Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Why you shouldn't read usage advice (with examples)

Helen Sword is someone at my university who coaches academic writing, and has written a large number of articles and a couple of books on the subject. She has recently released another book, which has prompted a few discussions I've had with colleagues where I warn them off work like hers. I have not read her latest book, and will only do so if compelled to. I have read some of her earlier work and dealt with her in person. I can only report that much of her recommendations are badly informed and so lacking in merit that she herself fails to follow her own advice, even as she is giving it. Sword is in no way alone in this--she is part of an industry of people giving usage advice which nobody should pay attention to. This includes the two most widely-cited examples of the form: George Orwell in 'Politics and the English Language' (the most famous, but not earliest, piece telling you to avoid writing in the passive voice) and William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White in the most famous usage manual of them all, The Elements of Style. Despite the respect these works garner, the characterisations they give of good or bad writing are often demonstrably false, and often enough these characterisations are false even of their own writing. The linguist Geoffrey Pullum is one person who has embarked upon a crusade on this kind of bad usage advice in various venues, a crusade of which this post should be seen as a small skirmish. It is an extremely interesting fact that people can be so radically wrong about the rules they follow, even when they correctly follow those rules (something I call second-order error). This fact forms part of my own research and which is part of why I have so much to say about it--our ignorance about our own norms of language use is a central example for me. But for now I'll only talk about how a lot of this advice, including Sword's, is plainly wrong in their descriptions of good and bad writing.

Sword made her name in the wider consciousness with a piece in the New York Times on why nominalisations (making nouns out of verbs) make for bad writing. Her analysis on this point is not just wrong, but disastrously wrong. Let me explain my very harsh judgement. As computational linguist Mark Liberman points out, she is not following her own advice: 80% of the nouns she uses in the final paragraph of the piece, where she offers a way for you to strip your writing of nominalisations, are themselves nominalisations. She can't claim to avoid recent nominalisations, and has the good sense not to do so: firstly, because such advice would be too daft for anybody to take seriously (it would be something like 'nominalisations are fine except if you know their etymology'); and secondly, because she used a number that are transparently nominalisations even to modern readers ('test', 'attack'). So, her advice is so bad that she doesn't herself follow it. Further, her writing is good enough to pass under her eyes and those of her editor and still not be rejected (and mine--she writes perfectly well). So, her analysis is descriptively inadequate--her writing is full of nominalisations, and is no worse off for it. So, her description of good writing as avoiding nominalisations is simply false (it turns out that nobody avoids nominalisations), and even if we take what she says as a revisionist prescription (something like 'never mind that everybody uses nominalisations, you shouldn't'), she herself doesn't seem to take it seriously, because she is doing what she tells us not to even as she is telling us. I don't know how to describe this except as 'disastrously wrong'. Other ventures of hers, like her 'Writer's Diet Test', fare no better when given serious scrutiny. Though she will of course also be able to give you good advice, as any writer of her level of competence would be able to, she wouldn't be able to distinguish her good advice from her bad advice. Thus, like almost every example of the form, her usage manuals are not to be taken seriously.

Now, onto the more general reasons. Nominalisations, like almost every other bugbear of usage manuals, are a perfectly normal feature of English. In English nominalisation is a productive way to say things: clauses with nouns put into verb-forms in the verb's place are something every competent speaker of the language understands. Trying to stigmatise a perfectly normal part of the language is at best going to be deeply revisionist, if not entirely wrong-headed, and is likely to be unmotivated. If what we are doing are looking to examples of writing to imitate, then you need to respect the fact that the instances of actual writing you identify will also be using the actual rules of the language they are written in. For English this means that they will use nominalisations, the passive voice, split infinitives, etc., since these are all features of English. And they are perfectly fine features! Everybody uses them, even in the most widely-admired prose. To use a different example, take the passive voice construction. A string of people, most prominently George Orwell in 'Politics and the English Language' and Strunk and White in their The Elements of Style, tell you to avoid the passive voice in writing. Sword does so as well, in her work and in person. But they are in a similar position as Sword on nominalisations: the advice is nonsense, and they don't follow it themselves. In a revealing irony, Orwell, Strunk and White all use the passive more than the average English writer. The average rate of passive voice constructions in written English tops out at around 13% (depending on which corpus you check), whereas in the same essay Orwell tells you to avoid it he uses it in about 20% of possible cases, and E.B. White consistently uses it in between 20% and 30% of cases. So much for their advice--nobody should take it seriously. Orwell and White are, of course, two of the finest prose writers of their time, and we would do well to imitate them. But they are mistaken about why the style they admired was good, and other examples bad.

I have not yet said a word about the tone in which Sword delivers her message. I'll restrict myself to saying that it is obnoxious to attempt to make people anxious about a perfectly normal part of their language use, just as it is obnoxious to try and make people anxious about perfectly normal and harmless things they would normally do. In this respect, Sword is in the same boat as Orwell, Strunk and White, and a whole industry of people who act from an assumed authority that they can't but fail to undermine.

Of course, a lot of writing is bad, and people like Sword and the stream of other advice-givers she is part of are trying to improve it. They may be trying to help in the best way they know how (but, given how easy it is to show how bad their descriptions of good and bad writing is, they show an unseemly unwillingness to look at their own claims critically). But the fact that there is a problem to be addressed doesn't mean that their solution is correct. Their solutions are often radically mistaken. The examples I've discussed here are demonstrably mistaken.

I have a lot to say on this topic, because the phenomenon of mistakenly identifying the rules you are successfully acting from is of great interest for my own research. Orwell and White are, as I've said, excellent writers. They are able to reliably and regularly write in a clear and engaging style. Writing is a rule-governed activity. So they are good at this rule-governed activity. But they are also radically mistaken about what rules they are following, even when they are following them. This is very surprising, and deserves further investigation.

It is also worth noting that I link a lot to Language Log, because as a popular blog by top-class linguists it is an extremely valuable resource for the type of thing I'm doing here. If you have any interest in linguistics and language-use, I recommend it unreservedly.