Bar Jester’s Writing Seminar II; or, How to Write Like a Philosopher

By Jason Peters for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2015/01/bar-jesters-writing-seminar-ii-write-like-philosopher/
philosophers-simpsons1

Rock Island, IL

If you want to write worse than the average undergraduate male, consider philosophy. I quote here from a philosopher whose thinking I admire (insofar as thinking can be separated from expression) but whose writing is simply atrocious at times. Here, for an appetizer, is a thirty-six word sentence that sent me into an apoplexy:

And just because actions, unlike sequences of bodily movements, are goal-directed, the successful identification and classification of a great many dolphin actions commits us to an ascription to them of a purposeful pursuit of characteristic goals.

If you teach writing, don’t bother asking your students about using “dolphin” as an adjective. They don’t know what an adjective is. Ask them simply: what is wrong with this sentence? When “it don’t flow good” has been exhausted, ask them how many prepositional phrases in a row the ear can tolerate. And when, not knowing what prepositional phrases are, they stare at you blankly, lashes whirring in bovine fashion, tell them the answer is “not many,” especially when there’s little variation in the prepositions.

For what it’s worth, here’s a quick revision, one that saves you nine words:

Actions move toward a goal. If you identify and classify a dolphin’s actions (not its sequences of movement), you ascribe to it purposeful pursuit of characteristic goals.

That can be made even better if you decide that “purposeful” and “characteristic” don’t do much work as modifiers. Sometimes you throw in a modifier because the ear tells you to, or because doing so makes the sentence more vivid and lively. But I wouldn’t be inclined to use “purposeful” unless the meter of the sentence clearly called for a dactylic foot, which the above sentence obviously does not call for. What it calls for is a sledge hammer—and my revision of it a ball peen hammer. This is one of those sentences that can’t be made much better. As my old pal MN used to say, “you can polish a turd, and you can maybe make it shine, but it’s still just a turd.”

Again from the original: “And the same object or the same kind of object may either be responded to as food or as presenting an opportunity for play.”

Here, without even trying, I save you five of the original twenty-four words: “Dolphins may respond to the same (or same kind of) object, either as food or as opportunity for play.”

That little three-part trick—of adding an actor, of handing the action of the verb to the actor, and of thereby converting the passive to the active voice—will get you a savings every time. True, there are times when the passive is to be preferred, but that way of putting it is seldom better than saying “sometimes you prefer the passive.” And I must warn you: if you want to pass peer review for an academic journal, you’d better not get too good at making your sentences better. Obfuscation and inelegance make you sound smart, whereas clear prose will get you nowhere. (For publication prefer “nowhere is the place that will be got to by you.”) One rule of academic prose: clumsy and obscure is profound; elegant and clear is not.

But all of this is child’s play compared to the following verbal clusterfornication, again from the same philosophical treatise:

It is of course the case that sometimes when some human being acts for a reason, she or he does say to her or himself or to others something such as “Doing x will or will not contribute to bringing about y and y is the good that I am aiming to achieve.” But what makes it the case that her or his reason for doing x is that x will bring about y is that she or he judges that x will bring about y and that, were she or he to judge otherwise she or he would not do x, unless, that is, there is some other good z that she or he is also aiming to achieve, and she or he also judges that doing x will bring about z. So an agent may possess the relevant beliefs and the actions of that agent may exhibit the relevant goal-directedness without the agent giving utterance to any statement of her or his reasons for so acting.

This will take some time, folks. Fixing bad prose is a lot like changing a blown diaper: you have no clue where to begin, so you just double-glove your hands and start scooping.

I’ll begin with all the fecal her-or-his-ing, which anyone who cares about stitching sweet sounds together should mock remorselessly with the term “hurrorhizzing,” newly coined just for this occasion. Note the phantom “self” in “say to her or himself”: even this philosopher has intuited, if only dimly, that all this hurrorhizzing is pretty damned clumsy and calls for fewer selves. But does a meager gesture toward elegance at the cost of logic add up to a net gain here? No it doesn’t, and it’s well that we say so decisively. Equivocation will undo us.

This club-footed phrase—her or his—gets you to the unimpeachable territory of gender equity, which is the only demilitarized zone that the academy has to offer, but I’m here to tell you that gender equity isn’t the Celestial City of writing, and no one wants to limp there if she or he can simply stroll there normally with all the other pilgrims, stopping along the way for beers served by waitresses who can actually talk.

So, for starters, let’s be careful to note that “her or his” is clearly harder to say and more grating on the ear than “his or her.” The problem is that the tone-deaf writing cops have assigned a sin tax to that syntax. They’ve decided that grown-ups are really just children on the playground who can’t play fair unless forced to do so, so they’ve required the children to stop using “his or her” and start using “her or his”—or at the least to put the two phrases into rotation so that everyone gets a chance, like Kindergarteners, to be first. We can’t have anyone turned into a second-class citizen because a phrase has oppressed her or him by denying him or her primacy.

(I might have used “them” there instead of “her or him” and “him or her,” but it’s a considerable intellectual failure to confuse one with more than one, and I for one won’t do it, even though I’m told that, over time, usage will make sense of the confusion and magically obliterate distinctions of number.)

But at what price have we achieved this presumed equity? At the price of elegance, certainly, and by spending more ink than we should spend in this age of severe scarcity and immersive ugliness.

I could rewrite the paragraph using a form of mangled academic prose older than this, a form that required the use of “one,” as in: “It is of course the case that sometimes when one acts for a reason, one says to oneself or to others …” and so on. (Two paragraphs hence I proffer the full clusterutterance converted to “one” in case anyone needing penance wants to hear how abysmal it sounds. If you’re not looking for penance, skip that paragraph. But trust me: it’s awful.) The point is this: “one” is not an interesting person. Never has been, never will be. She or he is as dull as the “agent” at the end of the paragraph. And what you do with dull people is avoid them until they become interesting or until, by simply staying home, they stop ruining your cocktail parties.

But, as promised, here is “one” trying—and failing—to improve the paragraph:

It is of course the case that sometimes when one acts for a reason, one says to oneself or to others something such as “Doing x will or will not contribute to bringing about y and y is the good that I am aiming to achieve.” But what makes it the case that one’s reason for doing x is that x will bring about y is that one judges that x will bring about y and that, were one to judge otherwise one would not do x, unless, that is, there is some other good z that one is also aiming to achieve, and one also judges that doing x will bring about z. So an agent may possess the relevant beliefs and the actions of that agent may exhibit the relevant goal-directedness without the agent giving utterance to any statement of one’s reasons for so acting.

Now I’m going to rewrite the paragraph in accord with the old practice of sexist language—but using the feminine pronoun—just to see if a woman’s touch can improve it:

It is of course the case that sometimes when some woman acts for a reason, she does say to her something such as “Doing x will or will not contribute to bringing about y and y is the good that I am aiming to achieve.” But what makes it the case that her reason for doing x is that x will bring about y is that she judges that x will bring about y and that, were she to judge otherwise she would not do x, unless, that is, there is some other good z that she is also aiming to achieve, and she also judges that doing x will bring about z. So an agent may possess the relevant beliefs and the actions of that agent may exhibit the relevant goal-directedness without the agent giving utterance to any statement of her reasons for so acting.

That’s clearly better, if for no other reason than that it gets the job done in 146 words instead of 168. The additional twenty two words in the original do nothing to improve the meaning and much to mar its style. So kudos to the girls.

But in order for this version of the paragraph to ring true in the ears of people who have read good prose—prose written, say, since the days of Sir Philip Sidney—we will need a lot of time for the feminine pronoun to mean both men and women—which, with use, it could do—as the masculine pronoun once did before a very small number of sorely bored people with too much time on their hands, and too few objects for real moral outrage at their disposal, decided once and for all that the masculine pronoun meant only men, which it didn’t.

(By default the members of this unopposed posse became the legislators of usage and style that eventually made possible the hacked-up paragraph under consideration. But don’t let anyone tell you that the whole sexist language thing isn’t a matter of style. Style is principally a matter of sound, and sound is a matter of (among other things) meter and syllabic count. My advice: make the sounds you want to make and tell everyone else to go perform a sex act on herself or himself. The sounds you make will eventually be subject to judgment. They’ll be good, bad, or mediocre, but they’ll be judged. People with ears aren’t going away any time soon, and the gunk of bad prose will eventually rise to the top in the smelting pot of real criticism.)

But does this version with the singular feminine pronoun ring true? Are you closer to getting the meaning of the paragraph? Because I’m pretty sure I’m not.

My own view, which, as you might have guessed, does not favor a legislated move to the feminine pronoun, is that the paragraph is so bad that it doesn’t improve much even by being rewritten in the older old sexist way, as here:

It is of course the case that sometimes when a man acts for a reason, he does say himself or to others something such as “Doing x will or will not contribute to bringing about y and y is the good that I am aiming to achieve.” But what makes it the case that his reason for doing x is that x will bring about y is that he judges that x will bring about y and that, were he to judge otherwise he would not do x, unless, that is, there is some other good z that he is also aiming to achieve, and he also judges that doing x will bring about z. So an agent may possess the relevant beliefs and the actions of that agent may exhibit the relevant goal-directedness without the agent giving utterance to any statement of his reasons for so acting.

To readers educated after, say, Carter’s malaise speech, that version will sound a little strange—stranger to the younger than to the older ones. To those educated before it, it won’t sound especially odd, though the “sexist” overtones will be audible, given all the harping of the last half century.

But my own view, for what it’s worth, is that this third version, given the way English has been (pardon me) deployed, will seem the least odd of the three so far proffered. But the paragraph will still be an utter failure.

Converting it to the plural in order to cover all possible ways of urinating—and so not to offend even the hermaphrodites among us—doesn’t help much either:

It is of course the case that sometimes when some human beings act for a reason, they say to themselves or to others something such as “Doing x will or will not contribute to bringing about y and y is the good that we are aiming to achieve.” But what makes it the case that their reason for doing x is that x will bring about y is that they judge that x will bring about y and that, were they to judge otherwise they would not do x, unless, that is, there is some other good z that they are also aiming to achieve, and they also judge that doing x will bring about z. So an agent may possess the relevant beliefs and the actions of that agent may exhibit the relevant goal-directedness without the agent giving utterance to any statement of their reasons for so acting.

The reason that converting this to the plural doesn’t help much is that muscular writing hangs more upon the particular than upon the general. This is one reason you shouldn’t use, or let your students use, the word “society,” which is the worst substitute for particularity available and one of the most vacuous words in English. If you doubt this, use it instead of “her or his” in the horrendous paragraph under consideration and you will have an offense that hanging is too good for.

I grant you this plural version will perhaps forestall a fight or two in some academic department where there is nothing better for some people to do than rehearse grievances. But the rehearsal of grievances in an academic department is inevitable, no matter how carefully its members wield their pronouns. And it is pointless to expect sensible people, already disinclined to rehearse grievances, to shut up in the hope that idiots will do likewise: this is exactly what made it possible for hurrorhizzing to win the day back in that God-awful latter half of the previous century.

So what the sam hill does the paragraph mean?

Well, for starters, the writer has decided that using x, y, and z as symbols for real things is better than using real things, even though real things are what all readers want and need. (It’s what all people want and need.) One practice that separates a really good writer from a mere scribbler is that the really good writer throws in things you can see and things that move: that is, he (or she!) relies on the muscle cars of the language, which are nouns and verbs.

So let’s try the paragraph—for now using the old fashioned, out-of-date, and much-traduced masculine pronoun—with a slight modification, which is to say the introduction of actual things that can actually move:

It is of course the case that sometimes when a man acts for a reason, he does say to himself or to others something such as “Buttering my toast will or will not contribute to bringing about good-tasting toast and good-tasting toast is the good that I am aiming to achieve.” But what makes it the case that his reason for buttering his toast is that buttering his toast will bring about good-tasting toast is that he judges that buttering his toast will bring about good-tasting toast and that, were he to judge otherwise he would not butter his toast, unless, that is, there is some other good–mopping up his egg yolk with buttered toast–that he is also aiming to achieve, and he also judges that mopping up his egg yolk with buttered toast will bring about a more excellent breakfast. So an agent may possess the relevant beliefs and the actions of that agent may exhibit the relevant goal-directedness without the agent giving utterance to any statement of his reasons for so acting.

Now I’m going to fix the punctuation.

(N.B. Anytime a coordinating conjunction introduces a new subject, a comma should precede it. That rule is very simple and very important. The sentence “I bit my apple and my tongue puckered” benefits from a comma before “and.” The comma prevents a misreading of what I did and didn’t bite. In shorter sentences the comma and conjunction that, in tandem, separate two independent clauses isn’t always necessary. But in longer ones it is, such as in this one from the wretched paragraph under consideration: “So an agent may possess the relevant beliefs[,] and the actions of that agent may exhibit the relevant goal-directedness without the agent giving utterance to any statement of his reasons for so acting.” I am astonished at the number of times I have misread that sentence because of its sorry punctuation. But enough. Here we go):

It is of course the case that sometimes when a man acts for a reason, he does say to himself or to others something such as “Buttering my toast will or will not contribute to bringing about good-tasting toast, and good-tasting toast is the good that I am aiming to achieve.” But what makes it the case that his reason for buttering his toast is that buttering his toast will bring about good-tasting toast is that he judges that buttering his toast will bring about good-tasting toast and that, were he to judge otherwise, he would not butter his toast, unless, that is, there is some other good–mopping up his egg yolk with buttered toast–that he is also aiming to achieve, and he also judges that mopping up his egg yolk with buttered toast will bring about an excellent breakfast. So an agent may possess the relevant beliefs, and the actions of that agent may exhibit the relevant goal-directedness, without the agent giving utterance to any statement of his reasons for so acting.

We’re getting somewhere, but this paragraph is still no good. (Note the comma before “but” in the previous sentence. That’s what I’m talking about.) Now I’m going to fix all kinds of problems that remained even after I fixed the punctuation and the use of x, y, and z as sorry stand-ins for real things:

Of course sometimes when a man acts for a reason, he does say to himself or to others something such as, “Buttering my toast might make it taste better, and good-tasting toast is what I want.” But he does this because, were he to judge otherwise, he would not butter his toast, unless, that is, there is some other good–mopping up his egg yolk with unbuttered toast–that he also aims to achieve: that mopping up his egg yolk with unbuttered toast will give him a more excellent breakfast. So a man may possess the relevant beliefs, and his actions may exhibit the relevant goal-directedness, without the agent giving utterance to any statement of his reasons for so acting.

This is a better paragraph but still a shitty one, even though the original 168 words have been reduced to 119—and, like any good reduction, thickened a little. (Remember that the aforementioned undergraduate male, who has the IQ of a geranium, wants to increase his word count. You can see by this very fact how far he is from actually writing. In fact he’s not writing at all; he’s typing.)

So I’m going to raise my middle fingers to both the male and female sexists, and also to the pluralists, and revise using the second person, which for the most part I myself have been using here. Why? Because more than any of the available options the second person invites the reader along for the ride. That is, it actually honors the reader. Plus I’m going to fix some other things that are so wrong I can’t even explain them. (If this were a student paper I would exhaust a whole pencil writing in the margins “JPS,” which means “just plain shitty.” It also means: “start over and leave me out of this until you’re sure you’re actually saying something.”)

Of course sometimes when you act for a reason, you say to yourself, “Buttering my toast will give me better toast, and that’s what I want.” But you do this because doing it gets you what you want; if it didn’t, you wouldn’t do it unless there were another good—say, using buttered toast to mop up your egg yolk—that you also wanted. So you believe in your goal, and your actions imply it, even though you haven’t said anything at all.

That’s eighty-three words. I just saved the philosopher more than 50% of his ink and the reader more than 50% of hurrorhiz time. And I gave the philosopher’s readers buttered toast and egg yolks to look at rather than x, y, and z. (No apologies to those who prefer the twin evils of margarine and hard eggs.)

I once reviewed a book for The Review of Politics. Somehow the writers of the book got away with this sentence: “Nature was a good thing to have been, something of great value to have loved, and thus its end is worth mourning.”

Commenting on that sentence was something that one tried not to do in the course of hurrorhiz work, but success was not achieved by me. I wrote: “This is dreadful English.”

And, to summarize, dreadful English is not okay.

I should probably end with a clarification. I have been concerned here with writing and, I suppose, with how you might be accounted a philosopher if you can mangle your mother tongue. There is one other requirement, especially if you want a job in a philosophy department: be sure that you love not wisdom but disputatiousness. If you can get that right, obfuscation will probably follow naturally, as hounds follow a fishmonger.

Or, rather, if disputatiousness is preferred by the agent, then the obfuscation the agent identifies as desirable for her or himself or for some other agent will in all likelihood and as a matter of course be the follower (as x is followed by y) of that preference by which wisdom is rejected by the agent or agents.

Sorry. One more thing. Many people who actually make it to the end of this will recognize the cleaned and re-diapered bottom. Let’s preserve its anonymity. It belongs to an ally.

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