Airy Abstractions

Would you continue to read this post about writing if I told you that studying grammar would improve your overall linguistic environment? I hope not. What if I said that I know someone who is in the middle of the interview process for an additional engagement? Or that it seems to me that people today show a decreased capacity to empathize with the situations of others?

What’s wrong with these sentences? Nothing technically grammatical: subject and verb agree, and pronouns are in the correct case. What’s wrong has nothing to do with sentence structure but everything to do with what is called diction, the choice and arrangement of words. The words I as a writer choose—particularly nouns—reveal the relationship I hold both to the ideas I’m expressing and to you, my readers. To speak of an overall linguistic environment is to care to point your attention merely to an abstraction, a general notion that is made even more general by the addition of the adjective overall. Had I said instead that studying grammar can improve the way you write and think, I would have made the terrible generality linguistic environment one step more specific, and so would have brought you a little closer and more quickly to what I actually believe.

And that, I think, is what accounts for this tendency (there’s another abstraction) many of us have to prefer the general to the specific: it’s more difficult to be exact, and being exact puts me on a target to be criticized, because I’ve given you something you can actually disagree with. The nouns environment and process and capacity are all abstractions, and abstract nouns name ideas, things we know only through our minds, not our senses. We can’t write good English without abstractions, but we can write bad English with too many of them, forgetting that what is abstract has been drawn from what is concrete, from what is part of the daily lives we live in the world. Good writers strive to combine the two perceptions of concrete and abstract, and in doing so suggest that deeper meaning lies within the common.

To see how a master can mix a sentence effectively with both kinds of nouns and imply a greater meaning, let’s look at some sentences from Joseph Conrad’s novel Lord Jim. In the opening pages, we are introduced to the protagonist as a water-clerk, someone who boards an incoming ship to directs its captain and crew to the harbor store for supplies and relaxation. Conrad writes: “A water-clerk need not pass an examination in anything under the sun, but he must have Ability in the abstract and demonstrate it practically,” a sentence whose distinction between the abstract and the practical makes, ironically, the very point we’re concerned with here. Now this particular water-clerk in Conrad’s story harbored not only ships but a secret of some sort, something he did not want known and to hide which he would give others only his first name—Jim. “His incognito,” Conrad continues, “which had as many holes as a sieve, was not meant to hide a personality but a fact.”

Jim’s Ability (Conrad capitalizes the abstract noun) included an “exquisite sensibility” to know when the fact was coming to light among his peers, whereupon he would suddenly quit his job and move farther east to another port to assume his incognito afresh. Conrad says then: “Afterwards, when his keen perception of the Intolerable drove him away for good from seaports and white men, even into the virgin forest, the Malays of the jungle village, where he had elected to conceal his deplorable faculty, added a word to the monosyllable of his incognito. They called him Tuan Jim: as one might say—Lord Jim.”

We can see in all of these examples how Conrad combines the abstract and concrete to produce the intelligent prose he is known for. An incognito is the state of assuming an identity, the condition of being truthfully unknown, and that airy idea of a state is grounded in the next phrase with the image of a sieve, something actual and functional, though defectively so here. A perception of the Intolerable (note again the capital letter, this time to emphasize the abstraction inherent in the adjective) is contrasted with seaports and white men, and a jungle village with a deplorable faculty. All of these contrasts, which are built into the very nouns Conrad chooses, keep our attention from floating into the upper air of ideas; the result is that the world of intelligence, of significance, is kept in the common world of the things and actions around us, and we read Conrad’s story for a meaning that touches us rather than lectures us.

To be in the middle of the interview process means, really, to be interviewing for a job, and a decreased capacity to empathize with the situations of others means nothing more than the fact that one cannot feel another’s pain, even imaginatively. These lofty locutions take us further away from one another, and therein lies the importance of worrying about them. We can, though, learn from writers of Conrad’s stature that there is a way to combine the high and low, abstract and concrete, whether in the reaches of literature or in our daily conversations.



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