1995-02-01: The New Oxford Guide to Writing

The New Oxford Guide to Writing (1988)

by Thomas S. Kane (-)

This is what the title promises. Much of the advice might be useful, if I could remember it, or refer to it easily. As a library book, only a few bits seem useful enough to dwell on. I found all of Chapter 11, and parts of Chapters 13, 24 and 27 interesting.

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Chapter 11, Point of View, Persona, and Tone

Point of View

Thus far we have looked at how to begin and end essays and how to help readers follow the flow of thought. It remains to consider several other aspects of a composition, more abstract but no less important. These are point of view, persona, and tone.

Point of view relates to how you present a subject. Two approaches are possible. In a personal point of view you play the role of writer openly, using “I,” “me,” “my.” An impersonal point of view, on the other hand, requires that you avoid all explicit references to yourself. The difference is not that in a personal point of view the subject is the writer, while in an impersonal one it is something else. Every subject involves, though it is not necessarily about, the writer. The difference is a question of strategy.

On many occasions one point of view or the other is preferable. Some topics so intimately involve the writer that they require a first-person presentation. It would sound silly to describe your summer vacation impersonally. Don’t be afraid to use “I” if it fits your subject and purpose.

On other occasions a personal point of view is not appropriate. A scientist, writing professionally, usually trues to keep his or personality below the surface, and properly so: scientific subjects are best treated objectively.

Of course many topics can be presented from either point of view, though the two approaches will result in different essays. In such cases you must consider occasion and reader and the degree of formality you want. An impersonal point of view seems more formal, a personal one less so.

Whichever you select, establish it in the opening paragraph. You needn’t say, “My point of view will be personal [or impersonal].” Simply use “I” if you intend to write personally, or avoid it if you do not. (Such substitutes for “I” as “this observer,” “your reporter,” or “the writer” are wordy and awkward and best avoided.)

Maintain point of view consistently. Don’t jump back and forth between a personal and impersonal presentation. At the same time, you can make small adjustments. For example, you may expand “I” to “we” when you wish to imply “I the writer and you the reader.” Whether writing impersonally or impersonally you may address readers as individuals by employing “you,” or shift to “one,” “anyone,” “people,” and so on, when you are referring to no one specifically.

But such shifts in point of view should be compatible with the emphasis you desire, and they should be slight. Radical changes, nine times in ten, are awkward. It is good practice, then, (1) to select a point of view appropriate to your subject, (2) to establish your point of view in the opening paragraph, and (3) to maintain it consistently.

Persona

Persona derives from the Latin word for an actor’s mask (in the Greek and Roman theaters actors wore cork masks carved to represent the type of character they were playing.) As a term in composition, persona means the writer’s presence in the writing.

The derivation from “mask” may be misleading. It does not imply a false face, a disguise, behind which the real individual hides. A writer’s persona is always “real.” It is there, in the prose. The words you choose, the sentence patterns into which you arrange them, even the kinds of paragraphs you write and how you organize your essay, suggest a personality, which is, for that particular piece of writing, you.

But, you may object, a persona is not really the person who writes. (Person, interestingly enough, comes from the same Latin word.) Of course, that is true, and it is true that the same writer may assume different personas on different occasions. Still, the only contact readers generally have with a writer is through his or her words. For readers the persona implicit in those words is the real, existential fact about the writer.

The question to ask about any persona is not, Is this really the writer? The questions are, Is it really how the writer wants to appear? And, Is it how he or she can best appear? To put the matter another way: Is the persona authentic and appropriate?

Authenticity means that the personality readers sense in your words is the personality you want them to perceive. To say that a persona is authentic does not necessarily mean that it is really you. We are all many different people, showing one face to friends, another to strangers, still another to the boss. Here authenticity simply means that how you appear in what you write is how you wish to appear.

But authenticity is not enough. A persona must also be appropriate, efficacious in the sense that it achieves your ends. At the very least it ought not to get in the way.

Persona is most immediately and directly revealed when a writer discusses himself or herself. For instance, a clear personality emerges in the following passage from Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography. Franklin is explaining that when he educated himself as a youth he learned to drop his habit of “abrupt contradiction, and positive argumentation” and to become more diffident in putting forward his opinions. (He is, of course, talking about the same thing we are — persona.)

[I retained] the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence, never using when I advance any thing that may possibly be disputed, the words, certainly, undoubtedly, or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather I say, I conceive, or I apprehend a thing to be so or so, It appears to me, or I should think it so for such & such reasons, or I imagine it to be so, or it is so if I am not mistaken. This habit I believe has been of great advantage to me, when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions & persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engag’d in promoting. And as the chief ends of conversation are to inform, or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well meaning sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive assuming manner that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us, to wit, giving or receiving information, or pleasure: for if you would inform, a positive dogmatical manner in advancing your sentiments, may provoke contradiction & prevent a candid attention. If you wish information & improvement from the knowledge of others and yet at the same time express your self as firmly fix’d in your present opinions, modest sensible men, who do not love disputation, will probably lave you undisturb’d in the possession of your error; and by such a manner you can seldom hope to recommend yourself in pleasing your hearers, or to persuade those whose concurrence you desire.

Franklin strikes us as a discerning and candid man, sensitive to how he affects people, but sensitive to how he affects people, but sensitive in an unabashedly egocentric way. His advice about not coming on too strong — still worth heeding — is based not so much on concern for others as on a clear-eyed awareness that modesty is the way to get on in the world. Yet the very openness and ease with which Franklin urges that advice washes away its taint of self-serving manipulation.

We sense a different personality in these paragraphs from Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography:

Three passions, simple but overwhelmingly strong, have governed my life: the longing for love, the search for knowledge, and unbearable pity for the suffering of mankind. These passions, like great winds, have blown me hither and thither, in a wayward course, over a deep ocean of anguish, reaching to the very verge of despair.

I have sought love, first, because it brings ecstasy — ecstasy so great that I would often have sacrificed all the rest of my life for a few hours of this joy. I have sought it, next, because it relives loneliness — that terrible loneliness in which one shivering consciousness looks over the rim of the world into the cold unfathomable lifeless abyss. I have sought it, finally, because in the union of love I have seen, in a mystic miniature, the prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined. This is what I sought, and though it might seem too good for human life, this is what — at least — I have found.

With equal passion I have sought knowledge. I have wished to understand the hearts of men. I have wished to know why the stars shine. And I have tried to apprehend the Pythagorean power by which number holds sway above the flux. A little of this, but not much, I have achieved.

Love and knowledge, so far as they are possible, led upward toward the heavens. But always pity brought me back to earth. Echoes of cries of pain reverberate in my heart. Children in famine, victims tortured by oppressors, helpless old people a hated burden to their sons, and the whole world of loneliness, poverty, and pain make a mockery of what human life should be. I long to alleviate the evil, but I cannot, and I too suffer.

This has been my life. I have found it worth living, and would gladly live it again if the chance were offered me.

Russell is more emotional than Franklin. His attitude toward knowledge and toward other people is less self-serving and more passionate. He is driven to knowledge not because it serves his ambition but because of a compulsive desire to know (though Franklin too could show a disinterested quest for knowledge). Russell sees other people not as helps or hindrances to his career, but as fellow humans, for whose suffering he can feel compassion and sorrow.

Yet there is more to Russell’s persona than the obvious emotionalism. His feelings are constrained within a rational framework. The organization of his paragraphs is tightly analytical, and the whole passage can easily be reduced to an outline. Here is someone who not only feels intensely but whose intellect imposes order upon emotions, giving them a sharper focus. We sense a powerful, complex mind, in which emotion and reason are not at war but are reinforcing allies. Russell’s passionate response to life gains intensity because it is shaped by reason.

Persona, as you can see, is a function of the total composition. It emerges not only from the meanings of words but also from the more abstract, less obviously expressive patterns of sentences and paragraphs and from the overall organization.

While most obvious in autobiographies, persona is not confined to such writing. It exists in all compositions. Even when a writer sues an impersonal point of view, avoiding “I,” “me,” “my,” we sense a personality. In the following passage a historian is discussing dress and personal cleanliness in the Middle Ages:

Hemp was much used as a substitute for flax in making linen; the though of hemp curdles the blood.

In the thirteenth-century romance L’Escoufle Sir Giles, beside the fire, removes all his clothes to scratch himself. (Fleas, no doubt.) – Morris Bishop

Such comments reveal writers as personalities, with their own ways of looking at the world — in Bishop’s case with a pleasantly cynical humor.

Even in relatively faceless writing there exists a persona. Here is Charles Darwin describing the mouth of a duck:

The beak of the shoveller-duck (Spatula clypeata) is a more beautiful and complex structure that the mouth of a whale. The upper mandible is furnished on each side (in the specimen examined by me) with a row or comb formed of 188 thin, elastic lamellae, obliquely bevelled so as to be pointed, and placed transversely to the longer axis of the mouth.

Darwin’s is an observant, precise mind. He refrains from saying more than facts allow: notice the qualification “(in the specimen examined by me).” Although he does allow emotion occasionally to show (a “beautiful … structure”), Darwin’s tone is essentially sober, objective, painstaking, which, for his purpose, is exactly what it should be.

Tone

If persona is the complex personality implicit in the writing, tone is a web of feelings stretched throughout an essay, feelings from which our sense of the persona emerges. Tone has three main strands: the writer’s attitude toward subject, reader, and self.

Each of these determinants of tone is important, and each has many variations. Writers may be angry about a subject or amused by it or discuss it dispassionately. They may treat readers as intellectual inferiors to be lectured (usually a poor tactic) or as friends with whom they are talking. Themselves they may regard very seriously or with an ironic or an amused detachment (to suggest only three of numerous possibilities). Given all these variables, the possibilities of tone are almost endless.

Tone, like persona, is unavoidable. You imply it in the words you select and in how you arrange them. It behooves you, then, to create an appropriate tone and to avoid those — pomposity, say, or flippancy — which will put readers off. Here are a few examples of how skillful writers make tone work for them.

Tone Toward Subject

Toward most subjects many attitudes are possible. Often tone is simple objectivity, as in these two paragraphs:

Physical science is that department of knowledge which relates to the order of nature, or, in other words, to the regular succession of events.

The name of physical science, however, is often applied in a more or less restricted manner to those branches of science in which the phenomena considered are of the simplest and most abstract kind, excluding the consideration of the more complex phenomena, such as those occurring in living beings. James Clerk Maxwell

Maxwell’s purpose is to define physical science, not to express his feelings about it. His language, accordingly, is denotative and his tone objective and unemotional.

The writer of the following paragraph, on the other hand, is angry:

The Exorcist is a menace, the most shocking major movie I have ever seen. Never before have I witnessed such a flagrant combination of perverse sex, brutal violence, and abused religion. In addition, the film degrades the medical profession and psychiatry. At the showing I went to, the unruly audience giggled, talked, and yelled throughout. As well they might. Although the picture is not X-rated, it is so pornographic that it makes Last Tango in Paris seem like a Strauss waltz. Ralph R. Greenson, MD

And in this example an angry tone is expressed more subtly, beneath a surface of irony. The writer is describing the efforts of nineteenth-century laborers to improve their working conditions:

As early as June 8, 1847 the Chartists had pushed through a factory law restricting working time for women and juveniles to eleven hours, and from May 1, 1848 to ten hours. This was not at all to the liking of the manufacturers, who were worried about their young people’s morals and exposure to vice; instead of being immured for a whole twelve hours in the cozy, clean, moral atmosphere of the factories, they were now to be loosed an hour earlier into the hard, cold, frivolous outer world. Fritz J. Raddatz

Tone Toward Reader

You may think of your readers in widely different ways. Some writers tend to be assertive and dogmatic, treating readers as a passive herd to be instructed. The playwright and social critic George Bernard Shaw attacks the evils of capitalism in such a manner:

Just as Parliament and the Courts are captured by the rich, so is the Church. The average parson does not teach honesty and equality in the village school: he teaches deference to the merely rich, and calls that loyalty and religion.

At the other extreme a writer may establish a more intimate face-to-face tone, as though talking to a friend. In the following case Ingrid Bengis is discussing the problem of being the “other woman” in a married man’s life, of having to share him with his wife:

One or the other of you is going to spend the night with him, the weekend with him, Christmas with him. (I’ve tried all three of us spending it together. Doesn’t work.) One or the other of you is going to go on trips with him.

Bengis’ informal, conversational tone depends on several things. For one, she addresses her readers directly, acknowledging their presence and bringing them and herself into a more intimate, and seemingly more equal, relationship. For another, she cultivates a colloquial style, one suggesting the voice of a friend: the contractions (“I’ve,” Doesn’t”) and the terse fragment (“Doesn’t work”).

A friendly informal tone need not be restricted to commonplace subjects. In much contemporary exposition, even of a scholarly sort, writers often relax the older convention of maintaining a formal distance between themselves and their audience. Here, for instance, is a well-known scholar writing about Shakespeare:

Great plays, as we know, do present us with something that can be called a world, a microcosm — a world like our own in being made of people, actions, situations, thoughts, feelings, and much more, but unlike our own in being perfectly, or almost perfectly, significant and coherent. Maynard Mack

While certainly not as colloquial as Ingrid Bengis, Mack acknowledges his readers (“as we know”) and subtly flatters their intelligence and sophistication.

Writers working for the illusion of a talking voice sometimes use italics to suggest the loudness and pitch by which we draw attention to important words. The historian Barbara Tuchman does this effectively in the following passage (she is arguing that freedom of speech does not require that we accept any and all pornography):

The cause of pornography is not the same as the cause of free speech. There is a difference. Ralph Ginsburg is not Theodore Dreiser and this is not the 1920s.

Used sparingly, in that way, italics help to suggest a voice with which readers can connect. But note the caution: sparingly. Italics used for emphasis can easily become a mannerism, and then an annoyance.

Tone Toward Self

Toward himself or herself a writer can adopt an equally great variety of tones. Objective, impersonal exposition involves a negative presentation of the writer, so to speak. By avoiding personal references or idiosyncratic comments, he or she becomes a transparency through which we observe facts or ideas. A British writer discussing the Battle of Anzio in Italy during World War II begins like this:

The full story of Anzio, which was originally conceived as a minor landing behind enemy lines but evolved through many ups and downs into a separate Italian front of major importance, needs a history to itself. Within the scope of the present work it is possible only to summarize the main events and their significance in so far as they affected the main front at Cassino. Fred Majdalany

On the other hand, writers may be more self-conscious and deliberately play a role. In exposition it is often a good tactic to present yourself a bit deferentially, as Benjamin Franklin suggests in the passage quoted earlier. An occasional “it seems to me” or “I think” or “to my mind” goes a long way toward avoiding a tone of cocksureness and restoring at least a semblance of two-way traffic on that unavoidably one-way street from writer to reader. Thus a scholar writing about Chaucer’s love poetry escapes dogmatism by a qualifying phrase:

His early love complaints are less conventional than most and have the unmistakable ring, or so it seems to me, of serious attempts at persuasion. John Gardner

A writer’s exploitation of a self-image may go considerably beyond an occasional “I think.” Humorous writers, for example, often present themselves as ridiculous.

Every so often, when business slackens up in the bowling alley and the other pin boys are hunched over their game of bezique, I like to exchange my sweatshirt for a crisp white surgical tunic, polish up my optical mirror, and examine the corset advertisements in the New York Herald Tribune rotogravure section and the various women’s magazines. It must be made clear at the outset that my motives are the purest and my curiosity that of the scientific research worker rather than the sex maniac. S. J. Perelman.

Such role-playing is not quite the same as a persona. A writer’s persona is reflected in all aspects of a composition, not simply in a self-caricature designed to amuse us or in the guise of a deferential friend hoping to charm us. Beyond any momentary character the writer may be playing is there creator of that role. It is that creator, that total intelligence and sensibility, which constitutes the persona.

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In Chapter 13 on Paragraph Unity, Kane discusses linking successive sentences with conjunctive adverbs.

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… conjunctive (also called transitional) adverbs, which indicate relationships between ideas. The relationship may be one of time (presently, meanwhile, afterwards); of space (above, below, in front); or of logic (therefore, however, as a result). …

Transitional adverbs are best placed at or near the beginnig of the sentence. Readers are like people groping down a drak passage, and an important part of the writer’s task is to show them the way. Connective words are signal lights telling readers what to expect. However flashes, “contradiction ahead”; in fact warns, “Here comes a strong restatement of something just said”; and theerefore, “A conclusion or a consequence is approaching.”

Acquiring a working set of conjunctive adverbs is not difficult. English is rich in them. Just to show some sort of contradiction or opposition, for example, we have but, however, still, yet, nonetheless, nevertheless, though, instead, on the other hand, on the contrary, notwithstanding, even so, and the list is not complete. While they show generally the same basic reqaltionship, these wrods are not exact equivalents. They convey nuances of idea and tone. Nevertheless, for instance, is a more formal word than though. Because of such slight but important differences in meaning and tone, good writers have ready at hand a number of transitional adverbs. If you can call only upon but or however you cannot communicate what is implied by yet or still or though.

And and but present a special case. Most often they act as conjunctive adverbs, joining words, phrases, or clauses within a sentence. But they can also function adverbially. Sometime one hears the wraning, “Never begin a sentence with and or but.” The fact is that good writers do begin with these words (the italics are added):

Is not indeed every man a student, and do not all things exist for the studen’ts behoof? And, finally, is not the true scholar the only true master? – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I come finally to the chief defiler of undergraduate writing. And I regret to say that we professors are certainly the culprits. And what we are doing we do in all innocence and with the most laudable of motives. Willard Thorp

Natural philosophy had in the Middle Ages become a closed chapter of human endeavour…. But although the days of Greek science had ended, its results had not been lost. Kurt Mendelssohn

As sentence openers and and but are very useful. But is less formal than however, while and is less formal and ponderous than furthermore or morevover or additionally. Don’t be afraid of initial ands and buts. But use them moderately.

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My interest in this passage is mainly in the reference to the richness of English, which raised the question of how many such words are Anglo-Saxon, and how many are later imports.

In Chapter 24, Meaning, Kane mentions the “communication triangle,” connecting the writer, the reader and the topic:

There is no direct connection between these three; rather all connections are mediated by words. Three “telic modes” of meaning are recognized: referential, interpersonal, and directive. The referential mode connects writer and topic. Words are chosen for the exactness and economy with which they refer to what he observes, knows, thinks, feels — what is in his mind.

The interpersonal mode is the way in which words affect the reader’s impression of the writer, as modest or dogmatic, for example. These affect the reader’s perception of the writer’s persona.

The directive mode is the way words assist readers to understand (intellectually, constructive diction) or feel (emotionally, emotive diction) about the topic. Emotion-laden words such as Brut, rat-like, bourgeois lust, pinko liberals, grass-roots, and old-fashioned, can affect a reader’s emotional reaction, and his acceptance of the rest of the message in the text.

The triangle, and the position of words in it is illustrated by the diagram.

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In Chapter 27, Figurative Language, Kane mentions puns, and zeugma (pronounced ZOOG-ma), a special kind of pun in which a verb is used with two or more objects, but with a difference in meaning. Novelist Lawrence Durrell describes the plight of a maiden chased by three lustful monks:

Joanna, pursued by the three monks, ran about the room, leaping over tables and chairs, sometimes throwing a dish or a scriptural maxim at her pursuers.

Ambrose Bierce defined the piano:

Piano, n. A parlor utensil for subduing the impenitent visitor. It is operated by depressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience.

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The following from Kane’s list of conjunctive adverbs indicate that most (and all compound words) are from Old English (or Old Norse). All later borrowings or derivations (from Norman influence) are in the form of phrases (when compound).

above: OE

afterwards: after OE + wards OE

as a result: as OE a OE result ME

below: be OE + low ON

but: OE

even so: even OE + so OE

however: how OE + ever OE

in fact: in OE + fact L

in front: in OE + front ME/OF

instead: … + stead OE

meanwhile: mean OE + while OE

nevertheless: never OE + the OE + less OE

nonetheless: none OE …

notwithstanding: not OE + withstand OE + ing OE

on the contrary: on OE … contrary ME/MF

on the other hand: other OE + hand OE

presently, ME/OF

still: OE

therefore: there OE + for/fore OE

though: OE/ON

yet: OE

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