61. On Compelling Titles And Bad Word Usage

61. On Compelling Titles and Bad Word Usage

Ideas for these "Reminiscences," which increasingly have become blog-like, come to me in those long stretches of lying awake at night, waiting to get back to sleep, that are common in the nighttime experiences of old people. They are not, for me, unpleasant experiences—I am not a serious worrier—and they are often productive. Last night, or early this morning (the first morning of the new year), I was thinking about my attitudes and practices over the years on matters of word usage, and about how I had taken part in the collective project of choosing striking and sometimes poetic titles for books in our field of study.

With my first substantial book, Chinese Painting, there was no choice—Albert Skira titled the books in his series, for which authors only supplied texts. The Freer Gallery, and the Smithsonian Institution, following government practice, used only simple descriptive titles, such as The Freer Chinese Bronzes, a book for which I was co-author. The title of my1967 exhibition, Fantastics and Eccentrics in Chinese Painting, was justly criticized on the grounds that "fantastics," with its sense of queer (in the old meaning) behavior, debased the artists. I could only respond, weakly, that the title I originally chose, Fantastics, Eccentrics, and Individualists in Chinese Painting, was rejected by Asia House Gallery as too long. I still wince inwardly when I read or hear the shortened title.

The first serious exhibition I produced with a seminar after moving back to Berkeley in 1965 was devoted to late Ming painting; and when the time came to choose a title for our exhibition and catalog, the eight graduate students and I all thought very hard, suggesting and rejecting quite a few. It was Elizabeth Fulder who came up with the one that immediately sounded exactly right: The Restless Landscape. And that was, I believe, the model and inspiration for the titles I chose for my three books in the Yuan-Ming painting series, all of which still ring true: Hills Beyond a River, Parting At the Shore, and The Distant Mountains. (If I had, as once planned, gone back in time and produced a book on Southern Song painting, it would have been titled, after Xia Gui's great handscroll, A Pure and Remote View.) As for the Harvard (Norton Lectures) book, The Compelling Image: that title worried me more, especially because my very good editor at the Harvard U. Press, Peg (Margaretta) Fulton, tried to talk me out of it, preferring a simpler title. But over the years that, too, has come to sound right for the book, especially because, like the book itself, it sounds so thoroughly un-traditional in its several Asian-language translations.

My book presently in press is titled Pictures for Use and Pleasure: Vernacular Painting in High Qing China. The shorter follow-up, more or less finished and about to be submitted to the U. C. Press in the hope that they will take it on also, is tentatively titled Scenes From the Spring Palace: Chinese Erotic Painting and Printing.

Now, on to word usage. People who write about language, compile dictionaries, etc. are sometimes divided into the descriptive, who simply want to describe language as it is being used, whatever directions it may take, and the prescriptive, who want to prescribe, or tell others how to use the language, especially when they are using it wrongly. That last word identifies me as belonging in the prescriptive camp, those who believe in right and wrong uses of language. A handout given to all my undergraduate classes was "Rules and Suggestions for Term Papers" (I always required such papers, with topics to be chosen by the writer in consultation with me, and I always read them all myself.) See CLP 163 to read this handout. It ends with admonitions about bad writing, faults to be avoided. I pointed out that although I didn't grade on neatness or correct English, papers deficient in these respects inevitably made a bad impression, and I recommended Strunk and White, The Elements of Style. I remember reading an editorial in a Berkeley paper denouncing that book, and all who urged it on others, as elitist and prescriptive. I argued, and still would, that since literate readers already have good patterns of language deeply installed in their heads, and will be caught up and distracted by incorrect usage, eliminating the bad places gives to one's writing a quality of transparence, a freedom from blots or blockages.

Professors and other paper-readers who believe this way will sometimes have the experience of encountering for the first time, and marking as "wrong" in the margin, a usage that goes on to become commonplace and "right." We can remember when we first read "hopefully" in the new sense of "I/we hope" and corrected it, pointing out that it properly means "in a hopeful manner," as in "he waited hopefully." We lost that one. I remember telling a bewildered airline stewardess, who had announced that "We will land momentarily in New York," that I didn't want to do that, since it meant taking off again soon after: momentary means for a moment, not in a moment. I recall writing in the margin, opposite where a student had written that she "could care less" about something, that she had it backwards, what she meant was that she couldn't care less. But she was ahead of me: the "wrong" usage is now common, descriptively "correct." How do these "wrong" usages spread so quickly? One of our top graduate students, a very good writer whom I won't name, got back a paper written for me with a marginal "correction": she had used a pattern now common, but new to me and wrong-sounding: "both (something) as well as (something.)" What I wrote was: "Both A and B: OK. A as well as B: OK. Both A as well as B: not OK, tautological." After that I was to note this "wrong" usage as increasingly common even in pieces by good writers, appearing in carefully-edited publications. It still catches me up momentarily (for a moment) when I encounter it.

Today, reading articles about what blog writing and cellphone (Blackberry) texting is doing to the written language, I realize that a prescriptive attitude toward English writing is hopelessly old-fashioned, outdated. None of the above, then, is to be read "prescriptively"—read it rather as the lament of someone who is aware increasingly often that he hasn't emerged sufficiently into the 21st Century. I feel sometimes a bit like "poor Jim Jay", in Walter de la Mare's Peacock Pie poem, who "got stuck fast in yesterday."

And happy 2009.

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