Joseph M. Williams on Style

Philosophy and Literature 19 (1995): 201-205.

Denis Dutton

The latest edition of Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams (University of Chicago Press, $17.95) is a useful and likable book. It was originally a Scott Foresman text, but the University of Chicago Press asked Williams to turn it into a trade title for their “Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing.” There are chapters on clarity, cohesion, emphasis, two on coherence (written with Gregory C. Colomb), concision, length, elegance, and usage.

Williams’s examples are cleverly chosen, and he seems fond of finding out critics of language, including “Pop Grammarians,” making the very “mistakes” they excoriate in the writing of others. James Fenimore Cooper complained in 1838 that “the common faults of American language are ambition of effect, a want of simplicity, and a turgid abuse of terms.” The good writer, according to Cooper, does not say of a dance that “the attire of the ladies was exceedingly elegant and peculiarly becoming at the late assembly,” but simply “the women were well dressed at the last ball.” The trouble is that, as Williams shows, Cooper succumbs to the same fascination for Latinate abstraction and passive construction he faults in others. Williams seems most annoyed by school-masterish rules about split infinitives, ending sentences with prepositions, and so forth. He quotes Jacques Barzun recommending that we should use that (not which) for restrictive clauses, and which for nonrestrictive clauses in a style guide where Barzun says on the following page, “Next is a typical situation which a practiced writer corrects ‘for style’ virtually by reflex action.” Williams observes, “When someone who offers up a rule immediately violates it, we know the rule has no force.”

Williams gives us a list of usage rules which it would be precious, pedantic, inelegant, or plain silly always to follow — or make always follow. He calls these “linguistic folklore, enforced by many editors and schoolteachers, but largely ignored by educated and careful writers.” Some of his opinions on these rules I can accept; others strike me as daft. “Never begin a sentence with because”; rubbish, to be sure. “Never begin a sentence with and or but”; silly. But what about, “Use fewer with nouns you can count, less with quantities you cannot? Not actually a bad idea, I’d have thought, but Williams rejects it with a quotation from Noel Annan (“I can remember no less than five occasions when correspondence columns of the Times rocked with volleys of letters . . .”) and the remark that “educated writers do use less before countable plural nouns: less problems.”

I’d say, to the contrary, that educated writers, including Lord Annan, occasionally fall asleep at the switch; Annan should have said fewer. More troubling still is Williams’s complacent treatment of disinterested. He says, “Infer for imply and disinterested for uninterested are countenanced by some standard dictionaries whose editors base their decisions on the usage of careful writers. Many editors and writers strenuously disagree.” Me too. Williams then adds a parenthetical explanation: “A nice point about disinterested: Its original meaning was, in fact, that of uninterested. Only in the eighteenth century did it begin to take on the meaning of impartial. A careful writer today does not use disinterested for uninterested, of course. But those who cite disinterested as an example of the imminent demise of English might consider instead whether such usage in fact shows how resistant to change our language really is.”

All right, let’s consider. On Williams’s hypothesis, when people use disinterested meaning uninterested some deep, resistant impulse within the English language is making itself manifest. Perhaps the unnatural dis/un distinction somehow violates an atavism which inclines people to conflate the two words despite the eighteenth-century’s pedantic attempts to pull them apart. This hypothesis is just loopy: disinterested — like irregardless, criteria as singular, and between you and I — is a plain mistake made by semi-educated, middle-class speakers who are trying too hard. Confident proletarians are never heard to be disinterested in anything; the word only issues from the mouths of state college graduates of departments of Business Administration or Physical Education and Leisure Studies. The word is especially favored when addressing the boss. Everybody knows uninterested, but disinterested is something learned at college. It puts me in mind of the pseudo-French of pretentious restaurants: baked potato en foil.

The problem is not so dramatic as the imminent demise of the English language. It is a matter of education and social class, in particular education as both cause and symptom of class. In order to avoid offense, Williams steers away from identifying usage with class. I can appreciate his reluctance to engage usage at this disagreeable level, and understand his unwillingness to go along with the shock-horror Pop Grammarians who see every violation of linguistic rules as signaling the end of civilization. All the same, to suggest that the distinction between imply and infer is mere linguistic folklore (adding that he wouldn’t confuse them himself), is to push open-mindedness over the top. Style is supposed to be a guide to “clarity and grace” in writing. As graceful, clear writers realize, disinterested and imply are very handy to distinguish from uninterested and infer. Just because a distinction originated as recently as the eighteenth century doesn’t mean it isn’t worth preserving in the twentieth.

On the other hand, Williams’s refusal to resort to histrionics is part of the appeal of Style. His comments on political correctness will displease both the ideologues who call for person-in-the-moon and the conservatives who insist that he is an innocent generic pronoun. (He champions the welcome strategy of consistent plurals in place of tedious he-or-she’s.) The sections on coherence are elegantly developed, and I can imagine they would profit anyone who worked through them. There are plenty of up-to-date examples of writing, good and bad, with analysis of paragraphs from such as Clifford Geertz, Daniel Dennett, Joan Didion, and Norman Mailer. Even Derrida shows up at one point, with a paragraph to illustrate “artful interruption.” Williams will take a piece of effective writing, the Gettysburg Address, and rewrite it, demonstrating the gains and losses from following or flouting rules. He shows how Jefferson topicalized abstractions in the Declaration of Independence, making the revolution a passive expression of the forces of history (“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary . . .”), rather than the action of the colonists. The action verbs are left for George III (“He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.”), who is cast as a malign will set against the forces of Natural Law. Williams’s rewrite of the Jefferson makes this all very clear, and his whole stylistic outline demonstrates the lucid intelligence of the Declaration. Williams won’t make a Jefferson out of anybody, but he may help a few aspiring writers avoid becoming pale imitations of Jefferson’s contemporary, G.W.F. Hegel.


Copyright © 1995 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.