Category Archives: Writing & Fiction

A Sense of Pinker’s Style

Sense of StyleI share one of Steven Pinker’s passions: I like to read style books, grammar books, language books. To me, they’re like literary chemistry sets. When I was young, getting a chemistry set for Christmas or a birthday opened a whole world to me. I’d explore all sorts of interactions and experiments until I had run out of chemicals to do them with. Used litmus paper littered my bedroom.

Reading a book on style or usage is similarly exciting to me. How words can be placed, can work together, how they meld or conflict, the alchemy and the choreography of language, all delight me. There’s magic in writing.

I have a wall of books about language, about style, usage, etymology and meaning. Pinker’s works are just a few among many that date back to the early 20th century. The greats are there: Bernstein, Fowler, Stunk and White, Gower, Flesch, the CMOS, as well as AP, CP media stylebooks, Blackburn, Crystal, Walsh, Pinker and many others.

I recently got Copperud’s American Usage and Style: The Consensus (1981) and have been reading it at bedtime. I never tire of them.

No, this isn’t a strange pastime for someone involved in writing . Everyone who cherishes his or her art and craft as a writer reads style and grammar books, and does so regularly and eagerly. I don’t know a reporter or editor of any merit who doesn’t read them. Only amateurs don’t.

You expect a doctor to keep up on medical trends through books and journals. You expect a builder to keep up on changing codes and materials. You expect an IT guru to keep up with technologies and trends. Why wouldn’t you expect a writer to do the same? Language and style, after all, are always in flux. Anyone who doesn’t read such books regularly doesn’t deserve the name of writer.

Since writing is a critical mode of communication, everyone should know at least the basics. And books help remind us of them. It doesn’t have to be stodgy or boring: there are plenty of humorous and entertaining books on grammar and punctuation. Lynn Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves, for example. Karen Gordon’s Transitive Vampire series is another.

If you don’t quite get the difference between they’re, there and their, or its and it’s, or your and you’re, you really should take the time and learn. Language is a tool you can use as a chainsaw or scalpel: coarsely or effectively. But back to Steven Pinker. He’s not one of your basic book authors.

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Not Getting It

ConfusedIn a recent opinion piece in the Enterprise Bulletin titled “Swayze overused by council?” EB reporter/editor Paul Brian comments,

I think the overuse of Swayze is outlandish and it is not congruent with the tough financial situation of the town.*

Like much of the EB’s increasingly vague reporting since former editor Ian Adams left, the paper’s current editorial staff doesn’t seem to understand municipal politics. The reporting on many local matters raised at the council table show a naïve ignorance of both the issues and the processes at stake. The EB’s budget reporting this year was so flawed it should have been posted as satire, not news.

The EB just doesn’t get it.

That “tough financial situation” Brian mentions allowed council to approve a $40,000 increase in Councillor Jeffrey’s expenses so she could pursue personal political goals outside of town. The EB was ominously silent on such abuses of power, and has been equally silent about council’s apparent failure to actually read the budget documents they were voting on.

And now this… the EB continues to dazedly tread deep water. Its writers struggle vainly to regain what little relevance the paper once had to the community, by pretending to know what’s going on. Well, they don’t.

One suspects this myopic editorial approach is bolstered by the ideological need to support the few council ‘friends’ of some of its writers.

Brian apparently doesn’t understand why an Integrity Commissioner was hired. It’s not for council’s use – although councillors can file complaints like anyone else – it is for the public. It is to provide a mechanism for any member of the public to question or challenge the behaviour of their elected representatives.

Is Brian suggesting the public is ‘overusing’ the IC by filing legitimate complaints? That would smack of arrogance and autocracy. The public has every right to file any number of complaints. The IC is there for them. The public perception of council is at stake.

And what price do you pay for accountability? Brian suggests there should be some sort of cap on it. What, stop investigating public complaints once the budget is used up? That’s hardly accountability. But perhaps Brian thinks that’s what council wants, since the results are embarrassing to them.

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Thurber’s Writings & Drawings

James ThurberBooks of James Thurber‘s cartoons and writing were always on the shelves at my grandparents’ home, as well as on my parents’ bookshelves. I read them, as I did everything else on those shelves, when I was quite young.

I still remember his odd, eccentric cartoons with their primitive lines but sharp and bizarre wit, although I can’t recall much if any what stories I read of his back then (and I am looking forward to reading today what I haven’t read since I was in my early teens).

Yet despite my fuzzy memory for literature of my past, I still recall the enjoyment of doing so at my grandparents’ home during the Sunday dinner; a house full of family; uncles, aunts and cousins bustling about. Me sitting in a stuffed chair reading while the adults fussed in the kitchen and drank wine, and the younger kids played on the living room floor. The books were worn, hardcovers well-thumbed and a little yellowed. Some had tattered dust jackets, others none. I loved their feel and their smell.

There were other titles I recall, too from that era: Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan, Boys’ Own Annual, Don Marquis (Archy & Mehitabel), Beano comic collections (sent over every Christmas by my English grandparents), encyclopedia volumes, The ABC & XYZ of Beekeeping, a big family bible, some pre-war books on engineering and mechanics. I eagerly read them all.

That redolent warmth of family get-togethers; the shared, noisy space and the pleasures of reading and playing, followed by a homemade meal and then crowding around the TV to watch Ed Sullivan – it all came back to me when I recently found a collection of Thurber’s works in a local used book store – mint condition, too!

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Tricks of the mind


Reading involves bit of trickery. Mental trickery. It engages the imagination and fools us into thinking we are there within the book: nestled beside the author, or better yet, beside the characters. Immersed in the created world, floating through it like a ghost in a haunted house movie, or perhaps in the imagined flesh, interacting on the mental stage.

We ask ourselves how we would play the scene, how we would decide, take action, engage the other characters. How would we behave at the dinner table with Becky and Rawdon? Would we defend Nancy from the rages of Bill Sykes? Would we warn Caesar on the steps of the forum? How would we greet Paul Atreides in a dusty sietch? Would we hide or expose Jean Valjean?

Our minds put us there, let us explore and build the what-if world of our own thoughts. Every paragraph opens another possibility, and our minds add it to the infinite number of scenarios we play out in them.

We imagine the walls, the furniture, the coolness of the water, the scent of spice on the breeze, the rustle of the leaves as we snake along the forest trail. Our brains get into high gear, populating the microcosm and making it real. We feel the stiffness of the starched collar, the smoothness of the velvet, the coolness of the rain as it soaks our clothes, the heat of the sun on the beach. We see the wallpaper as the sun moves across it, taste the soup served at the table, smell the lavender as we walk in the fields.

Imagination is such a powerful force that it can affect us like the real thing. We get a jolt from the coffee the hero drinks, we get aroused by the imagined sexual touch of the heroine. Our own hearts beat faster as the protagonist runs away in fear from the killer, our hair prickles when she enters the darkened room to confront the danger.

As A Scribbler’s Dreams says:

The curse of a voracious reader is having an amazing imagination. Having an amazing imagination that you feed by reading more and more books and picturing each world vividly. From the power vibrating in the Elder Wand to the smoke curling from Smaug’s nostrils, you, the reader, can picture each world and be sucked in – the only problem is that you can’t physically go there and talk to Liz Bennet or Peter Pevensie or Percy Jackson, no matter how hard you wish.

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The Hunting of the Snark

Hunting of the SnarkI’ve always wondered why Lewis Carroll’s wonderful poem, The Hunting of the Snark – an Agony in Eight Fits – has never been redone, rewritten in a modern version, with modern references and people. It seems to lend itself to revision, at least to my eyes.

Perhaps it’s because this sort of whimsical, satirical poem is not popular these days (it was written between 1874 and 76, a decade after Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and three decades after Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense).

Perhaps it’s because it’s a long poem, and reworking it all would be a considerable effort. After all, it’s roughly 4,400 words and you need to make it both scan and rhyme.

Perhaps it’s because of the language: a combination of formal and nonsense writing. Wikipedia reminds us Carroll borrowed from himself with eight portmanteau words he coined earlier:

Eight nonsense words from “Jabberwocky” appear in The Hunting of the Snark: bandersnatch, beamish, frumious, galumphing, jubjub, mimsiest (which previously appeared as mimsy in “Jabberwocky”), outgrabe and uffish.

The Jabberwocky, from Through The Looking Glass, was equally brilliant, perhaps more so because of its brevity. Who can forget those wildly imaginative immortal opening lines:

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Perhaps it’s because Carroll was just too brilliant to imitate that these works have not been widely imitated or mimicked. Who, today, could out-Carroll Lewis Carroll with similar language and fancy?

Snark has been replicated in various – sometimes odd – ways, such as Mike Batt’s 1986 concept album, released as a musical on DVD in 2010. But these are tributes, not reinventions.

And what did Carroll himself mean by the poem? Is it just entertaining nonsense, or was it an allegory? Late in his life, Carroll “agreed with one interpretation of the poem as an allegory for the search for happiness.” Others have suggested it was:

  • an allegory for tuberculosis,
  • a mockery of the Tichborne case,
  • a satire of the controversies between religion and science,
  • the repression of Carroll’s sexuality, and
  • a piece against vivisection
  • a “voyage of life”,
  • “a tragedy of frustration and bafflement,”
  • Carroll’s comic rendition of his fears of disorder and chaos
  • comedy serving as a psychological defense against the devastating idea of personal annihilation,
  • “attempts to create a sense of order and meaning out of chaos.”
  • dealing with existential angst
  • Carroll’s satire of himself.

So it’s pretty much open to interpretation. Reads always have to answer for themselves what or who the Snark represents – and what a Boojum really is.

Hunting of The Snark
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