Margina­lia and mis­cel­lanea: a style guide by stealth

Matthew Reisz, books edi­tor

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

It is safe to say that Joe Mo­ran, pro­fes­sor of English and cul­tural his­tory at Liver­pool John Moores Uni­ver­sity, is a writer born and true.

Although he doesn’t take much care of the rest of his body, he tells us in his new book, First You Write a Sen­tence: The El­e­ments of Read­ing, Writ­ing…and Life (Viking), he does “look af­ter the parts of it I need to write. I stretch and squeeze my fin­gers, giv­ing them minia­ture gym work­outs, so I don’t in­jure them from repet­i­tive strain. My right shoul­der and arm get stiff – an in­dus­trial in­jury I have heard called ‘mouse arm’ – and so I knead them with a knob­bly self-mas­sage stick…If I ever trip over a loose paving stone,

I must re­mem­ber (be­ing left­handed) to break my fall with my right arm…writ­ing sen­tences is how I live, not merely ex­ist.”

While re­luc­tant to be too pre­scrip­tive, Mo­ran has set out to pro­duce what he calls a “style guide by stealth” and “a love let­ter to the sen­tence”, based on the premise that “the whole point of a sen­tence is that it gives us a voice – one as unique and inim­itable, we hope, as our ac­tual voices”. Very lit­tle aca­demic writ­ing, of course, is so lov­ingly crafted or as­pires to such high ideals.

Mo­ran has al­ready dis­tilled some key points into an ear­lier fea­ture ar­ti­cle in Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion (“Lim­ber up your write brain”, 4 Oc­to­ber), yet it seemed worth­while to flag up a few more.

One kind of dull aca­demic prose, in Mo­ran’s view, is full of phrases such as “of course” and “to be sure” – in or­der to “in­oc­u­late the writer against the shame­ful dis­ease of naivety”. Yet this style ends up feel­ing “just too wa­ter­tight, too neu­rotic about purg­ing it­self of in­con­sis­ten­cies. Rather like seal­ing a boat’s hull with black tar, mak­ing prose un­sink­able makes it ugly. It has sold its life and voice in re­turn for that du­bi­ous virtue, in­vul­ner­a­bil­ity.”

More gen­er­ally, Mo­ran points to a “flawed premise of the aca­demic es­say, which is that the writer must pre­tend to care”. So we learn that some­thing is “deeply prob­lem­atic” or “more cru­cial than ever be­fore” or that “a de­bate is long over­due”. In their fa­mous 1953 pa­per in Na­ture, James Wat­son and Fran­cis Crick an­nounced their dis­cov­ery of the dou­ble he­lix form of DNA with the phrase: “This struc­ture has novel fea­tures which are of con­sid­er­able bi­o­log­i­cal in­ter­est.” In this par­tic­u­lar case, ar­gues Mo­ran, the clos­ing phrase is “so coy, so in­ad­e­quate to the ar­ti­cle’s mo­men­tous find-

Rather like seal­ing a boat’s hull with black tar, mak­ing prose un­sink­able makes it ugly. It has sold its life and voice in re­turn for that du­bi­ous virtue, in­vul­ner­a­bil­ity

ings, that it al­most swag­gers”. Gen­er­ally, such dy­ing falls amount to “adding words to make the sen­tence longer, bulking it out with plat­i­tude, play­ing the game – the one that tells you to pre­tend to care about the an­swer to some­one else’s ques­tion, and to come up with a fixed num­ber of words in re­sponse to this set task”. If much aca­demic writ­ing is un­nec­es­sar­ily dull, and it surely is, there is much to be learned from this highly en­ter­tain­ing book.

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