistemology, or ontology—or any other of the popular –ologies—there’s probably no avoiding throwing some syllables around. I can dig it.

But there’s a difference between shedding light on the stickier points of theoretical discourse and straining for an elevated style through verbiage.

If, for example, you’re trying to tell me that Bob drove his car up the street, you could certainly do worse than type: “Bob drove his car up the street.”

“Bob operated his automotive conveyance across the asphalt boulevard” is not an improvement on that sentence.

Now some people have turned weirdly over-elaborated prose into an art form. I love my friend Mark's blog, for example, but sometimes his sentences do make my eyes hurt—as does his "tendency" to put certain "terms" in "quotes". That's his shtick, though, and I get it.

Other folks show every indication of being fine writers, but fall prey nonetheless to trying to make their prose sound sorta rarefied. Example: I'm working on a piece for the CP about Kristen Hileman's Anne Truitt show at the Hirshhorn. Now do not get me wrong here: I'm a big Kristen fan; I've enjoyed seeing and thinking about the show and reading the catalogue essay, too. But every now and again, I stumble over a stray sentence that strikes me as a little fussy.

Example, from page 15: “The latter part of Truitt’s convalescence included exercise courses at Highland Hospital, where interactions with patients heightened her interest in her undergraduate concentration.”

That's sort of like saying: Truitt’s recovery included physical therapy at Highland Hospital, where talking with patients fed her interest in psychology.

Sort of.

Mostly I think it's "undergraduate concentration" that grates on me here, and seems like an example of elegant variation.

Of course, I’ve been brow-beaten by editors over this sort of thing for years—I’ve definitely been guilty of EV. And I know I have loosed some truly pretentious sentences on the world. I may even relapse now and again. I'm not making promises.

But, man, I’m penitent, and trying to spread the gospel.


Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

You could just point people to the online version of George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language", which is what I do when railing against this tendency. I don't agree with absolutely everything Orwell says there, but a lot of it is not unbad advice.

Of course the main reason, I think, people attempt to elevate their style is because, when they write what they want to say in plain English, it turns out to be inane, uninteresting, or obvious. The clear solution in such cases is simply not to write at all, but who wants to do that?

12:03 PM  

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