True Detective Season 3: Strunk and White

Police tape marks the scene. Red and blue lights flash. A young, nervous-looking BEAT COP sees STRUNK and WHITE approaching.
It’s over here, detectives. The body was found about an hour ago.
Use the active voice, rookie.
Oh god, it’s horrible. I feel nauseous.
Unless you mean you’re sickening to contemplate, you mean “nauseated.” Now get out of  my crime scene before you puke all over it.
WHITE (inspecting the body)
It’s definitely our guy, Strunk.
The Crossword Killer?
Yeah. And look, he’s getting more confident. This time, he used a pen.

True Detective needs a reboot anyway.

The science behind good writing

This hunger for coherence has important implications. As Pinker shows, the letter sequence M-D-P-H-D-R-S-V-P-C-E-O-I-H-O-P is difficult to remember, though not when chunked as MD-PHD-RSVP-CEO-IHOP. Each chunk contains subsets of meaning; if these unfold coherently, the reader makes sense of them; complexity is rendered into manageable bits. That helps explain how a memory expert dazzles 100 audience members by recalling their names, and it’s what makes even a detailed text with a clear hierarchical structure easy for the reader to assimilate: “At any level of granularity, from clauses to chapters, the passage can be represented in the reader’s mind as a single chunk, and the reader never has to juggle more than a few chunks at a time as he figures out how they are related.”

It’s fascinating to learn the science that underlies the stylistic techniques good writers seem to intuit—for example, a list is most easily grasped if the bulkiest item comes at the end (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness ; or The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle; or Faster than a speeding bullet! More powerful than a locomotive! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound!). “Light-before-heavy is one of the oldest principles in linguistics,” Pinker writes, “having been discovered in the fourth century BCE by the Sanskrit grammarian Pānini.” Why? Because the mind must hold the early items in suspension before incorporating the final one, and it’s easier to retain simple things than more complex elements.

From a review of Steven Pinker's upcoming book The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person'’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century.  I have a vast collection of usage books, and I pre-ordered this to add to my collection, to sit alongside favorites like Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (of course) and one of my favorite books of all time, Garner's Modern American Usage.

“Many experiments have shown that readers understand and remember material far better when it is expressed in concrete language that allows them to form visual images,” Pinker tells us. (This explains why white Econoline van is preferable to getaway car; and a mound of flowers, balloons, and teddy bears is more effective than impromptu roadside memorial.) Or this: “It’s good for a writer to work with the ongoing newsreel in readers’ minds and describe events in chronological order.”He showered and put on his new suit before he went to dinner is easier to understand than He went to dinner after he showered and put on his new suit. Similarly, positive statements are more readily grasped than negative ones, and so negation should not be used for no good reason. (That’s a joke.) And my favourite Pinkerism of all, the undisputed first rule of worthwhile prose: “a writer has to have both something to talk about (a topic) and something to say (the point).” Are you listening, bloggers of the world?

5 best punctuation marks in literature

Kathryn Schulz offers her list of the greatest punctuation marks in literature, and it is a wonderful one.

3. The ellipses in T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” 

Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go, and make our visit.

Okay, I concede: The most famous ellipses of all time is not in "Prufrock." It is not in literature at all. It is in the text crawl at the beginning of Star Wars (“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …”), which I can’t read without hearing that crashing first chord of John Williams’s score, and which I admire even while wishing George Lucas had seen fit to include one more comma. 

But we are here to talk about literature, and, in that domain, Eliot wins the ellipses game. Everything in "Prufrock" is elliptical: those meandering streets, the foglike cat (fog and cats: name me two things more evasive), the hundred revisions, the perfume-inspired digressions — and all this is to say nothing of the five other literal ellipses in the poem: “lonely men in shirt sleeves, leaning out of windows … ”;  “asleep … tired … or it malingers”’ “I grow old … I grow old … ” — aging in those very pauses, it seems. But by far the most yawning chasm in the poem is the first one: What overwhelming question, Eliot? The candidate options, as I see it, are “What is the meaning of life?” and “Hey, so, would you maybe want to have dinner with me sometime?” Existential exposure, romantic embarrassment: Poor Prufrock, no wonder he trails off into that visual stutter.