Who/whom

To borrow from Roland Barthes: some languages are writerly and others are readerly. The choice is whether the speaker (written, vocal, or rude bodily noises) is responsible for the accuracy of the language and by extension for making the language unambiguously understandable for the reader, or if the language is sufficiently simplified that it forces the reader to be the arbiter of the author’s intent?

“Who” versus “Whom” is a good example. Do I immediately know “who” is committing the action and “whom” is being acted upon, or do I have to guess “who” is “who”?

The Argumentative Old Git

OTHELLO

Take heed of perjury; thou art on thy deathbed.

DESDEMONA

Ay, but not yet to die.

OTHELLO

Yes, presently

When Othello says Desdemona is to die “presently”, he doesn’t mean “in a while” he means now – immediately. This ideally needs a gloss in printed versions of the play, to prevent misunderstanding: the meaning of the word has clearly changed considerably since Shakespeare’s day. How and why this change has come about, I do not know, but it’s a fair guess, I think, that it changed not because someone somewhere decreed the change, but because people who spoke and wrote in English began to use the word differently (possibly out of ignorance); and because this different usage soon caught on, and the older meaning of the word became obsolete. This may or may not be a loss to the English language: I would say it isn’t, but wouldn’t argue…

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Birth of the Semicolon

download.pngThe article titled The Birth of the Semicolon published in The Paris Review (August 1, 2019) by Cecilia Watson is not to be missed. Here is just the beginning to whet your appetite for arcane knowledge offering clues to the development of formal language.

The semicolon was born in Venice in 1494. It was meant to signify a pause of a length somewhere between that of the comma and that of the colon, and this heritage was reflected in its form, which combines half of each of those marks. It was born into a time period of writerly experimentation and invention, a time when there were no punctuation rules, and readers created and discarded novel punctuation marks regularly. Texts (both handwritten and printed) record the testing-out and tinkering-with of punctuation by the fifteenth-century literati known as the Italian humanists. The humanists put a premium on eloquence and excellence in writing, and they called for the study and retranscription of Greek and Roman classical texts as a way to effect a “cultural rebirth” after the gloomy Middle Ages. In the service of these two goals, humanists published new writing and revised, repunctuated, and reprinted classical texts.

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It’s All Fiction

“The true life is not reducible to words spoken or written, not by anyone, ever.” This appears to be a left-handed way of saying, “It’s all fiction.”

Don DeLillo continues with a more specific and even more demanding observation: “An eight-hundred-page biography is nothing more than dead conjecture…”

Dead conjecture?

imgres.jpgWhen I studied rhetoric at the university we had several exercises designed to develop various skills in writing. One I remember well was to write detailed instructions so that anyone could read them and flawlessly perform the task described. My essay was called “Scratching the Grasshopper” and it dealt with the very Southern California effort of paddling a surfboard out beyond the shore break.

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