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A stale image

How not to write

Noted obituarist and music critic Oliver Kamm is these days also a guru of prose composition, attempting to correct others’ style and lay down laws of writing in a regular column called “The Pedant”. ((As far as I am aware, the only not-instantly-disposable example of stylistic prescriptivism is Kingsley Amis’s The King’s English, which is at least written by someone who was himself a superb maker of sentences, and is also very funny.)) This week he “informs” his readers:

A cliché is a stale image that a speaker or writer grasps for support.

Of course, a cliché is not necessarily an image of any kind; but, more amusingly, “a stale image” is both a cliché and a stale image.

Kamm also advises, mysteriously:

Punctuation marks belong in grammar

“gram;mar”? “g:r!,r”?

What are your favourite nonsensical writing tips, readers?

  1. 1  Matt McGrattan  November 26, 2009, 8:52 am 

    The philosopher Michael Dummett also wrote a short prescriptive work, Grammar and Style [it’s really a pumped up pamphlet] which is witty, and informative.

  2. 2  des von bladet  November 26, 2009, 12:02 pm 

    I’m still wondering how you grasp an image for support? (Does their load-bearing improve with staleness? ITWSBT!)

  3. 3  Richun  November 26, 2009, 12:47 pm 

    Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style is good stuff.

    Stephen King offers up a prescription in On Writing: no book’s first draft should take longer than three months to write. He’s referring exclusively to fiction, but still. At least it explains his prodigious output.

  4. 4  engels  November 26, 2009, 1:03 pm 

    more amusingly, “a stale image” is both a cliché and a stale image

    Kamm appears to be following the lead of Martin Amis, who gave his book of criticism the unsettlingly self-indicting title ‘The War on Cliche’…

  5. 5  weaver  November 26, 2009, 1:10 pm 

    I got the impression from On Writing that the explanation for King’s prodigious output was the extraordinary amount of nose-candy he’d been using.

    He also hates adverbs for some reason.

  6. 6  McGazz  November 26, 2009, 3:10 pm 

    From Notes On Rhetoric

    “‘…is itself an example’ – E.g: : ‘”stale cliché” is itself a stale cliché’ ‘”I’m using no rhetorical ploys” is itself a rhetorical ploy’; ‘your remarks on logical incoherence were themselves..”. You get the idea. Endlessly adaptable. Creates the impression that your opponent has refuted himself, thus sparing you the trouble of doing so. c.f. ‘unwitting’; ‘precisely my point’.”

  7. 7  Tawfiq Chahboune  November 26, 2009, 6:31 pm 

    I’m with Gore Vidal on his insistence on using adjectives. If I remember rightly, he and Graham Greene were in a constant battle over this. Vidal for, Greene against. Vidal, of course, is quite right and Greene was talking nonsense. This “writing tip” against the use of adjectives is a total mystery.

    A recent column of Kamm’s “The Pedant” was plain stupid. It had nothing to do with grammar or usage. It was essentially about the so-called redundancy of words like “actually”. The words “very” and “really” can be put in the same category, but then actually that really would be very silly. Kamm’s offering wasn’t “pedantry” or anything like it; it’s just Kamm being Kamm: that is to say, weird. The funny thing is that it would take very little effort to find Kamm breaking his own rules.

    Kamm’s good friend Norman Geras saved me the trouble and took apart his “pedantry” thus:

    Today he’s having a go at this sentence, ascribed to Lord Warner:

    There’s a big question mark as to whether there’s even actually a Bill ready.

    One of the things Oliver doesn’t like about it is the ‘actually’, and it’s true that the word is superfluous alongside ‘even’. However, Oliver seems to have a more a general complaint against ‘actually’. He writes:

    [R]ead Warner’s sentence again, but remove the word “actually”. Do you notice a difference in meaning? You don’t, because there isn’t any. “Actually” is redundant. It falls into the category of what H.W. Fowler, the lexicographer, termed meaningless words.

    This is, I protest, a pedantry too far. Whether or not it has a meaning, the word ‘actually’ can have a legitimate function – that function being to add emphasis. It’s a bit like ‘indeed’. I might say, for example, ‘This is indeed a rum state of affairs’. By adding ‘indeed’ I don’t say any more than that it’s a rum state of affairs, but I do convey an intention of adding force to the assertion: maybe because you’ve already noted that it’s a rum state of affairs and I wish to confirm my agreement with you, or maybe merely because I think it’s very rum indeed (and note the ‘very’ there). The word ‘actually’, come to think of it, isn’t all that different from ‘really’ – as in ‘you really do get a sense of the remorseless banality of that evil’, and ‘It really did’, and ‘No, not really’, and ‘She is not really an admirer of murderous Communist tyranny’.

    [Please use blockquotes when quoting large amounts of text, and link to what you’re quoting. Thanks, SP]

  8. 8  KB Player  November 26, 2009, 7:12 pm 

    Well, Kamm has a cheek presenting himself as the guru of stylish prose. His writing is stilted and pompous and he has a tin ear for rhythm.

    Kingsley Amis’s The King’s English is very amusing e.g. explaining the difference between a berk and a wanker. Amis loved the English language, whereas Kamm is on rather formal, distant terms with it.

  9. 9  democracy_grenade  November 26, 2009, 8:35 pm 

    …maybe because you’ve already noted that it’s a rum state of affairs and I wish to confirm my agreement with you…

    Or indeed because a great many people have asserted their belief in the unrumness of the situation, to the degree that a belief in the absence of rum has become hegemonic. And you wish, from your position of counter-attack, not only to insist upon rumness, but to draw attention to the fallaciousness of existing analyses.

  10. 10  eveningperson  November 26, 2009, 8:59 pm 

    My first and so far only direct encounter with Mr Kamm was a criticism of something I wrote on a mailing list nine years ago. Not about the topic of the exchange though. It went like this:

    “I presume your name has been anglicised from something else, because English is clearly not your mother tongue. “She” is a personal pronoun, not a generic one. The generic pronoun in English is “he”: native speakers are familiar with the distinction between this and the masculine personal pronoun that is spelt and pronounced the same way.
    Glad to be of assistance. Oliver Kamm”

    My first impression of the man included the notions of “pompous” and “ignorant”, and it has not been dispelled by those of his ramblings I’ve subsequently encountered.

    I think the best antidote to this sort of nonsense is to read the excellent Language Log blog. Amongst other things, they draw attention to the way language prescriptivists frequently violate their own prescriptions even as they lay them down. Mr Kamm’s muddled metaphor (which I’m sure he would denounce if he saw someone else use it) is a fine example.

  11. 11  Tawfiq Chahboune  November 26, 2009, 9:05 pm 

    KB Player,

    I don’t know if anyone else has noticed it, but Kamm is merely copying the love of his life, Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens has this irritating habit of writing about other writers that their sentence construction is “clumsy”, “inelegant”, “ponderous”, etc. So Kamm does exactly the same thing, thinking he’s being witty, or at the very least as witty as Hitchens. All Kamm is doing is telegraphing his schoolboy crush.

    Kamm seems to be a man in search of a personality and merely copies this pitiful Hitchens stock putdown, amongst the many others he regularly displays, believing no one has noticed. It’s a disturbing infatuation.

    The funny thing is that Hitchens seems to have picked up all his best skills by trying to imitate Vidal, Mailer and Alexander Cockburn. When Vidal mocks other writers on their sentence construction and usage, at least he’s funny. It’s one of Gore Vidal signatures (Clive James is our version of Vidal, but without the wit, talent or intelligence). When Vidal does it, it works. Hitchens just about gets away with it. Kamm just comes over as, well, “clumsy”, “inelegant” and “ponderous”.

    More on Kamm, I’m afraid, but going back to Steven’s question of writing tips, I think it was Gore Vidal who once said that the worst advice a writer can be given is to be told to find their own voice and not copy others. I understand what he means. Even if he is joking around, there’s something to that. However, there is all the difference in the world in copying a writer you admire and trying to be that writer.

  12. 12  KB Player  November 26, 2009, 9:45 pm 

    Well, I’d disagree with quite a bit of what you said, Tawfiq. I wouldn’t say Hitchens imitates Vidal, though they both have rather patrician, worldly voices. I think Hitchens is a good writer and can focus on how a writer or politicians has used words in order to blur issues or cover up inconsistencies. I think James has got talent, wit and intelligence. As for Kamm, he’s a dull hack with intellectual pretensions and shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath as Hitchens or James.

    When Kamm corrects people’s English he comes across as the kind of pompous semi-educated smart alec who tells you that you can’t split an infinitive.

  13. 13  Peter Robins  November 27, 2009, 9:38 am 

    Christopher Ricks is good on this topic, though he may (if lucky) never have read Oliver Kamm.

  14. 14  Seeds  November 27, 2009, 10:05 am 

    Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style is good stuff.

    The generic pronoun in English is “he”: native speakers are familiar with the distinction between this and the masculine personal pronoun that is spelt and pronounced the same way.
    Glad to be of assistance. Oliver Kamm

    Well, it’s possible that Kamm had been reading S&W:

    It’s no wonder Strunk’s view about a phrase like everyone in the community, whether they are a member of the Association or not was that it should be “corrected” to everyone in the community, whether he is a member of the Association or not: women still didn’t have the vote in America, so who would care if this sort of use of he excluded them. Prohibition was newly adopted; the Model T Ford was on sale; the Treay of Versailles was being readied for signature to formally end the First World War.

    Several more criticisms of S&W can be found on languagelog, and by googling for “Frankenstrunk”. (I’m not allowed any more links because they make my comment “spammy”.)

  15. 15  Steven  November 27, 2009, 11:21 am 

    Peter — thank you; I didn’t know of Empson’s splendid description of Orwell as “the eagle eye with the flat feet”.

  16. 16  Guano  December 1, 2009, 5:06 pm 

    Does Kamm’s pedantry extend to Blair’s verbless sentences?

  17. 17  Tawfiq Chahboune  December 1, 2009, 5:48 pm 


    I just hope Kamm will never be allowed to review a Cormac McCarthy novel.

  18. 18  John Quiggin  December 6, 2009, 5:04 am 

    dvb beat me to it at #2, but it surely requires special skill to combine a cliche, a stale image and a mixed metaphor in such a short sentence, and to serve up the whole as a style snark.

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