Archives for posts with tag: syntax

Non-linguist commentators on language heap scorn on “passive writing,” but are curiously poor at identifying passive constructions. The passive is not, as sometimes understood, any sentence that omits the instigator of the action, or a sentence that “just doesn’t sound very active”; rather, it is a specific grammatical construction. This is a passive sentence:

The dog was kicked by Mary.

And so is this:

The dog was kicked.

But this is not:

Someone kicked the dog.

I agree that in, for example, journalism, actors should not get a pass for their behavior; the writer should not conceal Mary’s active participation in this craven act. However, simply eliminating passive sentences won’t accomplish that goal. The identification of actors doesn’t actually covary very reliably with use of the passive. By Mary in the passive sentence above clearly identifies the culprit, while someone in the active sentence does not.

In fact, some of the most common and egregious examples of obscuring responsibility via linguistic choices are accomplished with active constructions. Compare these examples:

The suspect was shot.

The suspect suffered a gunshot wound.

Although the sentence with was shot is a passive, and omits the shooter, it retains the implication of a shooter. The sentence with suffered leaves the idea of a finger on the trigger out of the story entirely. Look what happens when we introduce the idea of intentionality into the two sentences:

The suspect was intentionally shot.

The suspect intentionally suffered a gunshot wound.

In the passive sentence with was shot, blame is placed on an implied shooter; in the active sentence with suffered, we find that, grammatically, we are blaming the victim.

Now, I’m not defending frequent use of passives. I agree that passives have earned their place in the rogue’s gallery of language used to obfuscate, exonerate, or conceal, or to provide a veneer of intimidating prestige. But let’s place the blame where it belongs: on the writer, not the words.


Still trying to plow my way through A Little Life (I paid full price for the hardcover, so I feel obligated to finish the thing). So–it’s a spoof of JT LeRoy, right? There’s no other reasonable explanation.

It can’t be a coincidence, right? The logistically impossible academic and personal achievements—there simply would not have been enough hours in the day (in between being raped, whipped with a lash dipped in vinegar, and so on) to study French, German, calculus, piano, choral singing, horticulture, animal husbandry, etc. etc., even positing the improbable presence of qualified teachers with time to spare (in between raping and torturing him) or his own presence of mind (in between being raped and tortured) to absorb the material. Brother Luke travelling around with him, pimping him out, always with the promise of the cabin in the woods later; but somehow finding clients, shady doctors, whatever else is needed, effortlessly, while also finding time and materials to continue Jude’s excellent education. Later, the concurrent law degree and masters in math? Seriously? Law students at prestigious schools don’t sleep as it is; no saying what the MIT math department’s masters program is like, I guess, since it doesn’t exist. (“What’s your favorite axiom?” Does Yanagihara imagine this is how conversations go at MIT? Jesus Christ.) Then somehow–the icing on the proverbial fucking cake, a little on the nose, don’t you think?–he’s become a professional cake decorator, and he’s doing that on the weekends, perfectly, of course, at the same time.

The weirdest part is that it’s not simply improbable: it has the specifically unverifiable improbability of a JT LeRoy or a Tony Johnson. The absence of birth records, foster care records, academic records. The social worker with boundary/professional ethics issues, taking Jude home with her—then conveniently dying, so she can’t be interviewed later. Brother Luke hanging himself, so he never goes to a trial that could be verified in court records. The doctor who sees Jude after hours, at his home, and doesn’t bill him or accept insurance. The vagueness of the actual injuries. Jude’s concealing clothing, with what is concealed never questioned by, and never accidentally exposed to, people who actually share a bedroom with him. For years. The invisibility of Jude himself—we see his undeniable charismatic effect on others, but we never see him, his physicality, as it appears to others, even down to an ethnicity that would allow us to picture him in the broadest outlines; we see only the scars, that parts that are concealed, and those through the lens of Jude’s awareness. Jude is an absence at the center of his own story.

If this what Yanagihara intended, kudos for conceiving an interesting project and carrying it through. I am still unimpressed by her writing on a sentence-by-sentence level, but the project would explain many of what would otherwise be the book’s most egregious flaws. If it’s intended as a spoof, that is–as a commentary on the literary audience’s appetite for grue, or as a statement about the othering and consequent secondary victimization of actual survivors of abuse that the commoditization of these themes produces. I suppose it’s possible that she simply admires Laura Albert’s work, finds it powerful, and wishes to emulate it. Or that she recognizes the commoditization and her potential to profit from it.

In any case, Yanagihara’s intentions wouldn’t excuse the pronoun thing:

Passages in which Jude is the point-of-view character never use his name; he is always identified by a third-person pronoun (except within dialogue). Combine that with the fact that the dramatis personae is almost exclusively male (this thing scores negative infinity on the Bechdel test) and you’ve got some serious challenges for resolving pronoun reference. Passages with different POV characters don’t show the same mannerism; Yanagihara seems to be using it to say some specific thing about Jude. I don’t know what that thing is, though, and the result is a failure, as far as I’m concerned; it’s confusing and intrusive–an object lesson in the shortcomings of high-concept syntax.



It seems that Daniel Mendelsohn isn’t that impressed with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. I haven’t read the book yet–it’s in the stack–so I look forward to approaching it with his comments to inform my reading. He seems to be saying that he initially expects the book to be short on plot, but then finds that it’s “sidetracked” by (you guessed it) a plot; this is the kind of observation that may turn out to be either a deep insight into a flaw in the novel’s structure, or simply dumb, so I’m curious to see which it is. I am somewhat fatigued with homosexual pedophilia as the go-to trauma in fiction, I’m uncomfortable with physical disability as a metaphor for a “crippled”* spirit, and Mendelsohn’s comments on reading A Little Life as a “gay novel” are worth attention, so I suspect I may end up on his side on this point.

However, I was confused by this bit:

The awkwardness of “which he didn’t yet consider himself among” is, I should say, pervasive. The writing in this book is often atrocious, oscillating between the incoherently ungrammatical—“his mother…had earned her doctorate in education, teaching all the while at the public school near their house that she had deemed JB better than”—and painfully strained attempts at “lyrical” effects: “His silence, so black and total that it was almost gaseous…” You wonder why the former, at least, wasn’t edited out—and why the striking weakness of the prose has gone unremarked by critics and prize juries.

I won’t dispute “gaseous silence,” but for the other two examples in this paragraph: “incoherently ungrammatical”? Mendelsohn … doesn’t accept preposition stranding? That is a bit surprising; as he points out, A Little Life is a novel of the twenty-first century, and modern American English is pretty comfortable with stranded prepositions. Mendelsohn, indeed, doesn’t eschew them in his own prose:

Yanagihara’s new book would seem, at first glance, to have satisfied her wish for a “tribe” she could devote an entire novel to.

…by the priest he runs away with…

In the end, her novel is little more than a machine designed to produce negative emotions for the reader to wallow in—unsurprisingly, the very emotions that, in her Kirkus Reviews interview, she listed as the ones she was interested in, the ones she felt men were incapable of expressing: fear, shame, vulnerability.

That last example earns bonus points for two stranded prepositions in a single, convoluted sentence. I’m sure Mendelsohn prides himself on his frequent “in which”es and “to whom”s, but in point of fact, he’s perfectly willing to strand a preposition when the mood, or the context, takes him.

It just goes to show you what an education in linguistics is worth; here I sit ranting to the saltshaker about the nattering nabobs of normativity, as Mendelsohn fails to parse grammatical English sentences for a substantial audience, railing all the while at standard syntax that he fancies himself better than.

*Mendelsohn’s review uses the word “cripple,” repeatedly. I’m not pleased. Perhaps this is Yanagihara’s term? If so, the New York Review of Books‘ style guide should disallow it unless called out as such. We get “queer” in scare quotes in the same piece, for god’s sake.

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