Use the Force

In Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, Joseph Williams teaches us to make characters active agents (actors) of sentences. Philosophically, I’m interested in the way that this imperative works and what it could mean.

Throughout the text, Williams focuses on how readers feel when they read certain sentences. We prefer sentences that tell clear stories, stories where the main characters act, or more specifically where “the main characters are subjects of verbs,” and “those verbs express specific actions” (29). His advice, though, becomes more complicated (or more rhetorical) when he notes that writers often have to choose which characters should act and that those should be the characters that are most important to the reader. (32)

For the editor, at least according to Saller, considering the readers’ needs is the primary job, but these needs often have to be balanced against the will of the author and the constraints, conventions, and requirements of language and genre.

So questions on my mind:

How does Williams’ imperative to make the main characters of a sentence active agents speak to our programming as human subjects? Whether or not it’s true that we are programmed to tell stories, and to hear them, I can at least say that I often find that what I like to read (academic writing or otherwise) does exactly what Williams says good writing should do: it speaks to our nature as storytellers.

Where does this feeling come from? If we imagine ourselves as programmed, does a tendency to find this kind of writing pleasurable relate to the one-to-one relationship between characters and actions we find in computer code? (Think about how the statement “this is a nonsmoking building” would be interpreted by a computer unfamiliar with the idiom.) Does it relate to how early on in our development we used stories to remember key aspects of our cultural memory that could not be written down?  Nominalization is an effect of print culture (Ong, etc.) But what if our human code contains the imperative to move us “beyond pleasure” and develop the kinds of thinking that is only possible when one creates nominalizations?


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