Strunkation

Following yet another contretemps with an academic publisher, I feel the need for a word to describe the mangling process carried out by over-zealous copy-editors who appear to have read The Elements of Style and no other book in the English language. I’d like to nominate “strunkation” for this role. (Unfortunately I don’t seem to be the first person to have thought of it, but the coinage that appeared in the Columbia Daily Spectator in 1976 doesn’t seem to have caught on at the time.)

The central dogma of strunkation is that every sentence written by an academic can and should be made shorter. Two points here are important. First, I’m not going to deny that most academic prose is awful, or that in particular it is often verbose and self-indulgent; only that reducing it is as simple as the strunkators imagine. Second, the unit on which strunkation acts always seems to be the sentence, rather than the paragraph or the article, and this can be where trouble lies.

Let’s take as an example the masterclass provided by Steven and Victor Cahn in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article. By a process of repeated “polishing”, they take the paragraph

It is important to recognize the fact that every subject, given that its content is not totally reducible to some other subject area, presents a special set of pedagogic problems arising as a result of the distinctive character of their contents and their essential nature. The problems may be regarded as particularizations of the general pedagogical considerations which must be treated by any and all teachers who seek to seriously discharge his or her educational responsibilities in a highly efficacious manner.

and reduce it to

Every subject presents its own pedagogic problems.

Let’s admit that the Cahns’ aim is laudable, that the original prose is pretty awful, and that the final sentence is much easier to read than the original. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the reduction has lost at least one point which — in the context of mathematical education to which the specimen paragraph refers — can be rather important.

The original paragraph is trying to make two points: not just that each subject is distinctive (and should be treated as such when teaching it), but also that for pedagogical purposes we may treat these distinctions as specialisations of general pedagogical concerns rather than as absolutely unique problems. In the context of a debate which frequently becomes polarised between “maths is so distinctive we have nothing to learn from other disciplines” and “disciplines are irrelevant: only education theory matters”, this is an important nuance. The problem, presumably, is that like so many copy-editors, the Cahns don’t know the terms of the debate, and so they don’t realise that they’re editing out an attempt to frame how a better-informed reader would approach the article.

Lest I give the impression that I’m off on a rant along the tedious lines of “humanities graduates are mucking up science”, here’s a classic example cutting the other way across Snow’s Divide. In Surely You’re Joking, Richard Feynman describes his encounter with a sociology paper that contained sentences such as

The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels.

Feynman “translated” this simply as “People read” — and, by his account, he proceeded to reduce the rest of the paper to Basic English in much the same manner.

I find it perfectly plausible that the paper strunkated by Feynman was as vacuous as he says, but it’s also plausible that by reducing it one sentence at a time he did it an injustice. Suppose — just suppose — that the offending sentence was the follow-up to something like this:

The social community considered collectively receives its information in a direct verbal form through aural channels.

This would still be pretty clumsy prose, but the point of the apparent verbosity in the second sentence would now be much clearer: to distinguish carefully between the collective and the individual (a distinction annihilated in Feynman’s “people”), between aural and visual modalities, and between direct and symbolic communication. We could of course strunkate my hypothetical preceding sentence to something like “People listen” or “People hear things”, but then the detailed parallelism would be lost, replaced by a much cruder rhetorical parallelism that blurs rather than pointing up distinctions.

What went so badly wrong in this imaginary example is the strunkator’s habit of reading text one sentence at a time, and in real or assumed ignorance of its intellectual context. (I believe this is a characteristic habit of the species because that’s the simplest explanation for the treatment that some of my work has received from them. I do try not to postulate malice where incompetence will do.) In other words, it’s the habit of reading like a proof-reader rather than like a reader.

George Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language took a dose of flak from Steven Poole in the Guardian Review last month. Poole’s article is aimed more at those who treat this essay as a timeless guide to writing good literary prose than at the essay itself, which is quite explicitly concerned, where it gives specific advice, with the perversions characteristic of political writing in 1940s Britain. Less reasonably, though, Poole takes Orwell to task for the last in his list of rules: “Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.” At first this seems like a fair criticism: if the rules don’t help you to identify what’s barbarous, what’s the use of them? On reflection, though, such criticism misses the point of this last rule, which is that unless you already have some idea of what is and isn’t barbarous prose — unless, in other words, you’re an experienced and informed reader — you won’t produce good writing no matter how many rules you apply.

That point holds equally for writers and for editors: strunkators, please take note.

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