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Article on Writing Made Some Good Points but was Flawed

Posted by Howard Denson on April 13, 2012 at 11:20 PM

By HOWARD DENSON

In my third year of teaching, I discovered an essay on writing that came from a 1950’s newsletter from General Electric. It had a potential employer’s perspective and took a serious, down-to-earth approach to sound advice that reminded me of the tone used by Elbert Hubbard in his inspirational essay, “A Letter to Garcia.” But whereas the Hubbard essay gained renown and inspired a couple of motion pictures, the G.E. essay sort of fizzled out. It made a good point here and there, but then fell back on clichés and other gaffes.

 

That is sort of the complaint that surfaced after we published the link to the article by Katherine Dickinson, “Let's Get Personal: Using First Person in Scientific Writing.” If you think we are being unjust, you may revisit the article at http://www.realclearscience.com/blog/2012/03/first%20person%20in%20scientific%20writing.html.

 

Frank Green, the guiding force behind the Bard Society, Northeast Florida’s oldest writing group, said the article on scientific writing was most interesting in regards to how bad the article itself was. For starters, the writer says the opposite of what she means (‘Somehow I don't think that the second person will ever catch on . . .’ would be better phrased as ‘Somehow I think that the second person will never catch on . . .’).” Is there actually little difference between the two? Perhaps, but few sentences need to use “I think.” It could have just said, “Second person is unlikely to catch on.”

 

Even though Ms. Dickinson rightly observed that the second-person point of view is rare, an internet search reveals there is a resurgence in second-person POV stories. They are an artificial contrivance and could only be used if someone awakes tabula rasa from a coma and has no idea who, what, where, when, and why he or she got to this circumstance. The film “50 First Dates” revolved around a young woman who suffered from Anterograde amnesia. In strictly a story form, a narrator might begin: “You were born 25 years ago as Ripley McIntosh in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Your parents Bart and Zsa Zsa had a fixation to live in places with quaint names, so they moved every year or so to Walla Walla, then Two Egg, Florida, near Marianna, and finally to Burnt Mattress, Arkansas, which is right above Hot Springs. Then –“

 

Second-person POV really is a modified use of first- or third-person POV. At some point, “you” will have a question or an insight, and, when that occurs, we have slid entirely into 1st POV.

 

 

 

Ms. Dickinson stated that “the third person is traditionally thought to be best for scientific writing. Many scientists write in third person in order to distance themselves from their research and seem more objective. The idea is to let the research speak for itself without personal opinion getting in the way.”

 

She says: “What if the real reason scientists are reluctant to use first person isn't because they are trying to [be] objective but because they are trying to be humble? Researcher Ken Hyland, suggests that scientists and other academic writers may choose not to use personal pronouns because that style simply doesn't fit with the impression the author wants to give.”

 

Green says, “Notice that the sentence basically is ‘Reason . . . is . . . because,’ which is a barbarism.” The construction should be “Reason . . . is . . . that,” since the word “Reason” has the “because” inherent in the word itself.

 

Another problem with the sentence is that it uses an unnecessary framing device. For example, a wordy sentence might say “The fact that he was late was no excuse.” A symptom of wordiness is the use of two or more linking verbs. The writer can avoid the unnecessary frame by writing “His being late was no excuse” or “the supervisor would not excuse his tardiness” (We could even tighten the opening sentence of this paragraph by writing “A sentence errs when it uses an unnecessary framing device.”)

 

Green said he couldn’t make any sense of the word “intimate” in the following section:

 

“Two other ways scientists avoid personal pronouns is by 1) using ‘it’ and 2) giving action to intimate things. Consider the examples below:

“1) It was observed that the dishes were dirty.

“2) The chunks of food floating in the dishwater suggest that the dishes were dirty.

“In the first example, a universal ‘it’ keeps the author from saying just exactly who made the observation. In the second example, the chunks for food aren't actually suggesting anything because chunks of food can't move or think. When the author really means is ‘I saw the dishes were dirty by observing the floating chunks of food in the sink.’”

 

When we discover an out-of-context word in a sentence, we may suspect that the writer didn’t know the correct word . . . or, just as likely, the writer was lazy and inattentive and didn’t notice that an auto-correct program had inserted the wrong word. Instead of “intimate,” the writer probably set out to write “inanimate,” stumbled over the typing, and wound up with “intimate” appearing. Similarly, some folks may struggle with the word “definitely” and get misspelling alerts when they type the word as “deffinitely,” “defenately,” “definately,” etc. Finally they notice that the program is suggesting, and accepting, “defiantly” as an option. Ah, success at last! Time to move on. Eventually the reader may worry because the note seems so aggressive: “I will defiantly be there on Tuesday for the job interview.” The possible employer may wish to call Security to stand by with a Taser during the face-to-face chit-chat.

 

Ms. Dickinson was correct when she discouraged the use of “chunks of food . . . suggest.” She was avoiding the pathetic fallacy, which we often encounter in classic elegies and Romantic era poetry. What is the pathetic fallacy? It’s also known as the anthropomorphic fallacy or the sentimental fallacy and occurs when a poet treats inanimate objects as if they had human thoughts, feelings, or sensations. Before we move on, let’s look at an example of this fallacy from the “Lament for Bion” translated by George Chapman:

Ye mountain valleys, pitifully groan!

Rivers and Dorian springs, for Bion weep!

Ye plants drop tears; ye groves, lamenting moan!

Exhale your life, wan flowers; your blushes deep

In grief, anemones and roses, steep . . . .

 

We don’t do this sort of thing in modern poetry since it draws scorn from workshop members, editors, and critics. For example, three decades ago, I heard a complaint from John Ciardi, a fine poet who was the long-time poetry editor of The Saturday Review. He had spotted a line in the poetry of Anne Morrow Lindbergh that apparently had a flower or dandelion biting her in the heart. No, no: pathetic fallacy, you see.

 

One final thought: This piece opened by referring to an unsigned article from General Electric. We’ll keep checking, but it’s possible that the author of that piece may have been Kurt Vonnegut. During his apprenticeship years as a writer, he worked in public relations for G.E. If Vonnegut was the culprit, then the flawed piece simply proves again that writers must serve their apprenticeship by getting their mistakes out of the way in their first million words.

Categories: The Human Comedy or Tragedy

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