Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Mere Literacy

Richard Mitchell is an old favorite of mine -- I read Graves of Academe almost 20 years ago now. I just read his Less Than Words Can Say. You can find it as open-source over here.

His basic theme is that bad syntax is no accident. Basically, horrifying grammar and style derives from two sources:

  • Inadvertence (that is, the person writes badly because he doesn't know any better)
  • Intentional obscurity (the person's writing perfectly reflects his intention and state of mind)
And it matters. It matters if the general population can't tell bad writing from good, or write well instead of badly. In this way he shares Hirsch's view, though Hirsch focuses on the role of knowledge in literacy, and Mitchell focuses on the logic in literacy. But both of them see it as a matter of civic importance that as many people as possible get an education that will prepare them to think and communicate as well as possible.

From Chapter Three:

If we want to pursue extended logical thought, thought that can discover relationships and consequences and devise its own alternatives, we need a discipline imposed from outside of the mind itself. Writing is that discipline. It seems drastic, but we have to suspect that coherent, continuous thought is impossible for those who cannot construct coherent, continuous prose.

"Writing," Bacon said, "Maketh the exact man," as we all know, but we ordinarily stop thinking about that too soon. The "exact" part is only half of what writing makes; the other half is the "man." Writing does indeed make us exact because it leaves a trail of thought that we can retrace and so discover where we have been stupid. At the same time, though, it makes us "men," grown-ups who can choose what toys we want to play with and who can outwit the random suggestions of environment. In his writing, then, we can judge of at least two things in a man--his ability to think and his intention to do so, his maturity. An education that does not teach clear, coherent writing cannot provide our world with thoughtful adults; it gives us instead, at the best, clever children of all ages....

The logic of writing is simply logic; it is not some system of arbitrary conventions interesting only to those who write a lot. All logical thought goes on in the form of statements and statements about statements. We can make those statements only in language, even if that language be a different symbol system like mathematics. If we cannot make those statements and statements about statements logically, clearly, and coherently, then we cannot think and make knowledge. People who cannot put strings of sentences together in good order cannot think. An educational system that does not teach the technology of writing is preventing thought.

It also matters if people are able to use their language to make things harder to understand rather than easier. See also Orwell's Politics and the English Language, where he writes:

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.
and also:

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. The debased language that I have been discussing is in some ways very convenient. Phrases like a not unjustifiable assumption, leaves much to be desired, would serve no good purpose, a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind, are a continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins always at one's elbow.


  1. Sorry Dawn! I know! ;-). Just thinking things through!

  2. Very interesting. He makes some terrific points. I think that this is why I enjoy blogging. The act of writing helps me think about things well. It is also good for leaving that trail and evaluating past thoughts. It is sometimes good to be reminded of past stupidity, though, of course, blogging it meant that one was publicly stupid!

  3. I really enjoyed the sassiness of Graves of Academe years ago when I read it. I mean to re-read.

    I really enjoyed the Orwell quotes, too, especially, "The great enemy of clear language is insincerity."

    Thanks for the food for thought!


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!