Friday, February 09, 2018

`As Easy to Dress Neatly as Like a Sloven'

The differences are slight but important. Faculty members tend to want everything written by or about them to be capitalized, especially professional titles and Big Ideas. It lends them in print an aura of dignity and importance they suspect is not theirs in life. All of us are vain. All of us want to be recognized and respected, but A.P. style says otherwise. A consistent style is applied democracy. Freshmen to emeriti, all are treated the same, at least when it comes to upper versus lower case. On this day, Feb. 9, in 1763, Boswell writes in his diary:

“Style is to sentiment what dress is to the person. The effects of both are very great, and both are acquired and improved by habit. When once we are used to it, it is as easy to dress neatly as like a sloven; in the same way, custom makes us write in a correct style as easily as in a careless, inaccurate one.”

The analogy with clothing is a good one. No one takes seriously a teacher in cut-offs and tattoos. His manner would sabotage any worthwhile message he might wish to impart, or rather replace it with a less than flattering message. My experience tells me you master the rules and conventions (of writing, dress), and only then have you earned the right to start prudently subverting them. Rules of style unfetter the imagination. Anarchy shuts it down. Here is the passage in Boswell’s diary that immediately precedes the one quoted above:

“Upon my word my journal goes charmingly on at present. I was very apprehensive that there would be a dreary vacancy in it for some weeks, but by various happy circumstances I have been agreeably disappointed. I think, too, that I am making a good use of the hint which Captain Erskine gave me, and am taking more pains upon it, and consequently writing it in a more correct style.”

“Captain Erskine” was Boswell’s Scottish acquaintance,Andrew Erskine (1740-1793), who, in fact, served as a lieutenant in the 71st regiment of foot (a marvelous way to say infantry). He seems to have been a witty fellow, often good company, an early friend to Robert Burns, but stricken with what we would call depression. Erskine calls it Indolence: “Haste, Indolence, and never let me see / That restless wight Activity.” The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography tells us: “In early October 1793, afflicted by illness and depression, he committed suicide by filling his pockets with stones and walking into the sea near his Edinburgh home.”

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